Following steadfast tradition, Fred Kleisner, Chairman of the NOLS Board of Trustees, slipped Paul Petzoldt’s old knit hat over his head. How could he not? Kleisner was standing before a large crowd 40 years in the making. And the question wasn’t who was there but who wasn’t there… NOLS legends from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s… It was a shoulder-to-shoulder gathering of many of the people who’ve made NOLS what it is today.
As Kleisner donned Petzoldt’s hat, he reminded the crowd that the NOLS founder wore it on his attempt to climb the Grand Teton at age 76. In addition to wearing the cap during his annual State of the School report, the chairman also read aloud from a letter addressed to all who wear the hat: “You must wear this hat and do so with good humor but not frivolity,” stated the directions.
Those words couldn’t have summed up NOLS’ 40th anniversary celebration better. It was a time of “good humor but not frivolity.” Grads from the early days shared laughs, recalling the days when Petzoldt offered “payback when able” scholarships and students traveled to the trailhead in cattle trucks. The Wilderness Medicine Institute, which joined the school in 1999, entertained everybody with a barbecue. Veteran NOLSies who’ve been with the school for decades scooted along on the dance floor with graduates fresh off their first course.
But there was understatement as well. Legendary NOLS Instructors like Rob Hess, the third person to climb Mt. Everest without oxygen, and Lucy Smith, who pioneered women’s climbing in the Himalayas in the ’80s, blended into the crowd like no big deal. Long-time NOLS supporters were there as well, like Gene Tremblay, Homer Luther and Joan Chitiea, the first woman on the board of trustees who donated facilities and land to NOLS Alaska. Even Tap Tapley, who worked alongside Petzoldt to start NOLS in 1965, traveled to Lander for the festivities.
It was a time to relish in the most unique of passions that have sustained NOLS through the years. But Kleisner offered a note of seriousness as well, leaving the crowd to ponder what it means for NOLS to have thrived for so long while many other organizations have faded away. Focus and consistency. Those were the chairman’s final thoughts, for those are the special ingredients that have made NOLS. And they are the two things that will serve us well as we move ahead toward our 100th year.