by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II
Dr. Paul B Sears (left) and Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II (right), Taos, New Mexico, June 1986. At a reunion of M.S. degree students of the Yale Conservation Programs of 1952-1953.
At 92, I feel it is a good time to write about a few people who helped to change the direction and focus of my life: my mentors. Besides my parents, siblings, and other members of my family, these others were most important in making me who I am and what I do today.
The first was Frank Trevor, my biology teacher at Millbrook School in Millbrook, New York. He had me banding birds when I was 13! This is a Federal program under the U. S. Department of the Interior where wild birds are captured, banded on the leg with serial numbered aluminum bands, then released. Mr. Trevor had a Federal Bird Banding Permit for this purpose and he thoroughly involved his students in the program. Wow, I certainly learned a lot about birds from him over the five years under his mentorship! When I was 18 and ready to go to college, he helped me get my own Master Bird Banding Permit, which I have had for 74 years! Now I teach students age 12-16 how to band birds through the Summer Camp program at Thorne Nature Experience (formerly Thorne Ecological Institute), the nonprofit organization that I founded 67 years ago in Boulder.
I went from Millbrook School to Yale University, where I earned a Bachelor’s degree in biology and a Master’s degree in conservation (now called environmental studies). My mentor there was Dr. Paul B. Sears who founded and was head of the Yale Conservation Program where over a two year period I did my Master’s studies. It was here that I learned the importance of nonprofit organizations and vowed to start one of my own soon. Dr. Sears and his unique program was 40 years ahead of its time and it opened my eyes to a whole new life’s work in environmental education. For example, he felt it was important for his students to have broad knowledge in many different areas, what we now call interdisciplinary thinking. Dr. Sears was the one who brought this kind of thinking to Yale in 1950, thanks to the support of The Conservation Foundation and its director, Fairfield Osborne. During our weekly seminars with Dr. Sears we learned much about the philosophy and ethics of the environment, environmental education, and ecology in general.
In 1960, due to his age and strict Yale requirements, Dr. Sears was forced to retire. So he moved to Taos, New Mexico for the rest of his life. With his retirement, the Conservation Program came to an end, but its concept was soon taken up by the Yale School of Forestry, which had been founded in 1900 by Gifford Pinchot, who also founded the U. S. Forest Service. So that school became the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (F&ES). Whew, that’s a long name isn’t it? It was just changed in July 2020 to the Yale School of the Environment, a bit shorter!
Many years later, in the late 1980s, I visited Dr. Sears in Taos. He was then in his late 90s. I asked him: “What was the most important thing to teach children?” Without hesitation he said, “to see.” He meant to see with all senses: sight, smell, touch, and hearing. He was indeed very wise!
In the summer of 1947, right between my years at Millbrook and my years at Yale, I traveled west for the first time in my life by train from New York to Cody, Wyoming to spend eight weeks at Valley Ranch, the oldest guest ranch in Wyoming. There I met Roy Glasgow, a cowboy, wrangler, and “mountain man.” He was part Shoshone and had great indigenous knowledge of nature and the environment. He took me “under his wing” and taught me about living and surviving in the wilderness, which surrounded Valley. I gained a deep love of nature and wild places from Roy’s caring mentorship. I swore to myself that I would someday live in the Rocky Mountain area, and indeed in 1954 I moved to Boulder!
In 1969 my family and I purchased Valley Ranch, which was a “dream come true” to me. Our guests came from all over the country and world. I enjoyed connecting them to nature and the wilderness. I wanted to live there for the rest of my life, but it did not work out financially, so I returned to Boulder in 1987 where I love being a teacher and mentor to young people.
I hope as you grow up that you will be as lucky as I was and have important mentors in your life. Be aware of their importance to you. Learn from them and honor them!
Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check www.thornenature.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (303) 499-3647.