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Jack Drury: teaching and training in the Adirondacks

December 29, 2010
By MICHAEL WILLIAMS, Special to the Enterprise

Jack Drury seems like a man who is comfortable with the story of his life so far. As we sit down in his home overlooking Lower Saranac Lake, the early December snow perched on the tree limbs outside, the recollections of his time here in the Adirondacks flow out easily, and this author is glad to have a recording device to catch all the intriguing details coming to the fore.

Jack's practiced way of sharing these events leads one to surmise that this thoughtful man has considered his biography before.

The tale begins, as so many others do, with childhood visits to the Adirondacks - specifically to the summer camp of his favorite great aunt and uncle who lived on a property overlooking Lower Saranac. The experiences that Jack had as a younger lad; paddling, fishing, hiking and general romping around in this world's best playground (biased view for sure), aka. the Adirondacks, imprinted on his formative self and a way was lit to a path that would be taken later in life.

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Jack Drury
(Photo provided)

"Coming up here those summers, I felt I was the luckiest kid on the earth," Jack said. "At 12 years old, I knew that this was the place I wanted to live."

Before being able to fulfill this pre-adolescent dream, there was the business of growing up. This took place in the Finger Lakes region of New York state with mother, father and four siblings. Similar to those of us blessed with a family that supports its children, Jack's formative years included a cocktail of encouragement, advice and even pressures from family. As Jack came to that point of deciding "what next," he hesitated. A self-described middling student on the academic front, Jack decided to take a favorite coach's advice and "go to school for what you liked to do."

Jack, perhaps channeling those boyhood summer adventures in the Adirondacks, found a program that matched his interest perfectly - outdoor recreation. From among a handful of schools offering this degree, Jack chose the University of Wyoming to begin his education.

"My Mom was unconditionally supportive while my Dad, being the Old New England style patriarch, was directing me to an Ivy League education and a career path in business," Jack remembers.

And so, off to Wyoming it was. A couple of years of undergraduate work certainly provided foundation for the future, Jack concedes, but also left him wanting more. This arrived in the form of a lecture he attended, outside the environs of academics, with a fellow named Paul Petzoldt expounding on the subject of outdoor leadership. Jack was immediately drawn to both the speaker and the subject and walked away from the evening with a newfound enthusiasm for this specific direction.

"This fellow was describing a program he was starting called the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and it blew me away. It was about backpacking and traveling in the wilderness and doing it the right way. That rang so true with me and I realized I needed to pursue this," Jack recalls.

A transfer back east to SUNY Cortland brought Jack closer to home but it was not long before he found himself back in Wyoming, attending his first NOLS course. The experience did not disappoint and even galvanized Jack's sense that starting an outdoor leadership program was his "calling."

"This was a life changing experience for me," Jack relates with conviction. "I came back from that course knowing this is what I wanted to do."

With this vision in mind, a degree from Cortland in hand, and newly married status, Jack came back to Saranac Lake and considered his options. Option one (as always) was to take the bull by the horns (strategy perfected during Jack's time in Wyoming?) and he did this by peddling the idea of starting an outdoor education program to anyone who would listen.

"I went to all the schools in the area and tried to convince them that they should start this program and let me lead it," Jack chuckles.

While most everyone listened politely and many thought the idea had merit, the reality of starting such a program from scratch was enough to stall Jack's vision in the idea stage. What followed from there was a number of years of livin' life here in the High Peaks. Purchasing a house, renovating the newly inherited summer camp where his Adirondack story started all those years ago, and working on a master's degree while teaching part time at North Country Community College served to occupy Jack's time just fine, thank you very much. But all the while the original vision continued to marinate behind the scenes, waiting for the right circumstances to present themselves.

After seven-plus years lying mostly dormant, the idea germinated with the help of the fellow who inspired Jack many years before in a lecture hall in Laramie. Paul Petzoldt was touring the northeast, speaking at colleges and universities to promote his new organization called the Wilderness Education Association, whose goal was to establish outdoor leadership programs in these school environments. Jack sensed an opportunity and convinced Paul to come to Saranac Lake to speak at a number of local venues. Among them was a meeting over breakfast with the administrators of NCCC. It was this occasion, with Mr. Petzoldt enthusiastically stumping for the creation of a program at the school and furthermore, for Jack to run it, that finally put the wheels in motion.

With this initial recommendation opening the door, Jack (with the aid of the open minded dean of NCCC) walked through and in the summer of 1979, taught the first course in wilderness education at North Country. That fall Jack was hired as a full-time, tenure-track professor and the Wilderness Recreation Leadership Program began.

"It was right then and there, in that fall of '79 that my dream came true and it continued on for the next 20 years," Jack said.

Jack goes on to describe the challenges and rewards of those years; creating, assessing and improving courses, curriculum and teaching techniques with the goal of providing the highest quality graduates to work in the wilderness recreation world (many of these graduates continue to reside in the area).

While Jack's work in this field of outdoor leadership makes up a large portion of his professional biography, his Adirondack story certainly does not conclude with his retirement from the school in 1995 but pauses, takes a breath and then continues down a new (but still familiar)path.

"The outdoor education and leadership part of my life will always be the roots of any experiences I have going forward," Jack notes.

For the next number of years, Jack focused on the process of helping teachers become more effective and dynamic educators. He continued to supplement his own education, taking especially inspirational courses at Antioch College in New Hampshire. He used newly acquired techniques in combination with his toolbox full of leadership training skills as a foundation for a consulting company he and a close friend created, known today as Leading Edge LLC. Jack notes the roller-coaster nature of this business, educating educators, but points with pride to the highlights of having successfully mentoring teachers both here in the United States and abroad. The consulting work continues to morph and is currently providing Jack with opportunities to facilitate various events in the area. He also brings his passion and skills to his part time work as a deputy director for Parent to Parent, a non-profit group that links parents of children with disabilities.

Beyond work, Jack emphasizes his participation in community activism as a significant part in his life. He counts his efforts as the chairman of the Harrietstown planning board, member of the Comprehensive Planning Committee and other such policy affecting endeavors as examples of democracy in action that he is proud to take part in.

Saving the best for last, Jack wraps a nice bow around his story with a heartfelt shout out to his family and friends, without whom any professional success "wouldn't amount to a hill of beans." He lists a number of projects that he has on his list for when he "retires" from professional life but continues to come back to family being such an important cornerstone to everything he has done and will do further on in life.

Upon concluding this interview, Jack thanks this author for coming and says it's "back to work" and one can speculate that the project will be one that seeks to improve the world around us.


This article based on an interview with Jack Drury. Michael Williams can be reached at



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