Important men often come as quiet, wise types,
by Arch Montgomery
There is now and may always have been a tendency among human beings to misunderstand importance as somehow linked to prominence, power or position. A president is important. A wealthy businessman is important. A famous celebrity entertainer is important. But as important as these folks may be, there is a quiet, unobtrusive sort of significance to certain lives that may transcend the fleeting fame of notoriety or wealth.
We were lucky at Asheville School to be a part last week of honoring a quiet man who commands none of the traditional accouterments of apparent importance. On the contrary, he has led a quiet, largely anonymous life far removed from fame and fortune.
James G. Hollandsworth was born in 1915 in West Virginia. He was an Eagle Scout by age 14, and for reasons obscured by time, had already earned the nickname “Pop” by which he is known to generations of students and outdoorsmen. Pop attended Berea College in Kentucky and began his teaching career in a one-room coal camp near home in West Virginia. His career was interrupted by World War II, during which he served as a combat engineer, earning a Bronze Star for dangerous duty in the Battle of the Bulge. He then spent 33 years as program director of Camp Sequoyah in Weaverville.
Pop was also a Dean of Students and director of Asheville School’s outdoor program for better than three decades. Larry Pless, Asheville School Class of 1971, reflected in a chapel service last week upon Pop’s contribution to the lives of his students. He recalled in particular a trip in January 1971 during which Pop’s close friend, Dr. Charles Lindsley, tragically fell to his death on the slopes of Mt. LeConte. Every January for 35 years Pop has led a group up LeConte in memory of his old friend. In his mid-80s, Pop made the climb through chest-deep snow in frigid weather, taking 12 hours to reach the summit at midnight.
This sort of quiet toughness was an example to thousands of youngsters over the course of multiple decades. He always carried the heaviest pack. He remained cheerful in the most difficult circumstances, even in terrible weather. He was competent during emergencies and strong when others were weak, but his strength never included bluster. There was a deep humility.
Students learned to value the outdoors while learning to trust themselves under Pop’s guidance. Pop watched over student safety, but he allowed them to attack real challenges. He led students up Wyoming’s Garnett Peak by a route others claimed was impossible even after an expert said such an effort was a “fool’s errand.” On the summit, Pop told his students, “Boys, don’t ever let anybody tell you … that you have no business being in the mountains.”
Gordon Grant, a Western North Carolina educator, outdoorsman and environmentalist, who noted the importance to effective education of calculated risk, noted that Pop understood a student’s need to test his limits, to take on real challenges. This, of course, entails the possibility of failure. Pop understood that modern culture’s tendency toward avoiding risk, eschewing competition and preventing possible failure cripples children. Bright youngsters see right through manufactured risk or artificial and unearned praise. You cannot fool them. For them to learn about themselves they must hazard the possibility of failure. Pop used the outdoors as a classroom of myriad possibilities. He helped children face the obstacles of awful weather and genuine discomfort. He encouraged them to make difficult rock face climbs. He allowed them to experience some hunger and some exhaustion. All of this happened under his caring, watchful eye.
Pop was one of the founders of the North Carolina Outward Bound School, and he is a familiar name to most Appalachian outdoorsmen. His greatest influence, however, was personal and intimate. He touched students indelibly. They remember the risks they took in his care, and many of them reminisced together last weekend as tributes to Pop were offered across generations. As Larry Pless put it about the 5’5” Pop, who had once been nicknamed “Mouse,” by some of his students, “He was a mountain of a man.”
Pop is not prominent. Nor is he powerful. He is not wealthy, and he is not famous. But Pop is important this year, the year of his 90th birthday, and for many years because he left a permanent mark for the good on the individuals who know him. He did it one relationship at a time. To many people, Pop Hollandsworth is the most important man they have ever known.
Arch Montgomery is head of Asheville School in Asheville, North Carolina..