I have known Sam for several years, but wanted to sit down with him to learn a bit more. This is a bit of a meandering read, but for those of you who know Sam, won’t be surprised by that.
What is your original connection to NOLS?
I took an Outward Bound course in North Carolina in 1976 and really liked the climbing. I chatted with one of the Instructors about what I could do next, and she told me about this little mountaineering school in Wyoming. I wrote to them at “box AAA,” waiting a bit, and got a catalog back in the mail, which was on newsprint.
I stared at that catalog for a while and might have worn it out, but I eventually signed up for a Wind River Mountaineering course. Scott Fisher was the CL, and we wore wool sweaters and knickers, and we didn’t have harnesses, drove around in cattle trucks, had our remaining food taken away with five days left, and had to walk out without the instructors. That was 1977.
The course was amazing. Our walkout without food was an incredible experience. The unique experience really spoke to what NOLS did back then. Working together as a small team, realizing that you can manage yourself without food while covering 45 miles, was hard, but it taught me a level of resilience that I didn’t know I had. Throughout my life, I have looked back on that depth of resilience that I discovered and knew I could call on it when needed. I knew that I could always handle more.
What else stands out to you from that course?
I vividly remember reaching the end of Dinwoody Glacier at the moraine, and this older couple, maybe in their 60s, was there. We found out they had been out for 21 days! Not as long as us, but quite a trip. I said to myself, I want to be doing that when I am in my 60s.
46 years later, you are working for NOLS. How did that start?
Entrepreneurs tend to burn themselves out because they want to do everything themselves. I was a restaurateur running Magnolia Cafe in Philadelphia. I loved it but felt the burnout coming and knew that I needed a break if I was going to keep it up.
I recalled my days with Outward Bound and NOLS and suspected that was what I needed, so one January, I went to Florida and took another Outward Bound course. It was the escape I needed, and the cafe was still standing when I returned, so I was hooked.
The following year, I took a sea kayaking course in Baja. John Gans, Steff Kesler, and Greg Kid …. were my instructors. A bit into the course, the instructors were getting a bit agitated with us because we were constantly late, often because of one specific person who was struggling. So, one morning, our group decided to help this one person out and work together as a team to show up on time. The Instructors were somewhat confused about what was happening and tried to interject themselves. I sometimes tend to be a direct communicator and simply told John that he needed to leave us alone and that we would get sorted. We were on time. I don’t think he was used to being spoken to like that! A few days later, John pulled me aside and asked if I had ever considered working for NOLS.
As ideas do, that one sat with me. I spent a few years thinking about it and working on my mountaineering skills and eventually applied to be an Instructor, but I was denied. BUT I got an incredibly gracious letter explaining why and giving me some ideas to improve my chances. I felt grateful for that. So, I kept working and applied again the next year and was accepted. I took my IC in 1992 and have worked for NOLS every year since.
Outside of NOLS, tell me about your professional work background.
I graduated from Georgetown in the foreign service school. I had been working at Clyde’s in the restaurant world and decided to go through their management training program. They had a program where they paid for me to go to culinary school, and I went and got a certificate in classical French Cooking. This was great because now, when I told the chefs what they were doing wrong, I could do it with authority.
From there, I got recruited as a partner at a new restaurant in São Paulo, Brazil, that was modeled after an American saloon. It was very successful. I was there with my family for a year; my oldest daughter was born there, but I felt like I had fulfilled my part of the partnership to get the business going and was ready to return to the US.
I worked for many different restaurant companies for the next few years, but eventually, I ended up back in Philadelphia and opened Magnolia Cafe in 1985. After about 12 years, we closed because we lost our lease, and moving just didn’t make sense.
After Magnolia closed, I went to work for an old colleague as VP of Operations for a new concept restaurant that was quickly expanding and opening new locations. With a growing model, the company needed me to move, and I didn’t want to do that, so I ended up amiably leaving. This transition helped me realize how hard the food service industry was on me, my body, and my family, and I started thinking about other things.
What came next?
Well, during this time, I had still been working for NOLS, and NOLS had been doing a deep dive into the leadership curriculum. I was engaged in this exploration, but there was a gap. Specifically, the ability to be in and explore conflict with each other while also staying in a relationship. Conflict resolution was just too simplistic; it doesn’t always work and shouldn’t, but it doesn’t mean relationships should end.
I got really excited about this and some other concepts, which led me down the path of more education. I decided the Leadership Institute Of Seattle (LIOS) was a great program for my interests. I signed up and received my Masters in Applied Behavioral Science in Coaching and Consulting in Organizations in 2003. My questions about conflict were explored in this program through active conflict with colleagues, professors, and administration. The model was to explore that conflict and understand how to interact in a productive way for all parties without needing to agree. Today, this is still an area of study understanding and great importance to me.
After LIOS, I started Talucci Consulting Group. I was doing organization development work, leadership coaching, and anything to do with the human condition in organizations. Basically, I worked with humans in organizations that wanted to pursue outcomes that would be satisfying to the group as a whole. It was fun, and I had a great time.
Once I realized the doors that my Masters had opened and how much I enjoyed learning, I started thinking about a PhD program. Coaching was the closest thing available but it didn’t captivate me, so I kept working and looking.
Were you teaching for NOLS this whole time?
Yes, I was teaching every year for NOLS. One of the things that I had started to understand is that when I left my life at Magnolia Cafe and worked a NOLS Expedition, it was an invitation to negotiate my identity and explore the choices that I made. I could live multiple lives, and eventually, my professional life drifted towards and aligned with the identity I held as a NOLS Instructor. I simply liked who I was and thought I was doing better work, so I slowly shifted more and more of my life in that direction.
You have mentioned a few poignant moments that caused shifts in your life. What was next?
A book. Patricia Shaw’s Changing Conversations in Organizations: A Complexity Approach to Change came to me, and I was enamored with the content. This is what I wanted to be doing!
I wrote to the program that she was involved in and expressed interest in the program. They responded and told me to show up for an interview, but they were in the UK! It wasn't easy, but I took a leap and bought a ticket. The interview felt like a total disaster, and I was off-balance and getting grilled. On my way out of the interview, I looked at the head of the program, Ralph Stacey, and said, "I've been to places where there are no maps, and I am happy to go there." I wanted Ralph to know I was willing to venture into the unknown.
The next day, I got an email from Ralph, the head of the program, and he said, “Sam, let’s go to those places with no maps together.” I was floored and excited.
I spent the next three years flying back and forth to England doing this doctorate program. I presented and defended my dissertation work right before my 60th birthday and was proud to receive my Doctor of Management, Complexity and Organizational Change from the University of Hertfordshire.
It started with that book and taking a chance.
Sam, nowadays, you are most known for the Italian Alumni Trips that you run, how did that start?
Italy is not a passion for me; and it is my heritage. I grew up spending time in Italy with my family. My family lived there when I was younger, and we spent time in the mountains together. I speak Italian and raised my daughters (both NOLS Instructors) to speak Italian.
So, in 2006, I pitched a Dolomites trip to Rich Brame as a new type of Alumni Trip that wasn’t based out of campuses. This was really far outside of the box of what NOLS does, and I didn’t get immediate traction, but Rich came back to me the next year and wanted to give the trip a shot.
In the Fall of that year, we ran our first trip on a section of Alta Via 1 with nine participants. It was a hit, and our immediate challenge was how to build more trips like this. That was really the birth of our Alumni Trips programs that runs outside of our NOLS campuses.
What do you do as a NOLS Instructor that inspires you?
As an educator, I get to “touch the future.” Our work is planting the seeds that will manifest later, which is incredibly powerful.
Sam Talucci oversees our Italian and Ireland programs and is an invaluable resource to NOLS. He continues to challenge NOLS to maintain relationships without having to resolve conflict and in many (many) other ways. I have been fortunate enough to have Sam as a colleague for several years now and and proud to call him a friend.
Today, you can find Sam in Turin, Italy, preparing for his 4th consecutive NOLS Alumni trip this season in Italy. He has worked tirelessly for NOLS for over 30 years.
Travis is the NOLS Alumni Trips Director. Travis took his first NOLS course in 2009, a WFR in northern Thailand. He became an Instructor the next year and moved to Wyoming to work at NOLS' Global Headquarters. Before NOLS Travis lived in SE Asia and Central America for a few years, working as a SCUBA Instructor and exploring remote places through personal expeditions. Nowadays, Travis primarily organizes trips for NOLS Alumni but also instructs sea kayaking, hiking, and wilderness medicine for NOLS. Travis is known in his community for his love of all things hot pink.