John Gans’ relationship with NOLS started in the ‘70s in Kenya, the most vivid classroom he’d ever experienced.
He grew up on a dairy farm in the Midwest, and the National Outdoor Leadership School was a way to travel, to see parts of the world he knew he wouldn’t from the farm.
“It really changed my view of education. It changed my view of wilderness. It changed my view of Africa,” he said. “It was so experiential, and the power and intimacy of an education that way was amazing. Everything I did that semester I remembered, and the takeaways were strong, and they were really interdisciplinary.”
Nearly 40 years after that trip, and 24 years after taking the reins, he’s retiring. His tenure is the longest of the Lander nonprofit’s five presidents.
As executive director and president, Gans increased the school’s income by 300 percent, grew faculty and staff to almost 1,300 and bumped financial aid awards from $354,000 in 1995 to $1.9 million in 2018.
“John led NOLS into the future,” said Marc Randolph, Netflix co-founder and Chair of the NOLS Board of Trustees, in a news release. “He built a leadership team that supported innovation and financial acumen, and evolved the school from an institution focused solely on the outdoor classroom to one that puts students first while achieving financial stability.”
He created a consistent leadership curriculum, a way to make sure each faculty member on each trip into the wilderness knew how to help create leaders in the woods, in the board room, in the classroom and at home.
“He’s really helped bring NOLS along to become the international organization it is while maintaining the tenants of outdoor leadership that we all learned from (founder) Paul Petzoldt,” said Neil Short, the president of the board of the Wyoming Outdoor Council and a former NOLS student and instructor. “John understood the purpose of NOLS, the mission of NOLS, and he understood it not just in the abstract way we get from reading a mission statement.”
Mostly, Short said, Gans was accessible. He was easy to talk to and available to everyone from the 14-year-olds starting their first courses to the leaders of the country’s corporate world.
Gans will stay at NOLS through the end of the year and throughout the transition to new leadership. The Star-Tribune caught up with him before he leaves to talk about running a business that operates in some of the most remote corners of the world, the importance of teaching people in and about the outdoors and what he sees for the future.
Casper Star-Tribune: Running this large of an organization can be stressful work, why did you want to, and was it hard to stick with it for so long?
Gans: When you work in an organization, and I was a field instructor, I directed our school in Alaska and was marketing and admissions director, you get ideas of things you would like to do and achieve, and I fell in love with the place. I fell in love with the school and students, the community and staff and wilderness. Our classrooms are exceptional.
I believed immensely in what we were doing. The opportunity to influence that on a bigger scale and provide more opportunities for students was one I couldn’t turn down, even though in some ways it moved me away from the day to day that I came here for.
The tough moments when you question, ‘do I stay,’ is when you think you’re getting too far removed from the core education moment. Sometimes there’s no question you could feel detached from it.
The other thing that does stand out: We had 320,000 students during my era, and we’ve had three students die during my era. That is a record safer than sitting on the couch watching TV, but when you’re in that moment of losing students it’s traumatic and sad and questions everything you’re doing, and it’s a really powerful and intimate time.
Casper Star-Tribune: You said in the news release that NOLS has made the world a better place. Can you elaborate a little?
Gans: It’s the power of the expedition model and the very core of expedition behavior that Paul talked about at the start and remains integral to the school today.
It’s more than teamwork. It’s more than what you might see in any other curriculum or business training, but that commitment that every expedition member be a part of it, be part of common goals and work with each other.
They come in often times with strangers they don’t know and often times not necessarily the people they would choose to go out with for a month or couple weeks, but they see they have common goals and interests and learn to respect each other and work with each other. It’s that sort of experience that carries over to the world and work places and we hear from our graduates years later. I think we’ve made a difference in communities and businesses and educational organizations and in the military and other places we’ve touched.
On a micro scale, there are times I look around Lander, Wyoming, and I don’t think people realize how much NOLS has influenced the community. I truly believe we’ve made this a better place.
Casper Star-Tribune: Did you ever think of relocating to a bigger city?
Gans: When I came into this job … we were scattered and kept running out of space. We were always a little ambivalent, ‘are we going to stay here or should we go to Salt Lake or Seattle?’ Our school location wouldn’t change for NOLS Rocky Mountain, but this would be for headquarters.
I remember feeling like, if we are committed to wilderness, and not just wilderness as a classroom, we need to commit to these rural areas in the West and these places around the world.
We planned a headquarters and did this $10 million project and once we built it, I knew the minute we were done no one else could ever use this building because no one else would be big enough. It put it to bed for better or for worse. We are in Lander, and Lander is our home.
Casper Star-Tribune: How much did you work with founder Paul Petzoldt?
Gans: I never knew Paul when I was a student or in my early days as an instructor … it wasn’t until I stepped into this position where I really got to know Paul, and that would be in 1995.
I remember talking to him and sitting next to him at the announcement and Paul slapped me on the thigh — he had huge hands — and he said, ‘You’re going to do such a good job I’m going to be so proud of you.’ Later he was signing posters of the Grand Teton, and I can look at it here on the wall. On it he wrote, ‘To John Gans, the man with the heavy pack. Paul Petzoldt.’
I remember my last visit to him at age 90 or 91 … he had prostate cancer that had gone all over his body and was in an assisted care center.
We would start talking about a topic and it was all this nonsense. So I brought him into the mountains, ‘Paul, tell me about the first time you climbed Petzoldt Ridge.’ He would vividly describe these routes that I had been on, all these spots up to the summit, the climb, the whole works. He was 100 percent recall, which goes back to my point of the power of my NOLS semester and the retained knowledge from experiential knowledge.
In the afternoon, I came back and Paul was in bed, and I was sitting at the side of his bed. I’m talking, he’s in and out, and it comes time to say my final goodbye and I lean over, and I am like, ‘Paul, I’m going to leave now, I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done for NOLS, everything you’ve done for young people, everything you’ve done for wilderness and everything you’ve done for me, I can’t thank you enough.’ He turns over and looks at me and grabs my hand with both of his hands and says to me, ‘You keep carrying that heavy pack, you’re doing such a fine job.’
He had the ability to motivate people to the very end.
Casper Star-Tribune: Do you struggle with inspiring and preparing people to go outside when the outdoors is already stressed with visitors?
Gans: Yes, and very directly a number of times, but I think back over what I would say was probably one of my biggest mistakes in my career here and it started from when I became Alaska director in 1984.
I had all this staff that was working in Prince William Sound, and they were saying the area is getting used too much, we have to stop. And so I froze the size of the program because I figured that was the right thing to do.
Five years later, I left as Alaska director and I was down in Lander, and I got word of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and I flew up to Alaska … I saw all of these beaches that we had camped on and that we had picked up garbage and left in better shape and they were devastated. I will never forget flying over and it was nonstop tears at some of these areas I just loved and it hit me … that it was the wrong move.
More people understanding and valuing Prince William Sound is what it is about, and the impacts we make compared to those macro impacts that can go on so quickly are minor. It brings back to me the importance of getting, for all sorts of reasons, for getting them outdoors. Take someone fishing or hunting or car camping. The gains and importance of having, across the country, a constituency that knows our public lands at a time that we are getting increasingly urban, if we don’t do that none of these areas will be saved.
It’s so important we develop an attachment and an intimate connection between our coming generations and this wonderful public land we have in the U.S. and around the world.
Casper Star-Tribune: Where would you like to see it go from here?
Gans: I think it’s very important that we always be true to our core. We always should be about either educating in or for wilderness.
At one end, make sure we stick to our core, and on the other end, we want to not be a place just for the choir, to the people who are already passionate about the outdoors. This world needs organizations and institutions that are pulling together a broad variety of people and getting them to understand each other in their education, in their advocacy, in their debates, wherever.
Casper Star-Tribune: What are your plans? Will you stay involved in the organization?
Gans: The one thing that plays in my mind that I look forward to more than anything is loading up a vehicle with camping gear and taking off with no destination and no agenda and no telephone. I’ve been on call basically for 29 years, and to have nothing but the ability to take a day-to-day step and experience our classrooms and wild country and have time to think. Then after that, I’m not going to work full-time again, all the time, but I am sure I will work in some form or fashion and volunteer and continue to advocate for three things that have always been important: Leadership, wilderness and just the development of young people. How that plays out, I don’t know.