Weathering Storms and Riding Waves: Interview with Jim Acee (Part 1)

By Molly Herber

May 21, 2015

Jim Acee, a Pittsburgh native, took the first NOLS semester course, a Semester in the Rockies in 1974. After that, he filled various positions: a NOLS instructor in the Rockies, Baja, and Utah, scrap metal salesman, corporate marketer, professor, director of Boise State’s Center for Executive Management Development, caregiver, dancer, whitewater rafter, and more. We caught up with him to hear the stories of his adventures (and he has many) with NOLS and beyond.

What led you to NOLS?


jim-acee-student-1974 Jim Acee, ready for the expedition. Photo courtesy of Jim Acee.

After graduating college, I was trying to be a naturalist on my own. I spent most of my time between the woods and the library trying to figure things out. Occasionally, I even consulted with a not-too-distant neighbor and wild food expert, Euell Gibbons, most known for his appetite for cereal and wild hickory nuts. And after doing that for close to a year I decided that I needed help …My brother knew someone who went to NOLS so I called NOLS.

"Cavin’" Haven Holsapple answered at NOLS. He asked what outdoor activities/topics interested me. Climbing? Yes. Plant and animal identification? Yes. Hiking? Yes. Canoeing? Yes. Geology? Yes. Horsepacking? Yes. Spelunking? What's that? Oh … caving … sure, why not. After several more yeses he suggested that I take the first offering of a NOLS three-and-a-half-month semester course on all those topics, to be conducted in Wyoming and surrounding states. And I said, YES!

What can you tell us about the first semester course?

As a student, I loved my semester course. Since we were the first three-and-a-half-month semester course NOLS offered, all the best instructors at the school wanted to be part of it. Our instructors for the semester and my instructor’s course afterwards included Bruce Hampton, Peter Simer, Haven Holsapple, Jim Halfpenny, Tap Tapley, the Allen brothers, Ken Clanton, Gnat Larson, Bill Scott, George Hunker, Kim Fadiman, Bart Womack, and several more whose names escape me after all these years.

It was a real exciting time, to do the first semester course—a big step for the school, and I think everybody was really into it, and it was a great experience for everybody. [On this course, Jim and his group attempted to summit the Grand Teton. You can read his tent mate Jay Margolis’ account of the climb in the Spring 2014 edition of The Leader]

What was being an instructor like in the 1970s?

The competition to be the best and the most knowledgeable in everything that you could possibly do at the School was intense. We used to even have little inservices, you know … but it was a good competition, it was a shared competition to be the very best. It was a wonderful time at NOLS. I still hear really good things about NOLS instructors, from the hearsay and the discussions … I think nature brings out the best in people most of the time.

How did you find yourself in Baja?

As an instructor, I loved the mountains, but climbing was not my passion, and fishing was, so I devised a plan to get hired in Baja. Instructing at NOLS Baja was a highly desired position and only long-time instructors got hired there. So, as a neophyte NOLS Wyoming instructor I decided to take a Baja course as a student…

I worked hard on the course to learn all I could and then camped on a nearby beach for several weeks afterwards. I knew that on occasion, intended Baja instructors never showed up, as reliable transportation to NOLS Baja in those days was hit and miss due to storms, road washouts, ferry breakdowns, etc. As luck would have it, someone didn't show up and there I was, already certified as a NOLS mountain instructor and knowledgeable about the Baja course offering.

Once hired there, I returned again and again to work from September to May and live with Tap Tapley, Bart Womack, Lucy Smith, and Walter Fish. What a great team of instructors, and what fun adventures we had! [Read more about these adventures in Part 2 of this interview]


jim-acee-closeup-1974 Resting a moment. Photo courtesy of Jim Acee.
Can you talk about some of the changes you’ve witnessed in the School?

The nature of the students had already started to change just a little bit [by 1975 when I began instructing]… because NOLS became popular…and the word going around with the instructors was gee, the students just aren’t quite as tied to nature as they used to be...In those early years, you had some pretty dedicated rugged outdoors folks, kids with sort a real close tie inherently to nature. And that definitely was me too, I just felt that that’s where I belonged.

[In 1975, a group of NOLS instructors went on strike in response to the conflict that arose between Executive Director Paul Petzoldt and the Board of Directors over the School’s finances. Petzoldt was removed from the director position, and talk of an instructor strike arose. Acee shares his perspective of what he saw and did at the time.]

…The board of directors…maneuvered Paul out, and wanted to be…more directive in terms of telling instructors what to do…The school was run by instructors at that point, and the director, which isn’t the normal way things are run in an organization. And so the board wanted to change that, and instructors didn’t like that concept, and so we all got together and decided to go on strike. Q Belk was the first course leader with the first course that would’ve not gone out because of the strike…and I was the patrol leader…so we were the first two instructors who had to make the decision to go on strike, and we decided to do that.

There were instructors that didn’t, and Peter Simer decided that he wanted to side with the board of directors, and so they replaced John Hamren and put Peter Simer in… I’m not trying to say anybody was right or wrong on this, I don’t know who was right or wrong, I don’t even know if there was a right or wrong, there was just a perspective and another perspective. And you know as it turns out the board has become very strong, apparently, and very efficient and effective, apparently, the School’s thriving, so maybe in the long run that was the absolute best decision to make. Maybe other people would have a different opinion of things. At that particular time I was on the side of the strike and I can’t even remember the particular details of things, it was so many years ago. It was a tumultuous time…Instructors were talking about starting their own school, going elsewhere…and some did. Some got really hurt feelings and never came back, or came back much later after the dust had settled.

I can’t say [how long the strike was] in terms of days…but that went on for at least 10 days, if not a couple weeks, in my remembrance…then the board picked Peter and Peter started directing and some of the instructors starting going out on courses, and then things went on from there.

[Jim eventually left NOLS and worked in industry for a while, leaving work to care for his wife as a self-named “house husband and caregiver” when she fell ill. He decided to stay retired after she passed away, eventually remarrying and dedicating himself to whitewater rafting and learning to dance.]

How has NOLS been relevant to you over time?

NOLS instructors used a teaching model that I used successfully over and over in my own teaching of outdoor skills after NOLS, and as a teacher of marketing and management at Boise State. The teaching model is: "Explain, Demonstrate, and Do." Tell em', show em', then have them do it themselves.

Another primary focus of courses at NOLS in the old days was exhibiting "good expedition behavior:" learning to live with differences amongst the group and subordinating yourself to the good of the group. You probably still have that model too, I'd bet. I can't tell you how many times I consciously or unconsciously manifested good expedition behavior in my life. My late wife used to ask me over and over, “How in the world can you get along with those wacky or irritating folks on your river trips?" I'm thinking it was probably my NOLS training … or maybe just because I was the middle son, who is typically the compromiser!

One more unsolicited comment:

My NOLS experience has had a profound influence on my life. It gave me competence and confidence in the outdoors. It gave me a perspective on leadership, group behavior, and team building that I’ve used in both my outdoor and business careers. It fostered in me a sensitivity to environmental concerns and gave me methods to preserve and protect the environment. And, it indoctrinated me on proactive thinking for the safety of myself and others under my leadership influence in the outdoors. In the hundreds of whitewater river trips that I have led, I’ve only had one evacuation. NOLS was the most memorable experience of my life.

Find out how Jim survived seven days of being stranded on an island in the Sea of Cortez with no food or water, plus more of his stories from the NOLS Mexico branch, in Part 2 of this interview.

Read more stories from the early days of NOLS through the eyes of former instructors Andy Carson and Nancy Pallister.


Written By

Molly Herber

Molly is a NOLS instructor and writer. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. When she's not scouting the next post for the NOLS Blog, she's running and climbing on rocks in Wyoming. Follow her on Instagram @mgherber

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