John Huie ’60 Builds Bridges Through Outward Bound
John Huie’s mother had ambitions for her son—he would go to Princeton, as it was Presbyterian and prestigious. He got the last two parts, still, when he secretly applied to attend Davidson College.
“I took one look at the Princeton catalog and knew I wasn’t going there,” he says. “So, one morning I announced at breakfast that I was going to Davidson and that I had received a full scholarship to play basketball and pole vault and high jump. I told my mother that I was in fact going to Princeton—the Princeton of the South. She was not amused.”
Huie graduated in 1960 with a major in history and a minor in psychology. He was captain of both the basketball and track teams his senior year. He reflects on an academically rigorous experience, learning from brilliant faculty members like Frontis Johnston, William Workman, and Dr. Beatty as well as difficult, “pre-Lefty Driesell” years on the basketball court.
“The academic work was brain-frying. My Peruvian roommate, Ed Pantigoso and I, studied into the wee hours all the time. I came in with great eyesight and left wearing glasses,” he laughs. “But the positive parts were the intellectual discipline and the respect I gained for good ideas and critical thinking. And on the basketball court, I learned how to keep hustling no matter what, and to keep going in the face of defeat. I came off the court with blood on my knees.”
When President Kennedy took office in 1961, Huie was accepted in the Peace Corps to teach English in Nigeria. The U.S. Army intervened and sent him to artillery school at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma.
After two years of active duty in France and Germany, Huie earned a master’s degree in American Studies at Emory University and later his doctorate in education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. When he applied for a teaching job in Alabama, the headmaster, Bob Pieh, told Huie about his plans to start an Outward Bound School in Minnesota.
“Bob described Outward Bound to me as a rite of passage for young men,” Huie says. “He spoke eloquently about helping adolescent boys find harmony with self, others, the natural world, and the cosmos. When he paused, I told him ‘that’s the best thing I ever heard of.’ He said if I really felt that way, why not come with him? I extended my hand and said, ‘Let’s go!’”
Learning by experience in the wilderness was a significant departure from learning by lecture at Davidson. Huie says he found his “spiritual home” in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, where he became Outward Bound program director.
“Letting people discover through challenge and adversity in the wilderness—it’s a beautiful model,” Huie says. “And when I discovered Outward Bound was grounded in the philosophy of Kurt Hahn, a remarkable Jewish-German educator who had spoken out against Hitler in the 1930s, I latched onto it totally. It wasn’t about conquering nature, bagging peaks and shooting rapids in the wilderness; it was about personal development and community-building—becoming a fully alive human being and a world citizen. The wilderness was our classroom.”
Over his career, Huie applied the character-building experiential approach of Outward Bound (“To Serve, To Strive and Not To Yield”) as a teacher, coach, headmaster and professor of education. He later became the director of the North Carolina Outward Bound School in Asheville and remained at the helm from 1977 until 1994.
Under his leadership, the school significantly expanded its programs not only in the North Carolina mountains and on the coast, but also in the Atlanta Outward Bound Center, the Florida Everglades and in Central America.
Expeditionary learning, based on Outward Bound principles, now permeates the curriculum in over 200 public school systems in the United States.
“Outward Bound is actually a powerful complement to a liberal arts education,” he says. “It promotes respect for all people, communication and problem-solving skills, love for the natural world, and, above all, compassion. As a Southerner, I knew in my heart Outward Bound could be a positive force throughout the South for what Kurt Hahn called ‘the culture of aspiration.’ My Davidson foundation served me well in my leadership role.”
Outward Bound began in 1941 in Great Britain and now has 40 school locations in 30 countries in North America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It aims to help those who are motivated and want to be challenged to push themselves through wilderness journeys in the mountains, on the rivers and on the seas. Wilderness courses for youth, adults, teachers, executives and veterans range from nine days up to semester-long programs. Participants deal with physical and other kinds of challenges—they’re hot, tired, hungry, wet. They become a team.
“These life-changing courses bring together people from all walks of life,” Huie says. “When there is a problem in an Outward Bound course, it doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from. You think, ok, I have to get over this 14-foot wall. I don’t care what color the hand is that’s helping me over. It’s largely about awakening the service ethic and finding our common human denominator.”
Huie has had the great fortune of watching participants go through courses and come out changed, more confident, more aware. One student said, “We are better than we know. If we discover this just once, we’ll never settle for less.” Another said, “While so many forces are pulling us apart, Outward Bound is a rare bridge bringing us together.”
After his Outward Bound years, Huie co-founded the environmental leadership center of Warren Wilson College with President Doug Orr ’62. Later, he initiated “Muddy Sneakers,” a hands-on environmental program for public school fifth graders, now spreading throughout the state.
“Nothing is more critical for our survival than taking care of the Earth, which sustains us in life,” he says.
Growing up in Albany, Georgia, Huie could not have imagined how his life’s work would make a lasting difference for the more than 50,000 people who graduated from the N.C. Outward Bound School during his tenure. What started at Davidson—his Princeton in the South—has been felt the world over.