Why did Donn Fendler spend the last 30 years of his life visiting Maine school children, reliving what may well have been the most embarrassing event of his life?
“I did it because I owed Maine,” Fendler told me two years ago, as we sat outside his camp on Newport’s Sebasticook Lake.
That’s one way to look at it, I suppose. There were, he pointed out,hundreds of Mainers out looking for him in July of 1939, when he became lost while hiking up Mount Katahdin. Thousands more have learned of his story thanks to the book, “Lost on a Mountain in Maine,” which was originally published in September of 1939 and is required reading in many schools to this day.
But today, especially, it makes sense to flip Fendler’s phrase a bit. You’ve probably already heard the news. On Monday, Fendler died, after a life very well-lived, at the age of 90.
And today, Maine owes Donn Fendler.
That book paved the way for Fendler to visit schools and meet his young “fans.” Other students — hundreds of them — wrote him letters.
And when those children wrote to him, and asked him questions about his adventure? Well, he did exactly what you might expect: He wrote back to every single child, and answered every single question.
Fendler told me that the book, as he told the tale to author Joseph B. Eagen, wasn’t his idea. His father, on the other hand, was eager to have the tale told accurately.
His dad knew that a story of hope and tenacity could have a huge impact on kids who read it.
Like father, like son.
“He wanted to have it published [shortly after the ordeal] for young people to read, and to have them see what determination and faith can do,” Fendler told me. “And faith had a lot to do with it.”
During our infrequent conversations over the years, faith was a topic that he always returned to. Fendler had always believed that he wasn’t truly alone on that mountain, you see.
Not that he was even on the mountain for long at all.
Fendler chuckled when he told me that if you wanted to tell his story accurately, you’d first have to change the name of the book.
He was, he said, lost near a mountain in Maine. But he said he was only on Katahdin for a few hours at most, while searchers spent days searching above Katahdin’s tree line.
“My dad kept saying, ‘He’s not on this mountain. You don’t know my son,’” Fendler recounted two years ago. “My dad firmly believed I wasn’t on [Katahdin].”
He wasn’t. Instead, he’d hustled down the mountain to get out of the inclement weather and was miles away, working his way east.
Over the years, Fendler told his story countless times, and never seemed to tire of it. Each retelling gave him the chance to remind people of a few beliefs he held dear.
You are stronger than you think you are.
You can overcome things you think you can’t.
Fendler surrounded himself with pals who loved to rib him about the grand adventure that took place decades before he met many of them.
On the golf course — where I first met him back in 2002 — Fendler endured the good-natured jokes at his expense.
“We gotta get some dogs out here, in case you get lost,” one playing partner told him that day, as Fendler smiled. “We’re not gonna spend nine days looking for you.”
Years later, Fendler told me about heading back to the spot he finally emerged from the woods after his ordeal. His wife, Ree, had never been there, so he took her there.
Or, at least, he tried.
“Of course, I … end up in Grindstone, [more than 15 miles from his intended destination],” Fendler said.
At that point, Fendler asked a man on the side of the road where he’d gone wrong.
“Why do you want to go there? That’s a long ride back down through there,” the man said, according to Fendler.
“I said, ‘Well, something happened to me a long time ago, and I’d like to see [the place] again,” Fendler said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Are you the little boy that was lost?’”
He was. And he admitted it.
“He said, ‘You know what? You’re still lost,’” Fendler said, laughing at yet another punchline at his expense. “True story.”
When we last spoke two years ago, Fendler told me he knew his time on earth was dwindling. He never even thought of dying while he was lost in the woods, he said.
At age 88, he’d done more than consider the inevitable. He’d planned for it.
And the plan made perfect sense: He wanted his remains returned to the place it all started: The mountain that helped him reach so many others with his message of hope.
“When I die, my ashes are going over Mount Katahdin,” he told me.
Lost no more, on a mountain in Maine.
John Holyoke can be reached at 990-8214 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke