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On a Sea of Stone


The top of Murdoch Mountain, in the Uinta chain in northeastern Utah, is about 11,200 feet, which is modest by the standards of the Uintas: the state’s highest point is Kings Peak at 13,258 feet. Murdoch is popular for hikers because of its accessibility: you can drive, via Mirror Lake Highway, to Bald Mountain Pass, which at 10,700 feet is only about 500 vertical from Murdoch’s top.

That’s where, in July, I met up with Jeff Munroe, a professor of geology at Middlebury, and two students: Sam O’Keefe ’16, from Baltimore, Maryland, and Luna Wasson ’17, from Wilson, Wyoming. Munroe has been hiking, climbing, and conducting research in the Uintas for two decades. And for much of that time he’s been bringing students to learn about this east-west stretch of the Rocky Mountains.

In recent years, Munroe’s research has focused on dust deposition in the Uintas. The long-term goal: to learn how windborne dust affects the geo-ecology of alpine systems. He’s investigating soil formation (also known as pedogenesis); the albedo—or reflectivity—of the snowpack, and the impact on snowmelt; the composition and source of the dust on the mountains. And, with the help of core samples from Uinta lakes, Munroe is studying how dust deposition has changed over time due both to climate change—a drier climate in the Southwest implies more dust in the mountains—and human activity in the lowland basins, including fossil fuel extraction and mining.

On this July day, Munroe and the students are heading to a passive dust collector not far from Murdoch’s summit, one of four that the Middlebury geologist deployed in the Uintas a few years back. From Bald Mountain Pass, we hike through a beautiful alpine meadow, which quickly becomes a tricky, steep talus with rocks ranging from toaster to refrigerator size. They look stable but often shift under your feet. Trekking poles come in handy.

As the terrain flattens near the top of Murdoch, we find ourselves on a felsenmeer—German for sea of stone. This is a relatively flat expanse of rock broken into loose pieces, and it’s typical of the summits throughout the Uintas. The last time glaciers moved through, the peaks were not covered in ice and so for thousands of years they’ve been subject to freezing and thawing, which reduces the top few feet of the rock surface to rubble.

The dust collector is a short walk from a summit cairn, on the shoulder of the mountain, where it’s less likely to be disturbed. Just below the site is a small snowfield. The collectors—built by Tony Desautels, a scientific machinist in Middlebury’s Science Tech Support Services—are about two feet square and made of clear plastic. The plastic has five V-shaped channels with holes near the top that allow excess water to drain out. The channels are closed on both ends and have on one side removable black plastic caps. When deployed in the field, each channel is filled to two-thirds its depth with black, rounded glass—pieces about the size of Peanut M&M’s. Dust collects in the channels and is trapped beneath the glass pieces, where some of it stays until the team comes to collect it each year.

The collection process is almost alarmingly low-tech. First Munroe, O’Keefe, and Wasson remove the glass pieces from each channel and put them in plastic bags. Then they put the water and dust from each channel in a plastic bottle—several bottles for each collector—with a plastic spoon and a turkey baster. Then, one by one, they remove the caps on the channels and rinse each channel with purified water to capture more dust and add it to that channel’s bottle. They use a toothbrush in the final rinse to make sure all the dust gets into the bottle. Then they seal the bottles and secure them in their backpacks for the hike down. They put the collector as close as possible to where it had been, and put the glass pieces back into the channels. At the end of the trip, they will ship these bottles back to Middlebury, where the dust will be removed and analyzed.

With the collection process complete, we head back down to Bald Mountain Pass and then drive deeper into the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest on Mirror Lake Highway before turning off onto increasingly bumpy and rocky U.S. Forest Service “roads” to our campsite/staging area for the next hike. Munroe and the students are in a huge white four-door turbo-diesel pickup Munroe rented for the trip. He calls it the hovercraft for the way it handles the bad roads. My Jeep Patriot rental can’t make it past the washouts on the last quarter mile to the campsite. So I pack my tent and other gear in a huge backpack I borrowed from the Middlebury Mountain Club gear room and make the short trek to the riverbank.

We set up camp by the fast-rushing East Fork of the Blacks Fork River, a Green River tributary. We have a tailgate dinner, with Munroe and the students enjoying the peanut butter/noodle/vegetable creation he cooked over a gas camp stove. Munroe and his wife, Diane, the coordinator for community-based environmental studies at the College’s Franklin Environmental Center, are vegans, and many students talk about the wonderful meals they’ve had at the Munroe household.

When it’s still light, we settle into our tents for the night, because we plan to rise at 4 a.m. to set out on the long hike to a dust collector just south of Bald Mountain. (Another Bald Mountain, it turns out: not the one visible from the aforementioned Bald Mountain Pass.) The early start is to ensure we’re back below tree line before the late afternoon thunderstorms.


In 2001 Jeff Munroe joined the Middlebury faculty as an assistant professor of geology. He graduated from Bowdoin College and earned his MS and PhD from the University of WisconsinMadison. His work in the Uintas began as a collaboration with the Forest Service in 1996, when he was a graduate student, and was the basis for his doctoral dissertation. He’s also done research on climate change in northeastern Nevada, glacier retreat in Glacier National Park, and the evolution of lake environments and mountain soils in northern New England. Now a full professor, he teaches courses on geomorphology, environmental geology, paleolimnology, and arctic and alpine environments.

Munroe’s general area of research is the Quaternary period, which ranges from the present to about 2.6 million years ago—a tiny sliver of time given that our planet is 4.5 billion years old. “Geology is reading a book with most of the pages torn out,” he says. “The evidence, the story, the information is constantly being deleted by erosion and other processes, so the further back you go, more and more is missing. Working on the Quaternary—relatively recent stuff—the stories you can tell, the data that you can accumulate: it’s just richer, because less of the record has been lost. Not that it’s easier, because plenty of the record has still been lost, but you can ask tougher questions, because you’re dealing with a more complete record.”

Like his colleagues in Middlebury’s geology department, Munroe spends a lot of time in the field and much of that time with students. “That’s something I did as an undergrad at Bowdoin,” he says. “I went to Alaska for five or six weeks with my advisor, and that put the hook in me pretty good about doing field-based geology. And I just always had it in my mind that in a perfect world I’d get into a situation where I could provide those types of opportunities for undergraduates. And beginning my very first year here, I’ve been able to do that. It helps build great relationships with students, as you might imagine. The conversations you have when you’re together all the time, when you’re dealing with the uncertainties and unpredictability of fieldwork: you really become a team pretty quickly. And I love to be able to provide that for students. I think that type of immersive learning in the field has no parallel. You can’t fake it. You can try with a three- or four-hour lab during a regular semester. But, boy, when you’re out there testing hypotheses every day, coming up with new ones every night, you see science in real time.”


At 4:30 the next morning, we’re fording the Blacks Fork, which runs cold and fast over round, slippery rocks, and is just over knee deep. Munroe had described this hike to me as 15 miles, but it turns out to be 17, including 3,000 feet of elevation gain that tops out at 12,500 feet. Wearing headlamps to illuminate our path, we start up a series of switchbacks that cross a steep rocky slope through thick woods still soaked from overnight rains. On the second switchback, we hear a rumble of thunder, which Munroe says is not a good sign. Thunder in the morning often means a long, stormy day in the mountains. But we decide to press on until we get to the tree line and can see more of the sky.

By the time we reach the top of the switchbacks, the woods are waking up, filling with birdsong. The trail levels and smooths out for half a mile or so through a beautiful softwood glade. Then things get steep again as we hike through a huge pile of rocks, which has a stream running below it. The trail zigzags through the rocks—we found our way by looking for cairns at the turns—and then the terrain opens up again, displaying fewer trees and some marshy sections.

But before long we’re back in a steep and rocky section, now above the tree line, and stop for breakfast on the shoulder of Bald Mountain at around 11,000 feet. It’s overcast, with a chilly breeze. Having discovered early on that my idea of a comfortable pace doesn’t match those of the others—Munroe is tall, trim, and extremely fit; O’Keefe is a national collegiate champion in cyclocross; Wasson is a member of the Panther Nordic ski team—I arrive a bit late. From our breakfast perch, the terrain looks friendlier. I ask Munroe if we’re halfway, and he says that’s probably about right. He adds that you can see our destination, pointing south toward a peak in the middle distance. Since you can see for at least 20 miles in almost every direction, this is not terribly comforting. But breakfast—Alpineaire’s granola and blueberries; just add cold water—could not have tasted better.


Last spring, Munroe taught one of the geology department’s most popular entry-level courses: Environmental Geology. He makes sure even those beginning students get their time in the field.

One afternoon, I tagged along as Munroe and his class piled into vans and made the short drive over to the Middlebury River where it enters East Middlebury. We parked just past the new Route 125 bridge that spans the East Middlebury Gorge, and Munroe and the students pulled on waders and descended the steep slope to the river.

They were measuring the water’s volume and the speed of its flow. Before leaving campus, Munroe had instructed one student to grab four oranges from the dining halls—“The entire success of the lab depends on those oranges,” he said—for reasons that weren’t, at first, clear to me.   

Once in the water, the students created a cross-section of the river, running a long tape measure across and using yardsticks to measure depth every foot along the tape. Then they stretched two tapes across the stream 20 feet apart and floated oranges between them, measuring the time it took the fruit to travel the distance at different points.

Having collected the data on water volume and flow, Munroe and the class climbed back up to the bridge, crossed to the river’s north side, and walked half a mile upstream. Munroe discussed how the gorge was formed, noting the volume and speed of water required to carve the gorge out of the quartzite bedrock.

He pointed out round dimples on the surfaces of some large rocks in the river: these were percussion marks and smaller rocks hitting the larger ones caused them. Typically they’re found on the upstream side. If they’re on the downstream side it means the river flow has moved or flipped over the rock. He asked his students to find the largest rock that appeared to have been flipped, and they discovered an enormous one—big enough for several students to stand on. Estimating the weight and the flow required to flip it, Munroe said, suggested it would have taken a once-in-10,000-years flood.

Munroe is clearly in his element in the field, whether in the rivers and streams of Vermont or the extremes of the West, and his smile was almost ever-present through the afternoon. On the way back to the vans, he talked about how great it is to have places like the gorge so close to campus. “It’s a wonderful place to teach geology,” he said. “You can just go outside.”



Back in Utah, the next bit of the hike goes slightly downhill through a beautiful, wide alpine tundra covered with grass and wildflowers. But before long we’re on a gradual climb interrupted every so often by steep slopes with lots of exposed rock. I keep thinking every pitch has to be the last one. And eventually, when I nearly crawl over what actually is the final rise, there’s Munroe sitting next to his dust collector, taking my picture.

At this climb’s halfway point, I had told Munroe I’d seen lots of good spots along the way for his dust collector—the implication being that such a long hike might not be necessary. But he tells me there’s “a method to [his] madness.” In the summer, sheep are brought up to these alpine meadows to graze. He’d learned how high the sheep usually get and placed his collector well above that point.

So eight-plus miles later, Munroe, O’Keefe, and Wasson repeat yesterday’s process. As they work, Munroe gives impromptu lectures on some of the terrain features we’d encountered. Frost boils are bare patches of ground: here they’re mostly brick-colored dirt produced when frost pushes soil up from below. They’re bare because the soil’s movement doesn’t allow vegetation to take hold. Sorted polygons and stripes—known as patterned ground—are areas of soil and vegetation bordered by larger stones. During repeated freezing and thawing, finer soils flow and settle underneath larger stones, pushing the stones aside and creating geometric figures on flatter terrain and stripes on steeper sections.

Once dust collection is complete, I take a picture of the three researchers with the spectacular Red Castle in the background. The red-tinged rocks and spires, which look like an enormous cathedral, have become the traditional backdrop for a celebratory photo after reaching, at 12,500 feet, this highest collector. Then we start back down. Seeing black clouds to the west over other jagged Uinta peaks, we depart with some urgency. No one wants to be caught out in this open country, far above the tree line, in a thunderstorm.


In the spring of 2013, Munroe was promoted to full professor. He also became the first winner of Middlebury’s Gladstone Award for Excellence in Teaching, which includes a stipend to support collaborative work with students.

Munroe used the funding to take three students to Utah at various times over the summer. Emily Attwood ’14, Paul Quackenbush ’14, and Sam O’Keefe ’16 gathered dust from the collectors, collected dust from snowfields, took core samples from lake sediments, and collected soil samples. The students then based their school-year work on these experiences: Attwood wrote a geology thesis; both Quackenbush, a geography major, and O’Keefe worked on 500-level independent projects. After doing lab analysis on the materials they’d brought back from the mountains, the students helped Munroe with a paper concerning this project. They also submitted abstracts of their work to a conference in Castellaneta Marina, Italy.  The conference’s name is DUST 2014: An International Conference on Atmospheric Dust.  Attwood’s abstract concerned dust in snow; O’Keefe’s was on dust in lake cores; and Quackenbush’s was dust and soil development.  All were accepted, so in June 2014, Munroe and the students attended the conference, with Munroe presenting a paper on Uinta dust deposition coauthored by the three students. Each student also did a poster presentation.

Attwood remarks on the novelty of presenting in front of atmospheric scientists at an international conference—“we were definitely the youngest people there”—but says the collaborative experience was par for the course. “In the geology department, as in some other departments, the professors encourage field experience,” she says. “You get to know your professors on a different level, hiking with them for hours during the day, cooking meals with them, swapping stories. And you learn in such a different way than you would in a classroom. You can just ask them all the questions you want. You’re right there in the field and something pops up, and you say: ‘What does that mean? Why would that be there?’” Attwood, a former Nordic ski racer at Middlebury, now teaches skiing and winter ecology at a Montana ski center.

Quackenbush now works for an environmental consulting firm outside Boston and says that “being involved in the lab work, getting to review the paper with Jeff and make suggestions on that, and seeing how that whole process plays out is an experience that very few [undergraduates] get to have. But I think Jeff strives in his classes and his labs to give students a chance to understand how academic research really works.”

While we were in Utah, Munroe learned he had been awarded a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to help support further work on dust in the Uintas. The grant will support the placement of more dust collectors—bringing the total to eight—from one end of the Uintas to the other. Munroe also anticipates having dust gathered from the collectors twice a year rather than just once.

According to the NSF, Munroe’s work with student collaborators was an important factor in approving his grant. Reviewers addressed his past work with undergraduates, along with Middlebury’s commitment to providing students with research opportunities. “The robust participation of undergraduates is clearly an important element in the success of this project,” read the foundation’s award letter.

The new grant started last summer, and Munroe immediately made plans to return to the Uintas with Middlebury student Ryan McElroy ’16. Munroe asked Tony Desautels if he could build five more collectors—four to put in new collection spots, and one to replace a broken collector discovered last summer. Desautels had the collectors ready when Munroe and McElroy headed out at the end of September.

In a week, they placed the new collectors, replaced the broken one, and revisited three of the remaining collectors, along with taking lots of soil samples. The grant also envisions using lake sediment cores collected during past Uintas visits to do a study on a geologic time scale of dust deposition.

It’s heady stuff, and I mention to Munroe how advanced this all seems. He nods. “I never use a book in any of my classes anymore,” he says, “because by the time a book is published, it’s out of date. For the price the students are going to pay (for a book), I’d much rather they read journal articles. I know it’s a big step up. These were not written for undergraduates usually. But, boy, they can make headway by figuring out something that’s presented in a journal article from this week or from last year.”

“That’s how science is done. It’s not a static series of assembled, time-tested material. It’s very, very dynamic.”

Tim Etchells ’74 spent more that a year dropping in on Jeff Munroe, observing the geologist in his natural environment as a teacher. In addition to chasing him across the beautiful Uinta landscape, Etchells sat in on classes and put on waders to join students in the Middlebury River lab. He also hitched a ride with Munroe and his wife, Diane—who frequently accompanies her husband on trips to the Uintas—when they took 30 Middlebury alumni to the top of Killington Peak in Vermont as part of a sold-out session on “The Mountains of Northern New England” at Alumni College in 2014.

The Research Paradigm


In the days following last year’s terrorist attacks in Paris—first in January on the Charlie Hebdo offices and then the horrific events of November 13 that left 130 people dead—many national media outlets turned to Middlebury political scientist Erik Bleich, asking him to contextualize these attacks committed by Islamic fanatics.

Bleich, whose scholarship focuses on race and ethnicity in the politics of Western Europe, had just spent a year abroad in Lyon, France, furthering his research so he was expertly positioned to comment. Also attracting media interest were two recent scholarly articles Bleich had published on how newspapers portray Muslims and Islam.

In one, published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Bleich and his coauthors examined how British newspaper headlines from 2001 to 2012 represented Muslims. The other, which appeared in Ethnic and Racial Studies, assessed the tone of New York Times headlines from 1985 to 2013 concerning Muslims and Islam.

In fact, Bleich’s research upended conventional wisdom, finding that headlines about Muslims have not been predominantly negative, and that in the New York Times, headlines about Islam and Muslims actually became more positive over the period studied, even after the 9/11 attacks.

Bleich, who has made Islamophobia here and abroad one of his focuses, finds his research exciting. But he gets just as excited talking about his research methodology. On the first article, Bleich’s coauthors were Middlebury students Hannah Stonebraker ’13, Hasher Nisar ’16, and Rana Abdelhamid ’15. The second was coauthored by Nisar and Abdelhamid.

“Starting from scratch and with student input,” Bleich says, “we developed a way to download, process, code, and analyze newspaper headlines for their tone toward Muslims.” At a research university, he says, the project would have involved faculty researchers and grad students. And “undergrads would be used, if they were used at all, for the coding: ‘Please read these hundred headlines and enter into an Excel spreadsheet what you think the tone is: positive, or negative, or neutral.’”

At Middlebury, Bleich says, his students were collaborators, helping to consider what the team wanted to learn from the project over the next few years and how to learn it.

Undergraduates as collaborators has a long history at Middlebury but is, by all accounts, more common today. From geologist Jeff Munroe trekking through Utah’s Uinta Mountains to study dust deposition to Bleich and his deep dive on media representation of Muslims, faculty members often arrive at Middlebury with an active research project and continue to pursue it—usually with the help of students.

Jim Ralph ’82, a history professor and dean of faculty development and research, says the College encourages faculty members to hire student research assistants both during the academic year and over the summer. They do so mostly via the Faculty Research Assistant Fund (FRAF) for general student support and via the Undergraduate Collaborative Research Fund (UCRF) for more collaborative student work—often anticipating that a poster, an article, or a book will result.

Lisa Gates, associate dean for fellowships and research, says the summer program in particular is growing quickly. In 2015, close to 140 students were involved and most were on campus. A summer research symposium has joined the popular spring student symposium as another showcase for student work.

Febe Armanios, an associate professor of history, has used both FRAF and UCRF grants and coauthored papers with students. She now has two books in progress, and for both she’s used student research help. One book is on the history of Christian satellite television in the Middle East. The other, on halal food, which she’s writing with her husband, UVM History Professor Boğaç Ergene, came from teaching the class, Food in the Middle East: History, Culture, and Identity. She worked on it while a fellow at Harvard during the fall of 2014.

Armanios points out that Middlebury’s faculty come primarily from larger research universities.  She, for instance, got her BA, MA, and PhD at Ohio State. Because graduate schools have become increasingly competitive, most of those who apply to become faculty at Middlebury have published extensively and have significant investments in their research interests and projects. “We’re now bringing in edgy, current, up-to-date scholars,” says Armanios, “who are the best and the brightest in their areas, and who are also really great teachers.”

Armanios says that when Middlebury students work with faculty and do their own research, they’re learning ways “to have a fuller and richer experience of what being at Middlebury is about. It’s not just being a passive recipient of knowledge in the classroom. They actually have a role in the production of new knowledge.”

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Zach Perzan ’14 agrees. A geology major, he worked with professors Jeff Munroe and Will Amidon on his thesis, which reported on his work in Vermont caves, the Weybridge Cave in particular. The most recent glacial advance, which ended approximately 14,500 years ago, did not disturb some deep caves. And sediments found there—some 30,000 to 100,000 years old—can provide clues about the climate in the northeast pre glaciers.

Perzan’s research work with Middlebury faculty has taken him out in the field and to conferences all over the country. Last spring, he presented at Posters on the Hill, an event on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., that celebrates undergraduate research. “I really haven’t heard about friends from other schools doing this level of side-by-side research,” he says. “You go to a conference and see students and professors doing a poster, and when a question gets asked, the professor responds. Here, you have to deal with anyone who wants to grill you on your work.”

The enterprise certainly seems to have value for teachers and students. “Students who are here for summer work, for example, say it was not just a paycheck or something that looks good on their resume,” says Jim Ralph, “but a really transformative educational experience.”

And that’s true regardless of whether students are heading to graduate school. “The value of research is in enhancing your critical thinking skills,” says Erik Bleich, the political scientist. “It’s really about thinking hard and systematically and meticulously about how the world works, and about how to make an argument about what’s really going on. I think that pays off no matter what their careers are.”

Bleich believes that Middlebury is better learning to appreciate the value research has to the institution as opposed to the value it has for individual faculty members and students. Research, he says, is not just something faculty members do to get tenure.

“We want to encourage our students to engage with the world,” Bleich says. “And that’s exactly what research is. It’s being engaged beyond the walls of Middlebury. So to the extent that we are engaged in research as a faculty, we are really modeling what we ask for in our students.”

Can a Place Like Aspen Go Green?


In a posh resort town where private jets zip in and out, Matthew Hamilton ’95 has an answer for all the skeptics out there.

On a February morning at Aspen Highlands, Matthew Hamilton ’95 makes fast time up the boot-packed trail to the 12,392-foot summit of Highland Bowl. It hasn’t snowed in a while, but Hamilton—tall, gregarious, with a huge, toothy smile—is in good spirits. This is in part because his job requires him to go skiing and in part because the conversation is about green energy, a topic he could discuss long after the lifts have closed and après has begun.

For the past five years, Hamilton has been the sustainability director for Aspen Skiing Company (ASC), which runs the four ski resorts in and around Aspen, as well as properties throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. ASC is regarded as one of the most forward-looking companies in the business. Outside magazine and the Best Companies Group have made it a regular on their Best Places to Work list, and Condé Nast Traveler chose it as one of its top 10 destinations for eco-travel. The company, as well, has earned a slew of awards from local, state, and national organizations.

Hamilton’s job is both to preserve that reputation and to improve upon it. His work takes him to sustainable tourism conferences around the world, as well as to Washington, D.C., to promote renewable energy initiatives and climate policy. You might find him chatting about compost with a ski lodge staffer, leading technical meetings about the output of snowmaking equipment, reviewing audits for various LEED certifications, or negotiating with sponsors like Red Bull about ways to green events like the X Games, which Aspen hosted in 2015.

In addition, Hamilton spearheads ASC’s philanthropy work, directing the Environment Foundation. (Contributions come from ticket sales and employees who donate a few dollars from each paycheck to support local causes.) ASC also encourages its 3,400 employees to do two days of community volunteer work per year, which translates into a potential 15,500 hours.

Hang on, though. This is Aspen we’re talking about. It’s safe to say that billionaires flying private jets in and out of exclusive hamlets so they can, in an evening, blow $100,000 on imported wine and schuss down slopes chiseled from native forests don’t constitute a victory for Mother Nature. It’s all well and good that the on-mountain restaurants stock recycled napkins and offer locally sourced beef, or that Skico’s Limelight Hotel urges guests to go easy on the laundry. But considering
the colossal and urgent challenges climate change poses, one could conclude that sustainability at a posh ski resort is code for greenwashing.

Yet Hamilton’s work—and his response to this specific criticism—suggests a less cynical reality. “We are aware of our impact and constantly work to mitigate it,” he says.

Despite the elevation at Highland Bowl, Hamilton doesn’t sound at all winded. As we hike, he ticks through an exhaustive list of solar, water-conservation, and energy-efficiency initiatives that ASC has undertaken. Then he pauses, looking out west toward the summit of Snowmass and the jagged peaks of the Maroon Bells.

“If you define sustainability as being in business forever, then changing light bulbs, composting, etc., is good and fine. But if you don’t do the rest of it, you’re just scratching the surface. What’s the point?” By “the rest of it,” Hamilton means making the move from operational greening efforts to advocacy.


Hamilton first began considering this distinction as an undergraduate studying political science and environmental studies, and then during graduate studies in public policy at Georgetown. At the end of the day, he says, winter recreation is just that. Even if Aspen were miraculously to become a net-negative consumer of power, water, gas, food, and so on, climate change based on current national and international rates of fossil fuel burning will continue apace, which threatens the livelihoods and lives of tens—perhaps hundreds—of millions of people. All of which makes the greening of ski area operations sound somewhere between cute and irrelevant.

Yet the Aspen name is not irrelevant. “Meaningful action happens in the halls of our statehouses, board rooms of electrical utilities, and the halls of Congress,” says Hamilton. ASC employees and guests might measure the company’s sincerity by its offering of recycled napkins. “But we can have our biggest impact through leveraging our brand and the influence of our guests, pushing for substantive action on climate and energy policy.” So last year, swapping out his telemark gear for a gray suit and purple tie, Hamilton spent a day lobbying on Capitol Hill. ASC has joined a coalition of businesses that includes Nike, Starbucks, Patagonia, and Unilever in advocating for energy and climate legislation.


AspenforWeb1Closer to home, Hamilton’s team does have plenty to boast about. ASC has pledged to reduce its CO2 emissions to 25 percent of its 2000 levels by 2020. The 147kW solar-electric system ASC built on a nearby ranch is the largest such system in the ski industry, and ASC has lent support to several wind and solar developments throughout the region.

The flagship project isn’t located near the ski slopes or fancy stores at Aspen Mountain’s base. It’s beside a coal mine in the tiny town of Somerset, 70 miles southwest of Aspen along the Gunnison River. In a partnership with local mining and energy companies, ASC has spent $5.5 million on the country’s largest facility for converting methane from coal mines into usable electricity.

Methane gas is pumped out of mines to protect miners. And almost all mining operations release that gas into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. In fact, it’s 25 times more potent. The idea of capturing it and putting it to better use is not new, but only a few such plants exist in the U.S. The plant in Somerset produces 24 million kilowatt hours—roughly what ASC uses annually. The other benefit, of course, is doing away with methane that would otherwise drift up into the atmosphere. For Hamilton, this project exemplifies what it means to move beyond amorphous notions of sustainability to deliver actual economic and environmental results.

Hamilton, however, rejects the idea that gestures—on-mountain placards about climate change, fuel efficient snow-grooming machines, or even those napkins—are only superficial gestures meant to burnish a company’s image or assuage a resource-devouring clientele’s guilt. “Every initiative taken by a business is an important step towards reducing that company’s impact.” True, two kilowatts of solar on a building that requires 412,000 kilowatts is a drop in the bucket. “But when coupled with educational information and touted publicly, even those two kilowatts can be a powerful influencer of behavior and conversation that in turn motivates larger actions in an employee’s or guest’s life.”

Aspen’s influential clientele can also magnify the impact of these gestures.

Brands, along with the eco-conscientiousness people inevitably encounter during their stay, influence guests whether they’re conscious of it or not. “If they have a chance to look up from their smartphones,” says Hamilton, “they will bump into a message—about climate change, about mining rights, about lighting, about water conservation.” Hopefully these messages affect people—even long after their ski vacation has ended.

Back at Highland Bowl’s summit, Hamilton offers to take photos for a few fellow skiers, then tightens his boots for a run down more than 1,000 vertical feet of soft, wind-blown snow. Before we set in, he shares an anecdote about a recent exchange with a reporter from London who was writing about carbon footprints and ski vacations. He had emailed Hamilton some straightforward questions about eco-friendly operations, and Hamilton, as always, was happy to talk about the good work ASC is doing regarding sustainability.

But the journalist’s final question was trickier: because some 75 percent of the carbon emissions from winter sports can be attributed to travel, wouldn’t it be better for the planet if skiers and snowboarders from Europe didn’t fly to Colorado and instead vacationed closer to home?

Hamilton’s answer: Yes, but.

“My initial response was, ‘Yeah, he’s right.’ People should minimize their carbon footprint vacation closer to home.” That isn’t the whole picture, though. “If a skier really cares about the climate issue, then he has to couple good decisions like skiing locally with broader personal activism on the politics of climate change.” That activism, Hamilton believes, has to include demanding of the resorts we patron both environmentally progressive practices and efforts to move the public-policy needle. “At the end of the day, I think we differentiate ourselves with activism, lobbying, and action on the ground.”

And then he took off down the hill.

What It Means to Be Kelly Brush


A decade removed from a ski-racing accident that left her paralyzed, a young woman navigates a new course.

Were this a true celebrity profile, one of those longform pieces you’d read in Vanity Fair accompanied by black-and-white Annie Leibovitz photos, we might see Kelly Brush Davisson ’08 lounging poolside at the Château Marmont, ordering a glass of something bubbly as she tosses back her hair and toys with her watercress salad.

Instead, picture this: Central Provisions in Portland, Maine, where Brush, 29, dressed in a fuzzy champagne-colored sweater, asks for a ginger ale. She’s starving—but she’ll pass on the bluefin tuna crudo, opting to tuck into the pickles and an apple salad instead. This isn’t just because Kelly, a nurse practitioner at Martin’s Point Health Care, is on call—she’s pregnant. (Her iPhone keeps lighting up with texts from various relatives who’ve just heard the news.)

It’s early November, a Tuesday evening that feels like a Friday night because tomorrow is Kelly’s day off from work. She and her husband, 30-year-old Zeke Davisson ’08, have plans to spend it walking their dog, Lexi, and getting their car windshield replaced.

A fellow diner interrupts the conversation,  recognizing Kelly and her wheelchair. “I went to Middlebury with you!” she exclaims in delight.

And that’s how it is being around Kelly Brush, who, 10 years after catching an edge while skiing the GS at the Williams Carnival, has become a literal poster child for ski-racing safety. But really this celebrity is just like us.


Kelly first strapped on skis when she was two years old. In the beginning, she was darting around the trails at Bolton, Vermont, and soon after, she was on the flanks of 4,393-foot Mount Mansfield at Stowe. Often she was rushing to keep up with her older sister, Lindsay, and the children of close family friends. It was her first taste of ski racing, with more official races on the immediate horizon.

“Kelly won everything when she was seven years old,” says her mother, Mary Seaton Brush, during an interview at their Charlotte, Vermont, home. “She won so much she was immediately going to the Olympics in her mind.” And for good reason. Mary, a University of Vermont graduate and former U.S. Ski Team athlete, competed in the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, and she encouraged the racing life for her two girls. “Traveling and racing all over the world was so meaningful, so exciting, so much fun,” she says. “I really wanted them to have those life experiences.” The trophies and plaques decorating the Brush home speak to those experiences: entire walls given over to ski-racing photos that range from black-and-white to faded ’80s colors to the bright neon of the ’90s.

“As an athlete, Kelly was just fearless,” says her sister, Lindsay Brush Getz ’07, who now directs operations at Summit Property Management and Green Mountain Development, a pair of family-owned companies in South Burlington. “She just had this ability to go for it, no matter what.”

Eventually, Olympic aspirations became tempered, but the Brush girls remained fierce racers, attending the Green Mountain Valley School ski academy and then Middlebury, where their father, Charlie Brush ’69, had skied and then coached for 10 years. Mary shows off a collage that Kelly made in sixth grade: laminated photos of Mead Chapel, Woody Jackson cows, and February graduation at the Middlebury Snow Bowl.

Kelly says she never felt pressured to follow both her father and sister to Middlebury. It felt natural for her to replace the dream of Olympic glory with dreams of racing at the Snow Bowl.

As we tour her home, Mary shows me the adjoining wheelchair-
accessible apartment overlooking a glittering pond. This is where Kelly and Zeke stay when they visit, and it’s decorated with posters of Casablanca and Gone with the Wind, a tribute to Kelly’s film major. There are also two shelves that run high on the walls lined with Vermont Teddy Bears. “Those came to her at Berkshire Hospital,” Mary says of the stuffed animals.

Berkshire was the first hospital.

“The first couple of days, they said it could just be swelling, and it could go down,” says Mary. We’re sitting at the kitchen table now, and she grows momentarily silent after I ask her what the lowest low of the last 10 years has been. “Then the doctor said we’re going to need to turn her so she doesn’t get bed sores. All of a sudden her future became clear. ‘Is this real?’ So that was it, probably when I first realized that she wasn’t . . .”

Tears, on both sides of the table, interrupt our conversation.


February 18, 2006. Kelly’s excited to race, having for the first time just beaten her older sister in a GS race and having been selected from a large and very competitive squad to represent Middlebury at the Williams Carnival. It’s a “perfect ski-racing day,” she notes—cold but clear, blue skies and grippy, solid racecourse conditions.

Kelly’s coaches and teammates are anticipating her run. Forest Carey ’00, the Middlebury alpine coach from 2003–2006, often speaks about superstar athletes who find another gear on race day. He mentions Ted Ligety, Bode Miller, Julia Mancuso—all of whom he’s coached in his stint as U.S. Ski Team head coach.

“You can talk about technique and athleticism, lactate threshold, all that,” Carey says. “But it’s about on-demand execution—those who ski better when they race than when they are training.”

Eighty percent of all ski racers don’t have this, he adds. But Kelly is one of the twenty percent who does. And as she tips into the Williams racecourse, she’s looking great in the eyes of her coach and dad, Charlie, who is watching from the slope.

“And then I see her spin,” he says.

Charlie pauses and a sob gets caught in his throat. (The tears don’t always come, Mary has mentioned, making one dinner at Fire & Ice, when Kelly was readjusting to campus life in a wheelchair, all the more difficult. “Kelly didn’t cry very much,” recalls Mary. “The rest of us cried around her, so when she started crying, we all started bawling. The poor waitress!”)

At Williams, Charlie skis down to where Kelly lies on the snow and flings himself down next to her. He’d seen the fence she tore through. He’d seen the sturdy lift tower that seemed to break her body. He knows something is terribly wrong, and he shouts to wake up his daughter.

“Kelly, Dad’s here!”

Almost immediately, he realizes his daughter is not breathing.

“The most frightening point in my life,” he would later say.


August 4, 2012. Lindsay, the “meticulous drawer” as a child, the crafty one, has been planning her little sister’s wedding to Zeke Davisson, a fellow ski racer, at the Charlotte Congregational Church. The reception will be at the Old Lantern, an 1800s barn where more than 200 guests will watch Zeke spin Kelly in her wheelchair during their first dance.  The first-dance song, “Broken Road,” by Rascal Flatts is a not-so-inside ski-racing joke.

“It was an extra sappy song, but we’re not that sentimental,” recalls Zeke. “I just tried to keep my toes from getting run over.”

“I had a crush on Zeke right from the start,” says Kelly during an interview in their three-bedroom home in Cumberland, Maine. Signs with Snow Bowl trail names and a shot-ski emblazoned with Z and K—mementos from the wedding—rest against an open fireplace.

Zeke, who grew up in Maine and attended Gould Academy, competed on the same circuit as the Brush sisters. He even shared a podium with Kelly when they were in high school, though neither remembered this until they noticed it many years later while looking at old pictures.

The two both played JV soccer at Middlebury and would walk to practice together. By midwinter of Kelly’s first year, they were a couple. There was no “meet cute,” as in the movies, but the way they finish each other’s sentences and bicker playfully about the details of memories from college is somewhat cinematic and endearing.

During their walk at the Twin Brook Recreation Center with Lexi, an energetic Vizsla, Zeke pushes Kelly’s chair at the trail’s rough parts. (While Kelly is independent and shares domestic duties of cooking and cleaning with her husband, Zeke has a sixth sense for when she might need help.) One imagines it’s akin to how he carried her and her chair to just the right spot on Katama Beach on Martha’s Vineyard when he proposed, or how he wheeled Kelly throughout Europe—Iceland, Ireland, London, Paris, the French Riviera, the Loire Valley—on their honeymoon.

“He is an amazing man,” Charlie says of Zeke.

“He doesn’t open up about the details of what he said to her in the hospital,” says Mary. “He might have said, ‘You’re going to be fine.’”

But whatever Zeke said at Kelly’s bedside, for the days and then weeks at Berkshire Hospital and next at Denver’s Craig Rehabilitation Hospital, he helped soften the harsh edges of Kelly’s reality: a collapsed lung, a fractured vertebra, four fractured ribs, and, at the T 7/8 level, a severe spinal cord injury.

“I was really, really thirsty. I was so thirsty, I said, ‘Can I have some water?’” Kelly recalls of first waking in the ER after the injury.

She was annoyed and confused, too, by everyone asking her if she could feel her feet. And why did she need an MRI and a CAT scan?

“My mom told me that I had hurt my back. I don’t have any memory of someone telling me, ‘You’re paralyzed. You’ll probably never walk again.’”

“It was a much slower process,” Kelly says.

After 18 days at Berkshire—five of which Kelly was confined to the intensive care unit—she was flown to Denver for two-and-a-half months of learning how to navigate her new life.

Seeing so many people struggling with disabilities crushed her father. “This was not a happy place,” he says.

He felt helpless to stand witness to it. “Because the struggle,” he says, “is way more intense than you could possibly even know. In Colorado, I saw 75 percent of the families run over by the situation.” These families couldn’t handle it, he says, and they walked away.



December 3, 2015. Kelly is a pediatric nurse practitioner, an experience born not from her time adjusting to the T 7/8 fracture, but partly from when Kelly was young and her mom would watch Rescue 911. Mary had wanted to practice medicine, and so she’d tune in to the show after the girls had finished their elementary school homework. “Kelly immediately decided she wanted to be a doctor,” says Mary with a laugh.

As well, starting when Kelly was seven—the same time she began ski racing—she would visit her grandmother in a Michigan nursing home. Some girls might have been spooked, says Mary, but not her daughter, who was radiant. “All these people were trying to touch Kelly, reaching out.”

“She’s always been caring and compassionate,” says Lindsay, who fielded her sister’s unsure calls after Kelly took her first job after graduation at ESPN, which was a thrilling opportunity but perhaps not the right fit. “In the spring, she said, ‘I have this epiphany. I know what I want to do.’”

Working with children fills Kelly’s days and fulfills her. “When I really help someone, and they really take what I say to heart, that’s satisfying,” she says. Up early for breakfast with Zeke, she leaves the house by 7:15 for work. When she gets home, she showers, eats dinner with her husband, and goes to bed by 9:30 p.m. She dreams.

“I dream both ways,” she says. “Actually, three ways: Either just being in a chair like normal; or not in a chair at all, and that’s also normal. The third comes in waves. It’s like, if you try really hard, then you can walk! And in my dream, I’ll be like, ‘Zeke, check this out, all you have to do is try really hard.’ Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if it were that easy!”

These are fun dreams, she says with a laugh. The frustrations have already happened: first with that terrible thirst and then in Denver when Zeke had to coax her to learn how to get dressed. “It was learning to do everyday things,” she says.

That summer of 2006, Kelly was in the new accessible apartment in her parents’ Charlotte home, catching up on studies so she could return to Middlebury as a junior in the fall. “The first semester was hard,” she says, “trying to figure out how to get to and from classes. There were certain hills I couldn’t get up on my own. Twilight!”

By the time the snow fell, however, Kelly was really strong wheeling up those hills. “She’d be looking at me like, ‘What are you doing, panting?’” says her close friend Rachel Bearman’08. “She was taking classes, going to parties, a continuation of all the things we did as friends before.”

Even though Kelly could no longer race, she had role models like Paralympians Chris Waddell ’91 and Sarah Will, and she soon discovered opportunities through her innate drive and was aided by modified athletic equipment. (Kelly would forerun the Middlebury Carnival as a senior. And she now plays tennis and golf, and handcycles, sails, and surfs in addition to skiing.)

In the fall of 2006, Forest Carey and the Middlebury Ski Team organized a 100-mile bike ride to help raise money for Kelly to purchase adaptive sports equipment. But when the community donated an astounding $60,000-plus, the family knew they had the makings of something bigger. That year, they launched the Kelly Brush Foundation, hoping to alter competitive ski racing by addressing safety in a way no other organization had attempted.

“Kelly’s accident, although so tragic for our family, and so tragic for her,” says Charlie, “started a movement that essentially changed the world of ski racing.”

The nonprofit now oversees the Kelly Brush Ride, an event that has grown from about 25 riders to more than 700 and that raised more than $380,000 in 2015, along with Inspire! fundraising events in Vermont and Boston. The Kelly Brush Foundation also provides grants for adaptive sports equipment and ski-racing safety initiatives. Zeke, a former attorney, is at the helm. He stepped into the executive director role in November 2014.

“When we first started, we said we were going to commit to a cure,” says Zeke. “The cure thing: everyone says that right away, because you can’t picture life in a wheelchair. But you don’t put your life on pause until the day they find a cure. The beauty of Kelly’s story isn’t that she has dedicated her whole life to spinal-cord issues. The beauty is she got injured and went right back to living her life, just in a wheelchair. She went back to school, graduated on time, tried a career, didn’t like it, went back to school, another career. A very normal path. That is what is interesting and unique.”


May 13, 2016. The due date for Kelly and Zeke’s baby. How do they picture life in a wheelchair with a baby to care for?

“I’ve been Googling a lot!” says Kelly, laughing as she places dirty coffee cups in their Maine kitchen sink and then shows off her laundry room, all routine parts of a regular existence.

A celebrity? She gives me a look like, get real. She’d rather talk about the fellow recipients—Steve Young, Madeleine Albright, Billie Jean King—she met in Washington, D.C., when she won the NCAA Inspiration Award in 2009.

“I might be the poster child for ski-racing safety and the foundation,” she admits. “But the fact that we’ve been able to live life normally: I hope people look at that and think that’s really cool. That’s OK with me. And if they don’t, that’s also OK with me.”

The couple are unsure about some aspects of their future. They’re considering moving back to Vermont, closer to the slopes where Kelly first learned to carve, with visions of their child learning to ski, and maybe to race, if that should be an interest.

“I worry about if we’re going to find a house to live in. I worry about if the baby’s going to be healthy,” admits Kelly. “I worry about if I’m going to be able to take care of the baby well: can I get them on and off the floor, in and out of the car?”

But they also display an assuredness and grace that comes from living through the past 10 years. Kelly is aware of life’s shadows but inclined to look for the light.

“Let me tell you a final story that is about resilience, and remaining awake, in body, mind and spirit.”

New Middlebury president Laurie Patton said this at her Convocation address last September when using the Kelly Brush Ride as a call to action: “How long will you dwell in distraction—focused on what you are not—instead of getting on with the glorious business of being who you are?”


February 18, 2016. The 10-year anniversary of Kelly’s injury. What will the Brush family do? Charlie’s 70th and Mary’s 60th birthdays are coming up, along with Kelly’s 30th, so they have many reasons to celebrate. But with the baby on the way, plans are up in the air.

But February 18 will be a day of joy. “It’s always a celebration,” says Kelly. “Every year, we celebrate. We don’t have remorse.”

And that is the glorious business of being Kelly Brush.

“I don’t know how you script this any better,” says Charlie. He refers to a poster that features Kelly smiling, along with the phrase “Embracing adversity, conquering challenge.” It reminds him of Kelly skiing in miserable conditions and refusing to complain.

“What you do is, you say, ‘It’s not a rainy day, it’s a good day.’ And that’s what Kelly has done—take the bright side,” he says. “That’s the way she gets up every day.”

The Life and Times of Rick Hodes


A memory Rick Hodes ’75 has from early in his career doesn’t arise often, but when it does, it returns in the same vivid detail.

It’s 1985, and he’s standing among hundreds of gaunt, emaciated people who have hardly eaten in weeks. Hours before, they were dirty, but now they’re clean, and their heads have been shaved. Some wear oversized blue jeans and T-shirts; others are in handsome tuxedos and slinky evening gowns. The irony of the clothing isn’t lost on them—they’re laughing about it, and Hodes is laughing with them. 

At the time, he was a medical resident at Johns Hopkins University, spending his vacation volunteering in Ethiopia, where one of the 20th-century’s worst famines was raging. Tens of thousands were wandering the countryside in search of food, while a civil war fueled the chaos.   

Starving people arrived at the camp where Hodes was stationed, and were divided by gender, cleaned in mass showers, and deloused. The staff gave them new outfits donated by Western relief organizations and burned what they’d arrived in.

This was his first trip to Ethiopia. Apart from that brief moment when the clothing’s irony trumped the suffering, the famine remains the most haunting thing Hodes has ever witnessed.

After a month, he returned to Baltimore, not sure he’d ever return.

On a rainy Friday afternoon 30 years later, Hodes is riding in the back of his Suzuki along a busy avenue in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s sprawling capital. He sees a man with a severely contorted posture standing at the mouth of an alleyway and orders his driver to pull over. His assistant, Kaleab, gets out and approaches the man to tell him about the free clinic Hodes runs at Yekatit 12, a nearby public hospital. That’s where we’re heading now.

We’re 15 minutes late by the time we pull into the parking lot. Hodes runs two clinics—this one and another—under the auspices of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a relief agency based in New York City. He’s not a tall man, standing just 5’3”, and today he’s wearing an oversized yellow raincoat that he’s left unzipped. He walks through the crowded waiting room, a stethoscope hanging from his neck and blank flashcards and several pens tucked into the breast pocket of his button-down shirt. If a patient needs, say, a follow-up chest X-ray, he’ll write a note on a card, hand it to the patient, and ask them to bring it on their next visit.

He slips into the cramped examination room, places his backpack on a box of surgical gloves and settles into a chair. I push aside a pile of blank referral slips to make room for myself on the windowsill behind him. The paint is coming off the room’s walls and an untidy stack of papers covers the only sink. A nurse, Sister Tena, beckons patients one by one from the waiting room.

Each patient will undress in front of a large group that includes two medical students from the University of Rochester who are interning with Hodes for the summer, several local volunteers, Kaleab, and me. Across the room, another nurse and volunteer administer a test to cardiac patients who have been prescribed Warfarin, a blood thinner. There are easily a dozen people in the room at any given time.

Watching Hodes work is like watching an expert chess player face several opponents at once. He greets each patient warmly, quickly assesses the problem without blinking, and then makes his move. He ups a young man’s Warfarin dosage and asks him to return the following week.


He holds a girl’s spine X-ray to the room’s overhead light and tells Kaleab which surgeon she should see.

“She’s a USA case, put her on the list for Kamal.”


Although he’s lived in Ethiopia for 28 years, Hodes is proficient, but not fluent, in Amharic—the  official language—so he speaks in English and Sister Tena translates. He takes extra time with children. He’s jocular with the boys: “Are the barbers on strike? Sister, tell him if his hair gets too long, it’ll crunch his back.” And he’s grandfatherly with the girls: “No boyfriends until you’re done with school…tell her she needs to study hard so she can replace me.”

Hodes returned to Ethiopia just nine months after his first visit. He’d applied for a Fulbright grant to work in Zimbabwe, but Fulbright instead offered him a job teaching medical students at Addis Ababa University. This time, he stayed for nearly three years before returning to the States to enter a private practice in Washington, D.C. He liked working in D.C.; it seemed a good place to pursue a career in international health. Soon enough, though, he was on a plane back to Addis Ababa.

By the early 1990s, Ethiopia’s 17-year civil war was coming to a close and the sitting government of Mengistu Haile Mariam was on the verge of collapse. Hodes signed on with JDC to help run a clinic for Ethiopian Jews waiting to immigrate to Israel. He led a team of doctors during Operation Solomon, the largest civilian airlift in world history: nearly 14,400 Ethiopian Jews were evacuated to Israel in less than 36 hours. Following the airlift, he remained in Ethiopia and has been caring for patients ever since.


After he’s seen all of his patients at Yekatit 12, we walk back to the Suzuki, and Hodes explains to me he never expected, as a younger man, that he’d live the majority of his adult life abroad. Behind the clinic’s derelict walls stands a new, modern hospital that will open within a year. Hodes’s clinic has been offered a space in the new building, but he shrugs at the thought. “We’re perfectly happy to stay where we are.”

Brand-new buildings are a common sight in Addis, as Ethiopia is developing rapidly—its GDP is growing at nearly 11 percent per year. However, the country remains extremely poor and nowhere is this more evident than at our next stop: Mother Teresa’s Mission, run by the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic congregation where Hodes has been volunteering more than a decade.

We’re not there long. Hodes listens to a few hearts, checks in with the nuns, and visits with several patients. I meet Tilahun, a young boy who lost a leg to cancer and is still undergoing chemotherapy. When affordable cancer drugs for Tilahun couldn’t be found in Ethiopia, Hodes flew to India to get them. The Mission is where Hodes first met three of his five adopted sons, orphaned street kids who had been brought in with grave medical issues. Without health insurance, they would have never received the proper treatment, so he decided to adopt them—but he asked God first.

We leave the Mission, and the driver drops me at the guesthouse where I’m staying. Hodes tells me to shower quickly and make the short walk to his house for Shabbat dinner.

The Hodes residence includes a main house and, behind that, two small dwellings for visitors. During the day, a group of kids, mostly recovering spine patients, play soccer in the driveway. Surgery has afforded them previously uncharted lung capacities, so they play vigorously. Hodes tells them no sports for six months following surgery, but they don’t always listen. The titanium rods holding their new backs together can break, although it’s uncommon.

In the main house’s living room, medical textbooks, fiction, nonfiction, and Hebrew prayer books line the bookshelves. Hodes was raised in a secular Jewish household in Syosset, Long Island, though he now identifies as Modern Orthodox after spending several months studying at a remedial yeshiva in Israel. He prays three times daily and has placed mezuzot— small cases containing a verse from Deuteronomy— on all his doorposts. Jews are to touch these whenever they come and go, then kiss their hands, but Hodes never does for fear of germs.

During his time in Israel, he says he discovered a wisdom and spirituality in Judaism he’d never sensed when he was younger. He insists he’s a doctor by nature, not faith, but allows that faith does give his life structure and, at times, has guided how he practices medicine. He once brought two boys with cancer home from the Mission and started their chemotherapy on his front porch. They had the same shoe size, which he took as a sign from God they should not be split up.

In 1994, he found spiritual guidance especially important when he arrived in Goma, Zaire—what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo—to treat cholera in a refugee camp for Rwandans fleeing the genocide. To cross the camp, Hodes recalls needing to get on the back of the “body truck,” a dump truck used to transport the newly dead to mass graves. Before leaving Addis for Goma, he phoned a rabbi he knew in Los
Angeles with a serious, moral question: who to treat and who to let go? That rabbi referred the question to a more senior rabbi in Philadelphia who sent Hodes a fax just before he left: “All life is precious. Treat them in the order they come to you.”

I arrive at Hodes’s house an hour or so after being dropped off and find a large group gathered, which includes an impressive Middlebury contingent. There’s professor Claudia Cooper and her son, Nick Rogerson, who are in Ethiopia for several weeks with a group of students to study development practices; Mesfin, Hodes’s youngest son, home from college; the two medical students from Rochester; and two young Americans—one, a medical student—who are visiting from their home in Israel. Also among the group: Bayilign, a former child soldier during the civil war, who worked for Hodes before becoming a nurse; and a mother with her child. The boy had heart surgery in India several years ago, and the pair came to Addis for his checkup. Families like theirs have little money, so they stay at Hodes’s house while the patient sees doctors, recovers from surgery, or receives more care.


We form a circle, and one of the medical students distributes an eclectic mix of hats—fezzes, a Rastafarian hat with faux dreadlocks, cartoonish menorah-hats with floppy candles. Hodes begins each Shabbat with Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.” We join hands, and those of us unfamiliar with the lyrics sing timidly.

I’d sing out love between my brothers and my sisters

All over this la-a-and.

Across the room from me, Hodes leads the singing in a quiet, melodic voice. His eyes are downcast, and he looks tired. The sight of his menorah hat, its candles akimbo, is somehow humorless.

Next we sing the traditional song to welcome the Sabbath, “Shalom Aleichem.” Then Hodes circles the room, places both hands on each child’s head and whispers a blessing. He circles again, this time with several loaves of bread, breaking off pieces and tossing them to each guest.

Before I arrived in Ethiopia, Hodes flooded my email inbox with background reading. There was too much, honestly, and some seemed more relevant than others. The first email contained the remarks President Ron Liebowitz delivered when the College awarded Hodes an honorary degree in 2006; next was an Economist article comparing poverty in the Congo and Appalachia. Scrolling down, I found still more speeches, profiles, one of his son’s college essays, and more.

I skipped ahead to a commencement address he delivered at Brandeis in 2013. Some of the material he used—namely quotes from St. Francis of Assisi and Wayne Gretzky—I’d hear again during my week with him in Addis. His graduation speech began as many do, displaying humility as he questioned whether he was up to the challenge at hand.  However, he makes this familiar move surprising by equating his task as speaker with the marital duties weighing on Senator John Warner the night he became actress Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth husband. “I know what I have to do tonight; I’m just trying to think of a way of making it interesting.”

From there, he told an abridged version of his life’s story. Upon graduating from Middlebury in 1975 with a degree in geography, he hitchhiked to Fairbanks, Alaska. He set a very deliberate pace for his life there—he ran, hiked, and cross-country skied in the winter—and read prodigiously, mail ordering the major works of Leo Tolstoy, Miguel de Cervantes, Martin Buber, and others. No great epiphany led him to consider medical school, only an interest in international medicine dating back to junior high, when he’d read about Thomas Dooley, a missionary doctor.

He took his premed classes in Alaska and then matriculated at the University of Rochester. He became an internist, he said, because he liked the idea of having long-term relationships with patients. Next came his residency at Johns Hopkins and then Ethiopia.

Hodes’s speech at this point pivots to a story about an email his assistant had received from a college senior. The student was interested in medicine and had been offered a job in health care. His email asked “whether working with Dr. Hodes was worth risking a comfortable job in the U.S.”

“I wondered: ‘What can you learn from me?’” Hodes asked his audience rhetorically and then ventured an answer.

“I can teach you a completely different way of practicing medicine. I can show you how to start something from zero and grow it. I can teach you how one thing leads to another…and how things happen if you put years of your life into them.”

After reading the Brandeis speech, I opened another document titled “Grad Speech for the Self-Centered Sloths.”

“Dear Alon,” it began. “Congratulations on landing a job in health care. Great question you ask: ‘Is the work with Dr. Hodes worth RISKING a comfortable job here in the U.S.?’ (The exact wording is yours, the emphasis is mine).”

It took me a second, but I realized this was a response to the email Hodes referenced in his Brandeis speech. It was a sprawling 2,000 words and signed at the bottom by his assistant at the time, Menachem.

At the beginning, his tone was tongue-in-cheek.

“Hodes,” Menachem wrote, “chose to dedicate his life to the fascinating, vital, and unique problems of some of the sickest…most deformed…and occasionally the sweetest people on the planet. It is virtually all he does with his time. I have no idea why.”

“Rick’s a tough guy,” Menachem conceded, but “despite claims of daily meditation, he has the inner balance of a kid with cerebral palsy on a unicycle and the attention span of a hummingbird on amphetamines.”

And he had plenty to say about the frustrations that come with working as Hodes’s assistant.

“When Rick’s gone, it’s my job to go to the ATM [and] withdraw money…But what happens when Rick’s in Bangkok and the brothel eats his ATM card, leaving us on austerity for weeks? Huge problem, huge stress, complaints bombarding from all sides.”

Menachem started sounding less satirical and a bit more moralizing when he described the patients whose lives had been forever changed by Hodes: the child with severe scoliosis from polio, who Hodes found sleeping on the streets; the homeless girl who had her “mitral valve replaced in California and her Scheuermann’s kyphosis operated on while she was on anticoagulants in Mumbai”; the orphan with the “severe S-shaped spine” whose bus fare from the Sudanese border Hodes had reimbursed out of his own pocket.

Menachem concluded quoting Hodes, whom he’d asked for the proper response to Alon’s query.

“Tell me—what kind of asshole would consider maximizing comfort at age 22 when he could be doing something worthwhile? If the guy were married and had three college tuitions to pay, I’d understand it. But single and 22?”

“Most of the time I wish I had a comfortable American job like yours,” Menachem signed off cynically, wishing he, too, could  “scrutinize the cost-effectiveness of dunning patients for their CAT scan copayments.”

His parting advice: “Get a nice car, a comfy job, and hope for a big-boobed babe in the cubicle next door.”

I made a note to ask Hodes about Menachem once I was in Ethiopia. I even looked him up on LinkedIn and considered adding him.


Hodes’s hardest day, his “marathon day,” as he calls it, is on the day of rest. On Saturday at 8 a.m., he and I pile into the Suzuki, along with the two Rochester medical students, and the American medical student studying in Israel who’d attended the Shabbat dinner. We drive to Hodes’s second clinic, which is located at a private hospital called Cure.

The first patient is a boy who recently had spine surgery in Addis Ababa, when a team of American surgeons visited last. Hodes takes his hand and walks him back to the waiting room.

To Sister Tena, who is translating, he says, “Tell them that this boy was completely paralyzed. And now he’s walking.” The boy shyly takes a few steps and everyone claps and cheers.

While some surgeries are done in Ethiopia, the majority of Hodes’s spine patients fly to Ghana, where a prominent Ghanaian spine surgeon, Oheneba Boachie-Adjei, operates at a nonprofit hospital in Accra. He previously practiced in New York and now heads his own NGO. In
Accra, patients spend three to four months in traction, a process that involves a metal halo being fitted around each patient’s head and tightened against the skull. To allow for patient mobility, they are placed in  frames with wheels, a contraption that slightly resembles the luggage carts parked in hotel lobbies.

Each frame has a pulley system that attaches to the halo, allowing for tension to be applied, which elongates the patient’s spine. Nurses start the weight around five pounds, then gradually increase the weight over three weeks, ending at around half the patient’s body weight. In the pictures, traction looks painful and medieval, but the patients are often smiling, and playing cards or watching television. They’re taken out of their frames when they sleep and are hooked into a pulley system anchored at the bed’s head and foot.

When the patient is ready for surgery, Boachie-Adjei and his team cut into their backs and reconfigure the spine either by removing or reconstructing the vertebrae. They then screw the titanium rods into place for support. Afterward, patients remain in Ghana typically for about two months, undergoing physical therapy.

Today the Cure clinic has around a dozen new spine patients. Each new patient needs to be photographed in about twenty different positions, which Hodes does himself. If he had more money, he says, he’d hire a photographer. Because these deformities are three-dimensional in nature, the pictures allow him and the surgeons to see all the different angles and contours of the problem.

For each patient, Hodes will photograph their face, followed by a picture of them with the person who brought them to the clinic. He then has patients remove their shirts and photographs them facing forward, arms down. Next he photographs them to the side, asking them to stand with their arms folded across their chests. Sister Tena, with a Sharpie pen, draws lines at the top and bottom of the patients’ kneecaps and Hodes photographs how closely their arms, resting at their sides, come to the kneecaps, which gives him a sense of each patient’s lung capacity.

Then he measures the patients’ ATRs—the angle of trunk rotation—which is basically how sharply one side of their back differs from the other. Some of these patients have severe deformities—for instance, T-10, a vertebra in the middle back, might in reality be higher than T-1, which is just below the neck, because the patient’s spine is shaped like a saxophone.

Hodes has little use for the standard American scoliometer, which only measures up to 30 degrees. And in severe cases, the scoliometer app on his iPhone is useless because it also doesn’t go high enough (only to 50 degrees). With spines bent or twisted more than 50 degrees, Hodes uses an angle finder called a Dasco Pro, which sailors use to measure a boat’s tilt. He calls it “the boat.”

Mid-morning, Mesfin, Hodes’s youngest son, calls. There’s a funeral at the synagogue, and they need one more Jewish man to form a minyan, a group of 10 required for certain prayers.

“I’m not going to the synagogue with a waiting room like this,” Hodes says. Theologically, he justifies working on Saturday because if you save a life on the Sabbath, you can break all its rules.

The only other candidate is the medical student visiting from Israel, who volunteers. Hodes wields his iPhone in one hand and the young man’s in the other and arranges someone to take him to the funeral.

In the afternoon, Hodes sees a group of spine patients who’ve recently returned from Ghana. Since space is limited, he first sees the girls, then the boys. Both groups are chatty as they have spent the past several months constantly in one another’s presence. Some have plastic braces fitted around their torsos that they’ll keep on for at least six more months.

When surgeries are successful, they’re life changing—patients can breathe and eat normally for the first time in their lives. But they’re also incredibly risky. Four of Hodes’s patients have died on the operating table, and four others have become permanently paralyzed.

(One week later at Cure, I watched as Hodes explained to a crying woman that her son, who was able to walk when he left for Ghana, would return to Ethiopia completely paralyzed. “I don’t live in the world of miracles, I live in the world of medicine, and it’s not likely he’ll walk again,” he said.)

Later that afternoon, the medical student returns from the minyan and after Hodes has seen all his patients, we pack the car and return home. I sit at the dining room table and look over my notes while Hodes and the young man talk in the hallway. Kaleab organizes a pile of X-rays for Hodes to look at and then departs.

Eventually, the young man leaves, and Hodes comes in and sits down with me.

He’s beaming.

“That’s Alon!” he says.

He sees in my face that I don’t register.

“Alon, Dear Alon.”

After I finish laughing in utter disbelief, I wonder aloud how Menachem will respond to the news that Alon made his way to Ethiopia at long last.

Hodes gives me a confused look.

“Menachem didn’t write that email. I wrote that email!”

When Hodes was living in Alaska, he read “Three Questions,” a Tolstoy short story that has stuck with him to this day.  A king, hoping to forever avoid failure, seeks the answers to three questions: What is the right time to begin everything? Who were the right people to listen to? And what is the most important thing to do? Wise men offer answers, but none are conclusive, so the king consults a hermit, who he finds digging in front of his hut near the edge of a forest. The hermit gives no answer, but the king sees the hermit is tired and stays to help dig instead of returning to the palace.

Suddenly, a bleeding man stumbles from the forest and the king takes him into the hermit’s hut and treats his wounds into the night. The next morning, the man wakes and admits he’d been plotting to ambush the king on his return from the hut, but the king’s knights had found and wounded him. He’d just barely escaped. He pledges his loyalty to the king for having saved his life. As the king makes to leave, he asks the hermit the three questions once more.

But he had his answer, the hermit explains. Had he not taken pity on the hermit, his enemy would have ambushed him. Had he not treated his enemy’s wounds, they would not have made peace.

The only important time, then, is now. The most important person is the one you’re with. And the most important thing is to do good to him.

Wyatt Orme ’12 has written for High Country News, Al Jazeera, and National Public Radio. He’s currently  reporting from Rwanda, a posting funded, in part, by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Rick Hodes ’75 blogs about his work at rickhodes.org.

We Cannot Afford to Walk Away


I grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx with my two sisters and immigrant mother. On our stoop, neighbors socialized and celebrated with barbecues, domino games, and merengue dancing. These moments colored my childhood with the feeling of home. Yet I often went to sleep to the sound of gunshots. In those moments, I remained stiff in bed for fear of being discovered by the darkness outside. My building, the epicenter of the drug trade on my city block, was framed with sturdy metal railings that led to the entrance. I was nine years old when, one morning, I noticed that one of those railings had been dented with a deep groove, caused, my mother later told me, by one of our neighbors throwing his wife out a fifth-story window.

My mother, traumatized by the incident, lived in increasing fear that the violence my sisters and I witnessed would overtake our lives—that our visceral poverty meant that the neighbors with whom we lived and shared space could harm us. We were tied to the Bronx, but my mother’s anxieties spurred her into action. She secured boarding school spots for us outside of the city, and soon my sisters and I were driving to Connecticut in a borrowed car to pristine, manicured boarding-school campuses with full scholarships—and fear—in tow.

The disparity between my Bronx home and the luxury of New England’s unlocked doors, abundant food, and quiet nights made me realize other forms of violence existed. Though we ran away to escape tragedy, I encountered new horrors: racism, classism, and the quiet violence of gender policing that happens at a prestigious all-girls boarding school. I discovered that my all-girls school was not really for all girls. I received many tips about the nature of my clothes and the right way to speak. I learned I did not measure up to my peers. I came to believe that if my future stood any chance of success, I would do well to heed the glances, the unsolicited advice, and the public shaming that were for my “own good” in order to grow into the “right” kind of woman. My Black body, with its large curves, unruly hair—as well as the scent of poverty still clinging to my clothes—made me a prime target for victimization from my peers, my teachers, and a system of education that privileges those who don’t look like me. Fearing persecution, I learned to erase myself as a way to survive.

With the new aroma of boarding-school pedigree now on my khakis, doors of opportunity, otherwise closed, opened for me. I now operated as an exception to the rule because I’d learned to be something other than me. But despite the good intentions of others, I still felt as if I did not belong. The course work that ignored my reality, the reminders of the charity bestowed upon me, or the gangsta-themed parties my peers threw made it clear I was in borrowed space. I suffocated with the pain of being treated as if I were invisible.

Even in the hallowed halls of privilege, even years after fearful nights in the Bronx, my safety continued to be at stake. I was—and am still—not safe to be my full, authentic self. I, along with so many Black people, am obsessively preoccupied with my safety and the protection of my humanity. For us, waking up is an act of courage, an act of resistance against the sanitization of our existence.

In some measures, I am light-years from that Bronx stoop. I work at Yale—at the University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence—and our mission is to use the power of emotions to create a more effective and compassionate society. In that vein, I have the honor of supporting educators to develop their emotional intelligence skills so they can create emotionally intelligent and safe schools.

And yet I still walk in the world in fear.

I see Freddie Gray.

Eric Garner.

Trayvon Martin.

Renisha McBride.

Rekia Boyd.

Michael Brown.

Walter Scott.

And, most recently, Sandra Bland and Sam Dubose.

I ask myself: If they were not Black, would they still be alive today?

If I were in their exact situation, would my name be on that list?

Would yours?

These are important questions to consider because they require us to reflect on the role of race in our society. For generations we have lived in a society built upon the interests of white individuals and the belief that white people are dominant and normative. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of the arc of the moral universe. He said it is long, but it bends towards justice. And while we, as a nation, have made strides since King’s assassination, some days that arc seems longer than ever.

Even with the election of our nation’s first Black president, the war against Blackness is alive and well. Events in Baltimore, Staten Island, Ferguson, Charleston, and Cincinnati have highlighted this. As an educator, researcher, and activist, I think about how people, especially young people, are digesting these events. I think ceaselessly about Black youth and young people of color learning about themselves, about their lives. Many consume narratives of violence every day—living this violence the same way I did as a child in the Bronx— through police brutality, poverty, gentrification, and systemic injustice. They learn very early that their personhood is suspicious and terrifying. They are constantly on the verge of becoming Aiyanna Stanley-Jones or Tamir Rice.

And this terrifies me.

Dena1After Middlebury, when I taught middle school students in the Bronx, I would use statistics to engage my students in conversations about race and activism. A 2014 study by the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Education revealed that Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. Additionally, multiple studies have found that Black students receive harsher punishments than their white peers for the same infractions.

This continues into adulthood. Black people comprise nearly half of the 2.3 million incarcerated Americans, and they are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white people.

I would look at my beautiful, curious students, and I would want to damn those statistics.

While I could not control the chaos of my students’ lives—the instability of their homes, the uncertainty of their next meal, the loud neighbors that kept them from sleep—I  provided them with a safe and loving classroom where they could not only learn but thrive. I taught them necessary survival skills like code switching, writing and speaking persuasively, and understanding how data and media can be manipulated.

The school where I taught—with its overcrowded classrooms, rodent infestation, lack of textbooks, overworked and sometimes disengaged teachers, and prisonlike school safety guards—sent children the message that their dreams could only live within the school’s metal window gates. So I took them out of those gates. We went on class trips to museums and libraries. We walked the campus at Columbia, where I earned my doctorate. And we traveled north to Vermont, to my dear Middlebury, because I wanted my students to know they deserved space at our nation’s finest institutions.

I taught my students how to create meaningful actions to challenge and change the problematic systems that they inhabit. And I equipped them with love, kindness, and acceptance so they could mediate the violence many of them were already experiencing. I showed my students they mattered despite everything else in their lives telling them otherwise. I answered the phone when they called. I listened when they needed someone to listen. I stayed after school when they were confused by something I had taught earlier. And I told them I loved them every opportunity I had. I also taught my students how to seek support and advocate for themselves—and for others. I included their narratives and stories into my lessons so they could learn to value and love themselves, so they could feel proud of who they were, and so they wouldn’t have to endure the trauma of erasing themselves as I did.

But this wasn’t enough. I continued to fear for my students’ lives at home and in school. And this fear is what motivates my life’s trajectory to ensure safety for all. It is the reason I researched teachers’ preparedness to confront bullying during my doctoral studies. It is why I now travel the country and world to equip adults and youth with the skills of emotional intelligence. It’s why I’m writing this essay.

My success does not demonstrate what Black folks can achieve. It’s a reminder of what is kept from us. And I have to own the many privileges I have that allow me to tell my own story and speak up against a system that benefits me.

I am a light-skinned Black woman, which means my Blackness is preferred over the Blackness of my darker-skinned sisters and brothers. I have greater proximity to whiteness, to the acceptable standards of beauty. I’ve also been granted access to prestigious networks of power through attending and working at some of the nation’s elite secondary schools and universities. However, I still do not have the privilege to walk in the world without fear for my safety. I am still Black. I’m still more likely to be subject to the structural violence of dilapidated neighborhoods, subpar health care, failing schools, over-policing, and—worse—the insidious brainwashing that manipulates Black people into hating and devaluing our own existence.

Even in this highly racialized environment, however, there’s room for healing and growth. I strive to do work that empowers others to realize their value and potential and to fight for justice. However, the work should not rest only on the shoulders of people of color. This work for racial justice is all of our work. It’s a collective struggle for our shared humanity. Racial equity is a national imperative that requires purging our hate of Blackness and revising the way our country functions.

We cannot shift our current state of affairs if we shy away from painful and difficult discourse about racial injustice. These conversations have the potential to enlighten us so we can prevent doing inadvertent harm through ignorance and implicit bias—so we can truly see each other, and so we can begin to heal.

We cannot afford to walk away, to turn off our screens, and to carry on with our comfortable lives. None of us, especially those in power, have the right to be comfortable. It’s through discomfort we learn and transform most. Questioning, challenging, and curbing racial injustices is everyone’s job.

All of us must be compassionate. We must be open to other experiences, and we must learn to accept others and ourselves for everything we are—and everything we are not. We must fight for ourselves and for each other. And we must begin to shift the violent course of history to one of peace, love, and mutual understanding. I have faith in us. What I ask is simple: for Black lives to be seen, to be acknowledged as human, to be treated with dignity. Our shared humanity depends on this.

Dena Simmons ’05 is the director of implementation at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She writes for Bright, which can be found at medium.com/bright and is a veteran of the TED talk circuit. Her TEDx talks titled “Its 10:00 p.m. Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” and  “What Do You Do If a Student Comes At You With Scissors?” are available on YouTube. In November, she is speaking at TED Talks Live in New York.

A Tale of Two Writers


Jay Parini owes his friendship with Gore Vidal to a stranger’s hospitality. Planning a sabbatical for the spring of 1986, Parini mentioned to then Italian Professor Ugo Skubikowski that he wanted to spend the time in Italy cultivating his ethnic roots. As it happened, Skubikowski’s mother had a friend with an empty house on the Amalfi coast, and she was delighted to rent it to Parini and his young family.

Soon after they arrived, Parini learned that the villa perched on the cliffs above their terrace belonged to Gore Vidal, whose work he’d long admired. So he jotted a quick note: Dear Mr. Vidal, he recalls writing. I’m a college professor, a poet, a novelist, and a critic, and I’ll be living at this address for the next six months. If you ever have the time, I’d love to meet you. He then gave the note to a local tobacconist, who saw Vidal most afternoons when the writer stopped in for a newspaper. “It was a message in a bottle,” says Parini. “I had no idea what would happen.”

A few days later, he and his wife, Devon Jersild, were tending to their two sons—the younger only a few weeks old—when someone pounded on the door. “I’m Gore Vidal,” the man bellowed. “Are you Jay Parini?” Vidal invited them to dinner later that week at the Ravello mansion he shared with his longtime partner, Howard Austen.

The evening was lovely, Parini says, full of laughter and good wine. He was captivated by Vidal’s wit and expansive knowledge of literature, politics, and history. Yet Vidal also seemed vulnerable. When they sat for drinks in Vidal’s study, Parini noticed on the walls framed magazine covers—Time, Newsweek, and Life among them—bearing his host’s image. “Why did you hang all those pictures of yourself?” Parini asked. “To remind me every morning of who I am,” Vidal said.

Their friendship blossomed. Many afternoons, Vidal would stop by and pick Parini up en route to Amalfi for drinks and conversation at the Bar Sirena. “We had some kind of visceral intellectual connection,” says Parini, founded on a mutual love of Mark Twain and Henry James, liberal political views, and an eclecticism that made both writers hard to pigeonhole.

They shared a few friends who lived in London, including the writer Stephen Spender, and an antipathy toward Ronald Reagan. “Gore called him our ‘acting president,’” says Parini. Parini saw Vidal as a model for the kind of writer and activist he was striving to be: outspoken, courageous, and committed to engaging with the world. Vidal saw him as the son he never had, and perhaps the key to defying what he called “the great eraser” of time. “He wanted an heir of some kind, or a disciple,” Parini says. However, “this was southern Italy, and there really wasn’t much traffic to his door. I represented the outside world of books and discourse. And the conversation just continued for the rest of his life.”

That 25-year conversation forms the heart of Parini’s new biography, Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal. Parini, who is the D.E. Axinn Professor of English and Creative Writing, has produced a book that blends reporting, literary criticism, and personal recollection. Parini’s portrait of Vidal is nuanced—clear-eyed yet sympathetic. He captures this gifted but difficult man, illuminating not only Vidal’s place in the American canon but also a moment in history—pre-Twitter and partisan gridlock—when literate individuals with complex ideas could become cultural icons.

Like its subject, Empire of Self is both serious and entertaining. “Most writers’ lives are dull,” says Parini, whose 25 books include biographies of William Faulkner, Robert Frost, and John Steinbeck. “They just sit at a desk and grind away. Not Gore. He really had the life.”


VidalEugene L. Vidal Jr.—Gore was his mother’s maiden name—grew up in Washington, D.C., surrounded by power and privilege. His mother, Nina, was a narcissistic senator’s daughter. His father, Eugene, was a West Point graduate who went on to become an Olympic decathlete, professional football player, and aviator. Both philanderers, they squabbled incessantly and neglected Gore, who went to live with his maternal grandparents. His grandfather, a populist lawyer who served as one of Oklahoma’s first two senators, was blind. Vidal became his eyes, reading to him in the Senate, as well as from his vast home library. He described his grandmother, whom he called “Tot,” as “my real mother” and “the woman who raised me.”

Politicians and celebrities were part of his upbringing. “Gore would tell me stories about Amelia Earhart being his babysitter, or about the time Huey Long came to dinner and read him a bedtime story,” says Parini. “He’d talk about going to Hyannis Port and staying with the Kennedys, or attending dinners at the White House.”

A lackluster student, Vidal bounced from prep school to prep school, eventually graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy, where he excelled at debate. Eschewing college, he enlisted in the Army at the height of WWII, pulling family strings to land at an Army air base in Colorado Springs, where he began what Parini calls his “lifelong pursuit” of cruising for sex with men. He surprised himself by passing the test to qualify for the sea-transport division and became a first mate on a ship bound for Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. In his spare time, he wrote. (The setting of his first novel, Williwaw—a local word for “sudden storm” in those waters—is on a similar ship.)

After a bout of hypothermia, Vidal was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and sent to a Los Angeles hospital, becoming infatuated with Hollywood. Savvy, restless, and compulsively prolific, he used his charms and connections to secure a position as an associate editor at Dutton—the only office job he ever held—and a publishing contract. He produced six novels before he turned 26.

Then he got really busy. A bold, facile writer with a grasp of politics and the public Zeitgeist, he churned out novels, essays, plays, works of nonfiction, TV adaptations, and movie screenplays (including Ben Hur). His 1948 novel The City and the Pillar broke ground in its detailing of adolescent homosexuality. Parini is among the critics who consider Vidal’s historical novels—Lincoln, Burr, and Julian (about the fourth-century Roman emperor)—his best works of fiction. “But his essays are his master works,” says Parini, who remembers reading, long before he met Vidal, Vidal’s magazine pieces against the Vietnam War and his personal reflections on literature. “He was our Montaigne.”

Vidal also dabbled in politics, running unsuccessfully for Congress twice. Handsome and trenchant, he became a sought-after television commentator, once famously calling William F. Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. By the time Parini met him, he was one of America’s foremost public intellectuals, recognized on both sides of the Atlantic.

Parini began keeping notes on Vidal soon after their first dinner in Ravello, thinking he’d stockpile the material for a future novel or memoir. “His conversation was glorious,” he says. “He was a hilarious storyteller and raconteur. He liked to talk about people. ‘History is just the higher gossip,’ he would say. He was always dropping names.” Parini adopts a booming, patrician voice: “‘Then Tennessee Williams said to me…’ ‘I was dining with Princess Margaret…’  He was a very bright flame, and I was drawn to it.”

After Parini’s sabbatical ended, the two continued their conversations—over the phone or during spontaneous rendezvous at Vidal’s request (if not expense). “He would call up and say, ‘Jay, next week I’ve got to be in Vienna. Meet me on Tuesday and stay with me until Thursday.’  And I was crazy enough sometimes to just drop everything and do it!” Impulsivity had its perks: through Vidal, Parini met Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Frederic Prokosch, and Anthony Burgess. “I wouldn’t have gotten to visit Graham Greene, or have dinner with Alberto Moravia without Gore,” he says. “For me as a young man, it was just amazing to meet so many of these people who were like heroes to me.”

Still, when in the early ’90s Vidal asked Parini to take over the biography that Newsweek book editor Walter Clemons had abandoned, Parini said no. He didn’t want to feel pressured to sacrifice truth for friendship. Vidal was a well-known narcissist, and Parini feared he’d try to seize control of the narrative and whitewash his image. “Gore would have been constantly harping, saying, ‘Oh, don’t mention I was drunk at that party!  Take out the bit about Mailer hitting me in the mouth!’”  But Parini did promise to write a book after Vidal died.

This prospect pleased Vidal, who took to introducing Parini as “Jay Boswell” after James Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s famous biographer. He seemed to relish always being on the record. “Are you writing this down?” he’d often ask Parini. Parini was. Over the years, he conducted countless hours of interviews—not just with Vidal but with many of those who knew him best, including Tom Stoppard, Gay Talese, Susan Sarandon, Edmund White, Erica Jong, and Howard Austen.  Parini drafted parts of the book over 20 years ago, then updated these sections before publication.

Being close to his subject made Parini’s work both easier and more fraught. “When you write about people you never knew, you’re dealing with many removes. You’re talking to Robert Frost’s granddaughter, for instance,” he says. “I could never know what his day actually looked like. But I knew Gore’s world inside and out. We talked on the phone every week, sometimes every day. “‘Jaaaaaay,’” says Parini, doing his Vidal impression. “‘I’m in Bangkok. What time is it there?’ ‘Gore, it’s 3 in the morning!  I wish you would look at the clock.’  My wife could never tell if I was talking to Gore or my mother. She said I had the same tone with both.”


PariniParini struggled with how much to incorporate himself into the story. He considered turning the book into a memoir about their friendship but ultimately decided a serious study of Vidal’s life and work was most needed. Still it felt wrong to overlook their friendship.

“I wanted to stay out of it but not deceive the reader,” he says. “I thought, ‘How can I let it be known that I was there?’”

He settled on adding brief first-person vignettes between chapters. “A late idea,” Parini says. Though Parini makes subtle appearances throughout the biography, the evocative inter-chapters make his presence most plainly felt: At lunch when Vidal urges Susan Sontag, who had just published The Volcano Lover, to “never ever try your hand at fiction again.” On a nostalgic tour of Vidal’s beloved old estate, Edgewater, on the banks of the Hudson. Aboard a fractious boat ride capped by Leonard Bernstein calling Vidal a “star fucker.”  “In the end, I thought it would make a better biography if people knew we were friends,” Parini says.

Parini sees Vidal’s foibles and flaws, but also—as a good biographer—presents them without fanfare or judgment. Vidal could be pompous and egocentric, seeking always to expand his “empire of self.”  He had an insatiable need for affirmation, which Parini attributes to Vidal as a child feeling unloved by his alcoholic mother. “He’d call me up and ask, ‘What are they saying about me in Brazil?’” Parini says. “A tremendous number of people hated him, because he was at times an arrogant son of a bitch. But at the core, he was shy and insecure.”

This was small consolation for those to whom he was rude and cruel—behavior alcohol exacerbated. When Parini won a fellowship to Oxford, Vidal remarked, “They don’t let in wops like you, do they really?”  But despite his sharp tongue, Vidal was thin-skinned. He never forgot personal slights or bad reviews. With his literary rivals, he could be petty and childish. Describing his first meeting with Truman Capote, Vidal later told Parini he thought the man was “a colorful ottoman. When I sat down on it, it squealed.” Vidal, introduced to Mailer in 1952, asked him how long his grandparents had lived. When Mailer said they’d died when they were around 70, Vidal said, “I’ve got you!” since his had lived much longer.

Vidal also struggled with his sexuality. Though he was predominantly attracted to men, he did sleep with a few women, “which was really not any fun for him,” says Parini. He preferred to think of himself as bisexual or as a “heterosexual man who liked to mess around with men.”

“Gore wanted to be straight,” Vidal’s partner, Austen, told Parini. “It would have made his public life a lot easier. When he tried to go straight, he found girls who were boyish.”  Vidal called gay men “degenerates” or “fags,” though he claimed to be joking. His gay novels reveal a clear “note of self-hatred,” writes Parini. Still, Vidal never denied having sex with men and in his later years was fairly open about it. Parini says he considered sex “an annoying need” that had to be fulfilled. “He really hated having to take the time for it.”  This didn’t, however, preclude him from racking up thousands of sexual conquests.

The one man Vidal didn’t have sex with—except at the very outset of their relationship—was Austen. “Gore’s one emotional connection was to Howard,” Parini says. “It was not sexual, but it was genuine.”  Smart and down to earth, Austen managed all the details of their busy life together, from travel arrangements to shopping. He played chess with Vidal in the evenings, mixed a mean sidecar at cocktail hour, and always set guests at ease. Best of all, he kept Vidal in line. “Howard could prick his balloon in a good way,” says Parini. “Gore could be pretentious and blown up. And Howard would say,” Parini adopts a high-pitched Bronx accent, “‘Gore, stop it!  Just stop it, Gore!’ And Gore would.”

Vidal was never especially demonstrative, but his devotion became clear in the waning days of Austen’s life. “When Howard got sick, Gore moved heaven and earth,” says Parini. “He flew a special hospital plane all the way from Naples to LA at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.” In one vignette, Parini recalls that the only time he ever saw his friend cry was a few years after Austen’s death. They were having drinks and Vidal put on a recording of his late companion singing “Hello, Young Lovers.”

The more sensitive the material, the more dispassionately the biographer recounts it. Parini demonstrates his subject’s unrepentant alcoholism by straightforwardly chronicling Vidal’s frequent boozy dinners and wee-hour benders and the boorish behavior they engendered. But as Vidal’s friend, Parini freely acknowledges how upsetting it was. “What was I going to say: ‘Gore, don’t drink so much?’  Every once in a while I’d try to pour him a weak scotch—that’s as far as I would go. But he only got worse and worse. In the end he was drinking a double scotch for breakfast. It was hard for me.”

The ’90s were the heyday of their friendship, says Parini. Vidal “was still burning at a good pace and traveling a lot.”  They sought each other out, meeting up in New York, Boston, Washington, London, Salzburg, and always Ravello. Vidal opened doors for Parini, but the gesture went both ways. Parini introduced Vidal to, among others, Hillary Clinton and Noam Chomsky, whom Vidal had always wanted to meet. Vidal also leaned on Parini in academic settings, which intimidated him. “Whenever he traveled to Harvard, he’d want me there as his ‘academic bodyguard,’” says Parini. “He thought I had some special way of dealing with professors because I’d spent my life in universities.”


V&PVidal and Parini became enthusiastic collaborators, trading ideas and drafts of their work. Both favored historical novels and Parini valued Vidal’s insightful comments. “From early on, Gore was one of my first or second readers,” he says. Parini wrote a chunk of Benjamin’s Crossing sitting at Vidal’s pool. One day he asked his host if he thought it acceptable for two characters to talk about Kierkegaard for 30 pages. “Of course,” Vidal said. “But only if your characters are sitting in a railway car, and the reader knows there’s a bomb under the seat.”  When the film adaptation of Parini’s Tolstoy novel, The Last Station, was nominated for an Academy Award, Vidal threw Parini a big party in LA.

Vidal’s fluidity across genres inspired Parini, who had been writing poems, novels, and essays since college. “Early on, I think I unconsciously looked at him and said, ‘Whoa, I don’t have to hold back on anything!’  From him, I learned to have courage and not hesitate. If you feel like you’ve got an angle on something, and you have a way with words, and you have access to the press, you damn well better use it.”

Their politics, in fact—liberal, pacifist, populist—were very similar. When Parini was 16, he published his first piece, in support of gun control, in the Scranton Times. He attended protest marches in Washington during the Vietnam War. At the start of the Iraq War, Vidal was still railing against military intervention—distributing Bush-bashing pamphlets and speaking to crowds of young people who’d never heard of him. “He cared—and he was right!” says Parini. “He said in 2003, ‘If we go in and topple Saddam Hussein, it will create a power vacuum and mad men will rush in to fill it. The whole Middle East will come apart.’ How accurate was that? He had a global perspective that was very deep. He always understood how the pieces of the world fit together.”

At key political moments, Parini misses Vidal, who died in 2012. “When the Supreme Court voted in favor of gay marriage, we would have immediately been on the phone talking about it,” he says. “He would’ve been amazed. Obamacare? He would’ve been delighted. And the consequences of Citizens United in this current election would just drive him crazy.”

Parini acknowledges that it’s probably for the best Vidal isn’t around to read Empire of Self. “He would be furious!” says Parini. “He wanted always to have a perfect, homogenized, beautified picture of himself.” While not that, Parini’s biography does capture Vidal with the kind of unflinching eye that Vidal himself cast so vigorously upon society. Surely there is no tribute more fitting.

Susan H. Greenberg is a freelance writer in Vermont.