Ted Major changed my life. I was a student at the University of Utah, 18 years old and in love with birds. The Utah Audubon Newsletter advertised a “field ecology workshop” in Jackson Hole for three credit hours. I immediately signed up with a classmate in ornithology named Joanne Greenfield. The instructors were Florence R. Krall from the University of Utah and Ted Major, director of the Teton Science School. The year was 1974.
Ted was a brilliant teacher and passionate about the natural world. His approach was direct, forceful and enthusiastic. He placed the burden of inquiry on the students as we participated in his Socratic pedagogy. Major embraced the questions, understanding the answers would follow. I had rarely met an authority figure who said, “I don’t know.” Ted did. I trusted him.
At Taggart Lake he introduced us to forest succession and the role fire plays in the lives of aspens and lodgepole pines. I had never heard of “fire ecology.” When he spoke about the surrotenous cones of lodgepoles that break open from the fire’s heat and drop their seeds for future saplings to flourish in the shadows of burnt trees, I heard a sermon on resurrection. Ted Major became my truth teller. I would have followed him anywhere.
And I did. I returned the next month on a scholarship from the University of Utah’s Environmental Studies Program, thanks to Dr. David Raskin, a professor of psychology and friend of the Majors, to be the first intern at the Teton Science School. I walked behind Ted’s strong, steady gait traversing the Tetons, the Wind River Range, the remote Red Desert, and Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
Ted was fierce, irreverent and unyielding to social pressures. He wasn’t afraid to take on the National Park Service or the Wyoming Game and Fish Department when he disagreed with their policies. Some say he was hard-headed. I say he had his principles and held people to account. He had high expectations, and those of us who worked for him struggled to meet them. But he always got things done. I saw Ted as a “charismatic megafauna.” He taught us there is no hope without action. And by understanding one place, an ethic of place arises. Best to begin at home.
The next summer in 1975, I was hired as an instructor with my newly wed husband, Brooke Williams. We spent our honeymoon at the Teton Science School. Colleen Cabot was on staff (who would later become director of TSS) with Van Tribble and Bart Koehler part of the team. The following year, I joined the board of directors with Ed Riddell, another intern at the school. Joanne Greenfield Dornan (who married Rod Dornan) was now a naturalist at Grand Teton National Park. Charlie Craighead became a close friend, as did Jackie Gilmore, the photographer Jeff Foott and climber Jack Turner. Lee Carlman (later to marry Ed Riddell) and Lyn Dalebout became new interns at the Teton Science School.
A covey of intense and impressionable young people formed. We were mentored by a committed community, including Ginny Huidekoper, Patty Ewing, Dick Barker, the Muries and Craigheads, with other scientists like David Love, Bob Smith, Franz Camenzind, alongside thinkers and doers like Med Bennett, Georgie Morgan, Sandy Pew, Jean Jorgenson, Leslie Peterson and Hank Phibbs. These were strong, spirited individuals who not only believed in the Majors’ vision of outdoor education in the Tetons but helped shape it.
At a time when America is searching for leadership Ted Major embodied it. He came out of the 10th Mountain Division in World War II. He was part of a group of men who loved the mountains — men like Pete Seibert, Paul Petzoldt and David Brower. These men built organizations like Vail Ski Resort and the National Outdoor Leadership School and strengthened the Sierra Club. Peace for them was found in wilderness, and they shared it with others.
Ted Major walked his values with a long line of students behind him. There are still students walking behind the trail he and Joan bushwalked first, and it is ongoing.
Forty-four years later, not a day goes by that I don’t think of my beloved mentor, Ted Major. Because of him I not only see the world differently but respond to it more fully. I both celebrate and grieve his passing. I loved him.
Grant Hagen’s bronze sculpture, “The Thought,” allowed Ted Major to find his favorite object lesson: A man sitting on the ground with a machete raised over his head was about to strike a squirrel perched on his foot.
“Destroy nature and you destroy yourself,” Ted would say. “If we take care of the Earth, the Earth take care of us.”
Last year, when Brooke and I visited Ted and Joan, I asked him what he was reading. He took out a book on evolution.
“I think even you could understand it, Terry,” he said teasing.
He then talked about new concepts being found in the literature. Ted Major was both student and teacher.
The Major legacy is a legacy of love. With Joan by his side, a powerful and enduring partnership was forged. It extended to their sons Ted Jr. and Phil, and included Ted’s brother Jack, a world-class botanist and his wife, Mary, also a fine botanist and alpinist. Family was extended to community. The Teton Science School grew out of these relationships rooted in Jackson Hole.
Ted Major taught me the enduring power of place, personal and political. He taught us to be fearless in our love for the wild. He believed in the ecological integrity found in the web of life. And we learned anything is possible in the name of community, both human and wild. It is love that holds us steady.
Ted Major’s greatness of spirit ignited a conservation ethic through education. To know a place is to love that place. To love that place is to defend it. The Teton Science School is both a place and an idea that is now plural: the Teton Science Schools. Call it an evolution of the heart.