Ned Sullivan ʼ72 is entering his 22nd year as President of Scenic Hudson, a nonprofit community-oriented organization committed to preserving land, creating parks, and fighting threats to New York’s Hudson Valley. Prior to Scenic Hudson, Sullivan served as the Environmental Commissioner of the State of Maine from 1995-1999. Under his leadership and initiatives, Maine dramatically reduced their mercury emissions, creating what proved to be a successful model for federal regulations.
What makes Sullivan’s story all the more remarkable is that none of this would have been possible without two important election outcomes back on November 8, 1994. Two weeks prior, Sullivan proposed to his wife, Tara. At the time, he was Deputy Commissioner of New York’s Department of Educational Conservation, while Tara was an elected official. When the final votes were tallied on election night, incumbent Governor Mario Cuomo had been defeated by his challenger, George Pataki. Working in an appointed position, Sullivan would be replaced with the arrival of a new administration at the start of the New Year. Tara, on the other hand, had a year left on her term.
As fate would have it, one of Sullivan’s close friends had just been named Chief of Staff to Maine’s new governor, Angus King. Acting quickly, the friend called Sullivan to offer him a job as Maine’s Environmental Commissioner. Sullivan ultimately accepted the offer, and during the first year of their marriage, commuted from the Hudson Valley to Maine before Tara could relocate to Maine.
It’s no secret that Sullivan’s love for the outdoors took hold when he was at Berkshire. In fact, he recently wrote an essay (below) about the critical life skills he gained while under (and on) the Mountain and the pivotal role it played in helping him and his team survive a climbing expedition to Mt. Denali some 40 years ago. He also shares a wonderful tribute to Ritt Kellogg ‘85 and the ascension of the Ritt Kellogg Mountain Program.
Sullivan’s career could not align more closely with Berkshire’s mission. He is a true champion of the natural environment, and the world is a better place for it.
The following Q&A provides a glimpse into Sullivan's time at Berkshire:
In what ways did your Berkshire experience shape your career?
Berkshire's beautiful setting and opportunities to learn and grow in the outdoors inspired me to pursue a career in the environmental field. Programs like Project Lifeline (the precursor to the Ritt Kellogg Mountain Program), Trail Crew, and Winter Camping programs, led by Sam Dibbins, Bob Brigham, and Hilary Russell, taught me invaluable skills and lessons in leadership and teamwork. Thomas and Jo Chaffee taught me to write and edit — skills for a lifetime — and Headmaster Bob Minnerly gave me insights into leadership in challenging times.
What are you most proud of professionally?
Serving as Environmental Commissioner of the State of Maine and the great work of Scenic Hudson, including "daylighting" the Saw Mill River in the heart of downtown Yonkers, where it had been encased in a pipe for generations.
What are your fondest memories of Berkshire?
Rappelling down Monument Mountain, canoeing on the Housatonic, and cleaning up the Mountain on the first Earth Day in 1970 with friends and classmates.
What advice would you give to today's students?
Pursue a career that excites your passion and provides you the opportunity to give back to the community.
Ritt Kellogg Mountain Program Pioneers in Teaching Critical Life Skills Across Generations
By Ned Sullivan, Berkshire Class of 1972 and President of Scenic Hudson
Some 40 years ago, four climbing buddies and I were at high camp at about 18,000 feet, in our ascent of Alaska’s Mt. Denali, a mere day hike from the summit. We were burrowed in a snow cave, having long since abandoned tents due to the high winds and double-digit, subzero temperatures. We were about halfway through our 50-day expedition. The trip had begun at the entrance of Denali National Park with a 100-mile ski to base camp—climbing on skis to the head of the Muldrow Glacier, and ice climbing for the rest of the trip along the knife-edge Karstens Ridge, and up Harper Glacier.
When I prepared to exit the cave at dawn, I noticed my colleague Wally, the leader of our team, was gasping for breath. I quickly realized he was suffering from life-threatening altitude sickness, pulmonary edema, and in the same instant, that the goal of our expedition had changed from reaching the summit of North America’s highest peak to getting our friend and the entire team down the mountain alive. We had no guide; there were no cellphones in those days; there was no possibility of an outside rescue team. It was up to us.
During the following days, our team, which at times had been fractious, came together like a well-honed machine. Wally himself showed incredible guts and determination as he struggled against his debilitating illness to put one foot in front of the other, belayed by roped teammates in front and back. Each member of the team rotated roles, at times taking the lead down dizzying ice cliffs or across glaciers that could drop off into unseen crevasses at any moment. At other times, we lagged behind to sweep up our equipment and supplies along the route. Eventually, we made it down to base camp, and Wally and all of us began to recover from the trauma, before setting out on our 100-mile trek back out of the park to safety.
The skills and lessons that came into play for me during this trip were first learned at Berkshire School in what is now known as the Ritt Kellogg Mountain Program (RKMP). The RKMP honors a great mountaineer, a Berkshire alum who lived a life of undaunted adventure and leadership—a Denali guide, a fearless backcountry skier, an Outward Bound instructor in Maine, and champion of protecting wilderness areas. Ritt Kellogg lost his life in a 1992 avalanche on a daring expedition on Mt. Foraker, some 14 miles from Denali.
During my days at Berkshire, the program was led by Sam Dibbins, a former instructor at Maine’s Outward Bound program and a master at teaching young people to be leaders and collaborators through outdoor challenges—ropes course, rock climbing, white water canoeing, and orienteering.
Sam was a teacher of American history, who used lessons of the past to inspire us to think on our feet in the face of challenge and danger. He named our squadron after Admiral David Farragut, the Civil War Naval officer who gave the order at the Battle of Mobile Bay, “Damn the Torpedoes, full speed ahead!” He also taught us to see the spiritual dimensions in nature’s beauty and to revel and find humility in its awesome power.
Though I never had the honor of meeting Ritt, these were among the qualities he displayed during his life. Ritt embraced and led difficult undertakings few would even contemplate. In mountaineering, he was known for epic 2,000-foot pitches, which at his alma mater Colorado College represent the most difficult challenge students attempt to duplicate on the climbing gym named after him.
The lessons I learned at Berkshire helped carry me through my Denali expedition and many other challenges during the course of my lifetime. In a bittersweet irony, I learned of Sam Dibbins’s death last year shortly after hiking on the flanks of Mt. Everett behind the school with faculty and student leaders of the Ritt Kellogg Mountain Program.
Sam Dibbins revered, and once introduced me to, Willi Unsoeld, legendary mountaineer, a member of the first American team to summit Mt. Everest, and also an Outward Bound leader. Willi pioneered wilderness adventure as an educational setting to teach young people both skills and critical life values. Following is a passage from Willi’s writings that captures the spirit of Sam Dibbins, Ritt Kellogg, and his visionary father Peter Kellogg, who generously established the mountain programs at Berkshire School and Colorado College.
“You go to nature for an experience of the sacred...to re-establish your contact with the core of things, where it’s really at, in order to enable you to come back to the world of people and operate more effectively. Seek ye first the kingdom of nature, that the kingdom of man might be realized.”