by Tom Reed
Reprinted from The Leader, Winter 1996.
John Gans was juggling the other day. I watched as he walked back and forth in his glassed-in office, tossing fruit in the air, talking on the phone. He uses a headset phone to keep his hands free and while I watched, I wondered if John had put juggling skills down on his resume.
This past fall, John Gans became the National Outdoor Leadership School's executive director, the fourth person at that post in the school's 30-year history. For Gans and for many at the school, the move was a logical one. His career in outdoor education has been noteworthy. As Alaska Branch director, Gans expanded the school's program, initiated a sea kayaking symposium, started new courses in the remote Brooks Range, and made NOLS a recognized voice in Alaskan and national politics. As operations director, Gans helped NOLS move into new arenas including Western Canada and Australia, launched a public policy position at NOLS, and oversaw the daunting task of running eight branch schools in five different countries. Yet as executive director, Gans believes he faces the greatest challenges yet: dwindling worldwide wilderness, a growing human appetite for the same, and intense competition in the field of outdoor education. But somehow, with Gans at the helm, there's a sense of ease in the school, a feeling that this is the guy who you'd want steering your ship. You only have to spend a few moments in a conversation with him to realize this.
Two things strike me when talking to John. The first is how easy it is. The second is the sense that John is sincerely interested in what I have to say.
Both qualities have made John enormously popular in his 15-odd years at the school.
"He would give you the tools and the knowledge and let you do your job," remembers Tim Wilson, who was rations manager at NOLS Alaska when John ran the branch. "He puts his trust in you. He's one of the gang, and you know he works just as hard as you do."
Working hard has been a way of life for Gans. He grew up in the country. He helped his parents run a dairy farm in Minnesota and when he wasn't milking cows, he was tramping the woods around the farm. Here Gans learned about life and death and nature. It is also where he developed the land ethic that he carries today.
In college, Gans studied math, but an interest in astronomy led to running the college observatory and teaching. He took an Outward Bound course in the late 1970s, but was entranced by other cultures and countries so it was off to Germany and later to a NOLS semester in Kenya in 1979.
Gans heard about the school not through word of mouth, as many do, but through advertising--he saw a poster on campus. After checking into it, he decided to go to Africa.
"I was blown away by Kenya," remembers Gans. "I got there and here were these Kenyan kids running around at 8,000-feet and I was gasping for air."
He stood out on that course, remembers George Newbury, director of the Kenya Branch at the time and course leader on Gans' course. "In our years at Kenya, John was far and away the best student we'd ever had," says Newbury, who now runs the NOLS Pacific Northwest Branch. "He was good at everything, enthusiasm, group dynamics, you name it. He made it all too easy."
In conversation, John always comes back to young people. He has a genuine love of teaching and of students. So it was probably natural that he would be a teacher as soon as he got out of college.
Significantly, that first job was cutting-edge stuff, experiential education at a secondary school called Baker River School in New Hampshire. There, 20 students would get an "on-the-road" education from 8-10 staff as they took to the highways and backcountry of America. The rolling classroom went to "a good portion of the states," during the school year, traveling and teaching, backpacking and learning. Through it all, remembers Gans, the students "responded best to what they could do, what they could practice."
But there was also an underlying, personal desire that kept nagging at him during those extended trips across country. "We spent a lot of time on the road but not enough time in the backcountry," says John. "There just wasn't much opportunity to develop the intense relationship with the wilderness at Baker School that you had at NOLS."
So in 1980, John returned to NOLS as a student on the instructor course. That led to teaching courses in the summer, and working at the Baker River School during the rest of the year. But the Wyoming mountains, especially the Winds, worked their magic on Gans and in 1981, his association with NOLS became lasting.
For several years, John worked steadily as an instructor, amassing 105 weeks in the field. In 1982, John met his eventual wife, Stephanie Kessler, at NOLS and together they went to Alaska where John ran the branch from 1984-88.
"It's a real credit to Jim Ratz (who had just been named executive director) that he picked John to go to Alaska, because there were a lot of people he could have picked, but he saw the great potential in John," remarks Newbury. John's meteoric rise after only about three years as an instructor was a compliment to his natural leading ability and keen organizational sense, says Newbury. "He stood out as a student and he stood out then."
In 1988, Ratz again turned to Gans for help, asking him to take over as marketing and admissions director. Later, Gans honed a new position called operations director. And when Ratz stepped down in March 1995, Gans threw his resume into the growing pile.
Joanne Hurley, chair of the NOLS board and head of the search committee that helped hire John says he had overwhelming support within the school. This was probably based on his past successes, but also on his management style.
"The thing that strikes me is that John is always looking ahead, looking to build on the values and quality that is NOLS," says Hurley. "And he's just tremendously fair. He is always listening and getting lots of input. He's a marvelous listener and it's not just sitting back, it's being probing and asking the right questions."
These qualities are tantamount to moving into the coming decades, to face the challenges ahead, she says.
As the century wanes, there is little doubt that wilderness education and the wilderness itself face an uncertain future. Says Gans, "One of the things that some non-profits do when they grow and age is lose touch with the people they serve. I think it's very important not to do this, to stay in touch."
In the coming years, Gans wants to increase the NOLS presence with land managers and other partners, provide opportunities for career growth within the school, and remain true to the school's mission.
As the population ages, Gans sees NOLS adjusting. He also likes to read trends and plot out future courses based on those trends.
"Our mission today is more relevant than it ever has been with more and more people visiting the wilderness," remarks Gans. "The extended expedition is at the core of what NOLS does and because you are out there for 30 days, it enhances the other qualities and parts of our curriculum."
One of the things that defines this 30-day experience is when students start to refer to the outdoors or the tent area as "home," says Gans. "They will say, `Well, I've got to go back to home,' referring to the tent and that's when you know that they are starting to look at the wilderness differently. That's the difference that an extended expedition makes."
Gans touts the school's experience in teaching leadership as an avenue to expand. "We're sometimes shy about it, but that part of our curriculum is very important. And we do it well."
To illustrate his point, Gans describes going to a children's Christmas play in Lander this winter. "One of the grandparents came up to me and said, `Isn't it funny how there are just born leaders that come out?' I looked around at the kids and started noticing how leaders were emerging. Then I realized that a good portion of these children were kids of NOLS folks. We can train leaders."
What Paul Petzoldt did so well is what John Gans would like the school to continue to do well. "What most hit me about Paul was his belief in youth, the stories of him picking up hitchhikers and putting them to work for NOLS. We need to recognize that young people are the future."
The ability to recognize potential is not something exclusive to Petzoldt, however. "I owe my longevity at the school to John," says Wilson, who now manages NOLS' recruitment efforts, after spending several years as an instructor and winter caretaker in Alaska. "He made it possible for me to stay here and work and start a career."
I asked John if he could sum up his management philosophy in one sentence. "You need to place trust in folks and let them develop and do their jobs while providing good quality feedback."
And that sentence probably defines John Gans better than any.
Tom Reed is the publications manager for NOLS