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Where Are They Now?
Reconnecting with the first NOLS course…
By Kerry Brophy

Part 1 | Part 2

On June 8, 1965, the high peaks in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains still sat under a blanket of snow. Below, at a cabin tucked away in Sinks Canyon outside Lander, Wyoming, a group of young men sat listening to the booming voice of Paul Petzoldt, who had called them together from all over the country.

That winter they had each received a hand-written letter from Petzoldt, asking them to make the trip out to Lander. Petzoldt’s tightly scrawled letters, some of them many pages, said he was trying something new in wilderness education, and he wanted them to join him. From New York to Texas, these first NOLS students arrived by bus, train, or sticking their thumbs out on the country’s highways. There were 23 students at the cabin that day and six instructors.

“I knew that what we were doing was new and exciting,” remembers Tap Tapley, who had worked with Petzoldt at Colorado Outward Bound and agreed to help him with his leadership project. “Paul said, ‘Come on, let’s go up to Wyoming and do something different! Let’s teach them skills.’”

Almost forty years later, Petzoldt’s idea for something “different” has turned into the National Outdoor Leadership School, and his 23 students have grown into over 75,000 graduates all over the world. This coming June, there will be another gathering in Lander—this one to celebrate the 39th anniversary of the school and the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, a milestone for our wilderness classrooms. In preparation, The Leader has reunited—on paper, at least—some of the first NOLS students.

So where are they now? Well, the ones we tracked down have ended up all over—from the other side of the country, to right out the backdoor from where they first stepped in the mountains with NOLS. Most of them were Petzoldt’s former students at Outward Bound, hand-picked in 1965 for having strong potential as outdoor leaders. While many of them did go on to teach in the outdoors, others decided to use their new-found leadership skills elsewhere. Regardless, almost forty years later, they still remember.

Andy Weary
Favorite memories: Andy Weary wrote to Petzoldt in Januray of 1965, saying that Petzoldt’s offer to attend a course in Wyoming “sounds like a great deal.” He continued, writing, “I’m anxious to dig right in!” At the time Weary was also applying for an appointment to the Air Force Academy. But his memories go all the way back to a fateful day in 1964, when he overheard Paul Petzoldt saying in his characteristically-gruff way, “I’m going to start my own damn school!”

Weary remembers the remoteness of Wyoming’s mountains more than anything. “It was a wild countryside,” he says. Moose were so tame, he says, they’d let you walk up and pet them (something you’d never do today), and there were hardly any trails. He also remembers finding lakes that had been stocked from the air in the ’50s but never fished. In these lakes, says Weary, he’d “throw in 21 casts and catch 22 fish” (that last fish jumped right out of the water onto shore). He also recalls meeting Thelma Young, who at the time was making some of the first Dupont-Holofill products ever made. Today Weary still uses a sleeping bag Young sewed especially for that course.

Where he is today: Weary lives in Austin, Texas, where he’s a physician at a family practice. Every year, he takes groups of teenagers camping for up to seven days, backpacking, climbing and putting his NOLS skills to use.

Tom Warren
Favorite memories: Tom Warren was one of the only students on that first NOLS course who didn’t get a letter from Petzoldt. Instead, Warren, 18, who grew up in nearby Riverton, Wyoming, wrote Petzoldt and asked if he could join the course. Petzoldt agreed and Tom became the first NOLS scholarship student. Warren went on to become one of the strongest students on the course and a NOLS Instructor until 1981.

Warren remembers all the students piling into an old cattle truck—the primary mode of transportation for students in those days—to get to the trailhead. From Sinks Canyon, they drove up to Dry Ridge and then traveled over Indian Pass, where they spent the first week practicing rope handling, swimming, and even knife throwing. The first peak he ever climbed was Mt. Warren, wearing the Army surplus clothing Petzoldt had collected during his days with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. “[Paul] had a lot of knowledge and taught everyone how to survive and be leaders,” says Warren. “He would make someone a leader and give them all the responsibility. NOLS was a leadership school from the very start.”

Where he is today: When The Leader contacted Warren, he was on his way out the door to go wind surfing near his home in Driggs, Idaho, where he has a roofing business and lives with his wife, Dorothy. “I’m going to be wearing wool under my wetsuit,” Warren joked, referring to all the wool they wore on that first NOLS course.

Part 1 | Part 2

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