A gentle, unassuming man with a thirst for wilderness and a huge commitment to our natural world left us last Friday. Less than two months shy of his 94th birthday, Abbott Thayer Fenn slipped away peacefully at his Middlebury home in the early hours of April 3. Few people have left such a lasting mark on so many, and done so in such a caring and unaffected way. His most enduring legacy may be the legions of young men whose lives he touched at his beloved Keewaydin Camps on the shores of Lake Dunmore in Salisbury. The oldest private camp in this country, Keewaydin flourished over the 60+ years of Abbott’s close involvement, instilling a love of the outdoors and adventure in generations of campers.
I have a long and rich personal history with Abbott, tracing back to my middle school days in Fitchburg, MA, where Abbott taught me mathematics, presided over my 9th grade home room, and coached my ice hockey and baseball teams. He was a patient but no-nonsense teacher and coach, focused on both the fundamentals and intricacies of learning and sports. As a former Harvard University hockey goalie, he spoke with authority, demanding just the right kind of discipline, never heavy-handed, always sincerely and personally interested in his “pupils”.
Following my ninth grade year, Abbott shepherded me through a life-changing experience on one of his signature Keewaydin Wilderness Canoe Trips in northern Quebec. For five weeks, I paddled and portaged with ten other 14-16 year old boys, Abbott, co-leader and a Cree Indian guide named Matthew Neeposh on a grueling but exhilarating trip in wood-canvas canoes. From Lake Mistassini we canoed to the Broadback River, then down the Rupert River to James Bay. I didn’t know it then, but the experience propelled me on a path towards natural history studies and conservation. I will always be profoundly thankful to Abbott for that gift. As a fellow birder and former bird bander, Abbott maintained his keen interest and supportive involvement, both with my own life and VCE’s success.
Two quotes from others say much about this extraordinary person. A former Keewaydin staff referred to Abbott as “a man of wisdom, strength and principle”, while a local environmentalist marveled that he was “a warrior for the natural world.” Add to that a caring, generous, adventurous, and deeply committed spirit. Abbott Fenn touched many lives – may you continue to paddle the quiet waters, Abbott!