“A Great Many Years”—Honorary President William Lowell Putnam
The American Alpine Club’s Honorary President, William Lowell Putnam gave this speech at the Club’s 2011 Board Meeting in Flagstaff, Arizona. We’ve reproduced it here because it’s a fantastic speech, broad in scope and incredibly rich in Club history—and mountaineering history.
It’s been a great many years since I was asked to address a general meeting of this organization. Discounting the speech that my dear wife delivered for me a few years ago at the time of our Centennial, the only other time was in December of 1944, when I was a lot younger and a 2nd Lieutenant fresh from Fort Benning on my way to rejoin the 10th Mountain Division, of which I had been one of its notorious “three letter” men. The meeting was in New York City, Doctor Thorington was the president, and the Board had just admitted me to membership. I talked briefly about the first ascent of the 4000-foot volcano on Kiska, which I had trudged across the tundra to make in October of 1943, with Harley Fetzer and the late Carl Fiebelkorn, who went AWOL with me—after all, we were mountain troopers, and building a pier out into Kiska Harbor was just not our thing.
I guess I’m grateful to be able to be asked back—but it took a very special engineer to arrange it, all these years later—thank you, Steve [Swenson]. At my present advanced age—I was barely 20 then—you’ll have to pardon me if I seem to repeat myself occasionally; but since I know a good many of those here present and most of our newer members are unfamiliar with a lot of Club history, some of the lines I will offer you this evening, will surely appear as new.
However, it is NOT true, as past president Jim Frush stated in our Club’s centennial publication, that I had the pleasure of knowing many of our founders. Indeed, I suspect a good many of them would surely have felt that making my youthful acquaintance was NOT a pleasure. After all I did organize the only proxy fight against Club management, in an effort to get our annual meeting rotated around the country to exotic locales such as Berzerkeley, Las Vegas, and Bend, in doing which I was joined by one past president and two subsequent honorary members. However, I did share an office with Professor Fay, our first, second and sixth president, albeit there was a gap of 18 years between his death and my arrival in Barnum Museum at Tufts University. A few years after I left there, the whole place burned down, anyway, Phineas Barnum’s Jumbo and all.
It is fitting that we assemble in Flagstaff for this brief history lesson on The American Alpine Club. For it was here, in 1896 that a founding member of this Club, Andrew Ellicott Douglas, the father of the science of dendrochronology, selected the site for Dr. Lowell’s Observatory. Furthermore it was one of Lowell’s subsequent scientists, Dr. Henry Lee Giclas, who determined, most of a century later, that the world’s highest summit, measured from the center of the Earth, is not Mount Everest, after all; it is Huascaran, in Peru.
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The American Alpine Club was founded by Professor Angelo Heilprin, a notable vulcanologist for whom Admiral Peary named a tide-water glacier in west-central Greenland. Heilprin was associated with the learned folk in the City of Brotherly Love, as were many of our founding members—which is the reason this Club was incorporated in that Commonwealth. Heilprin was also the heroic scientist who descended into the caldera of Mont Pelee on Martinique to investigate the basaltic monolith that was extruded after the massive explosion of 1902. He had been born in Hungary, of parents who fled from persecution in Russia to Poland and finally to America.
About the time of the vernal equinox of 1901—that’s more than 110 years ago—Dr. Heilprin mailed a notice (for two cents apiece in postage) of a meeting to be held on 9 May in the rooms of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia, to consider the formation of an alpine society. On that fateful Thursday afternoon, twelve men, including our first President, our first two Vice-presidents, our first Secretary and our first Treasurer, along with our first four Counselors, constituted themselves as the Committee of Organization and proceeded to elect a bunch of members. We are honored to have with us tonight the grandson of that treasurer, Professor of Hydrology Henry James Vaux, Jr, emeritus from the University of California at Berkeley.
Along with Professor Heilprin, whose great, great nephew is a valued member, the other Vice-president of our Club was George Davidson, a native of Nottingham in the old country. He was a distinguished geologist and geodesist, a friend of philanthropist James Lick, who did the primary surveying in coastal Alaska, where he particularly distinguished himself in 1867 in making the first ascent of the volcano Makushin on Unalaska Island. That first ascent was not the spectacular part of the climb—many of us have done such things—the spectacular part was in not overstating the height of the mountain. His aneroid barometer called it some 1139 feet lower than it really is.
We elected our third president, a Scotsman named Muir from California (the patron saint of conservation) when Professor Fay gave up the mantle, and we’ve been led quite capably by a number of Californians since then, the very best of whom is seated right down here—Nicholas Bayard Clinch, in my opinion of our history—adjusted for inflation of both dollars and egos—the Club’s foremost expedition leader, wisest councillor, and greatest benefactor. They don’t make many like Nick; he really should have been elected to my position, but I wasn’t asked for my opinion when the Board made the decision as to who would replace Henry Snow Hall, Jr and Robert Hicks Bates.
The new club put on a fancy dinner in New York on Tuesday, 28 May, 1907, for Luigi Amadeo, di Savoie/Aosta, the celebrated Duke of the Abruzzi, who preceded several of tonight’s very special guests in being elected to Honorary Membership. The Duke, a cousin of the King of Italy, commanded the Italian Navy during much of the Great War; however, he died in 1933 doing humanitarian work at a place that later became unhappily well known to younger members of the 10th Mtn Division than myself, a town in east Africa called Mogodishu.
1907 was the same year that we began the publication of a series of quarto-sized, illustrated monographs, collectively entitled—Alpina Americana—and ostensibly meant to go on almost forever, but of which only three issues were ever printed and delivered to the membership. These were: The High Sierra by Joseph Nisbet LeConte; The Rocky Mountains of Canada by Charles Ernest Fay; and The Mountains of Alaska, by Alfred Hulse Brooks. Today, these three publications are treasured possessions of those who joined the Club prior to about 1950, when we finally ran out of the press run.
I am, however, a suitably distant relative of New York’s Superior Court Justice Harrington Putnam, our fourth president—we have a common ancestor, twelve generations back, who left Ashton-Abbots in the old country and showed up at Salem in 1636. When the judge took office, a century ago, this club had 67 dues-paying members and 11 Honorary Members—those whom our founders believed to be examples for others to emulate—over half of whom had made their most significant mark in polar exploration but less than half of whom were American citizens. They were:
• The Duke of the Abruzzi, of K2 and St. Elias fame, whose party under co-leader Captain Umberto Cagni established a ‘farthest north’ in 1896;
• James, Lord Bryce no alpinist at all, but an historian, scholar and widely admired British Ambassador to the United States;
• John Norman Collie pioneer of the Canadian Rockies and professor of organic chemistry at University College in London;
• Sir William Martin, Lord Conway of Allington, artist, Antarctic and Andean explorer;
• The Reverend William Augustus Brevoort Coolidge, American-born scholar of the Alps and editor of The Alpine Journal;
• General Adolphus Washington Greely, leader of the Lady Franklin Bay Arctic Expedition, of 1881-84, and hero of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906;
• Admiral George Wallace Melville, Chief Engineer of the ill-fated ship, Jeannette, then rescuer of Greely, and architect of America’s Great White Fleet;
• Admiral Robert Edwin Peary who may—or very well may not—have been first to attain the North Pole, in 1906;
• Honorable Theodore Roosevelt god-father, if not father, of the Conservation movement in America;
• Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton author and heroic Antarctic explorer of great note; and,
• Edward Whymper, Esq. English engraver, climber and explorer, who made the first serious report on the illnesses of High Altitude , but was never so honored by his peers in England.
I wonder what any of those men would make of our special guests this evening or the likes of Yvon Chouinard, our most generous innovator, or our Jim McCarthy, the Club’s eminence grise, whose fine, though often Machiavellian, hand has been behind many of our Club’s better accomplishments in my lifetime.
Interestingly, in our more than a century of existence, we have honored a lot of Americans; several Canadians, a dozen Brits, several French, a few Italians, Russians and Japanese, even an Aussie and a South African; but not one single German has ever been elected to honorary membership. The closest we have come was the election of a Dresdener, Fritz Hermann Ernst Wiessner who became an American citizen in 1935, after two decades of distinguished high-angle and high-altitude inspiration in Europe and Asia. The election of Fritz in 1967 was a landmark in Club history, for thereafter, the stranglehold on our affairs by the Anglo-phyllic “Eastern WASP Establishment” came to a rapid and unlamented end.
We have not followed The Alpine Club’s tradition by electing several of our past presidents to Honorary status—that parent organization assumes that election to its presidency is honour enough for anyone. A good number of these folk are here tonight and, since I am the next to senior such animal, and have the mike, I would like our past presidents to stand as I call their names so that we can then make it clear we are pleased they can all still do so. In order of seniority, these other ghosts of our Christmas past are: Nicholas Bayard Clinch—me—James Francis Henriot—Thomas Callander Price Zimmermann—Robert Wallace Craig—James Peter McCarthy—Glenn Edward Porzak—John Edward Williamson—Louis French Reichardt—Alison Keith Osius (our first lady)—Curtis James Frush—Mark Alan Richey—and James Ugo Donini. Their services to mountaineering have often been greater after leaving—or perhaps because of leaving—the club’s presidency.
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This Club’s greatest scholar of alpinism was an ophthalmologist by profession, as was his father before him, James Monroe ‘Roy’ Thorington with whom I never really got along, though we collaborated (sort of) in his final guidebook endeavor to the Rocky Mountains of Canada. Unfortunately for our potential friendship, Roy was close with one of the Club’s lesser sung, but greater blowhards, the man who fouled up the 1939 K2 Expedition, the late Oliver Eaton Cromwell, and Roy disapproved very much of the election of Wiessner as one of our Honorary Members, a cause in which Jim McCarthy, Andy Kauffman and I took vigorous parts. Nevertheless, Dr. Thorington, though now dead for more than twenty years, remains my mentor, and every time I turn over a literary stone and learn something he apparently did not know, it’s a red letter day for me, for Roy was the ultimate scholar of alpinism, and was asked in 1956 to prepare the centennial article for The Alpine Journal.
Roy was also a trifle crusty, a condition which our long-time benefactor, Henry Hall, charitably blamed on his shyness. In 1952 at the Annual Meeting in New York he was introduced to Graham Matthews and asked, “How long were you in at Fortress Lake last summer?”
“About two weeks, Doctor,” replied Graham.
“I was in there twice myself, some twenty-five years ago, but could only stay a few days each time.”
“It’s great country, Doctor; you should have stayed longer.”
“I’d have liked to, but it took our pack train ten days to get there from Lake Louise.”
“Well!” Matthews rejoined; “we used a float plane from Golden and landed right on the lake.”
“Damned tourists!” huffed Roy, turning on his heel.
Getting back to Judge Putnam—before his appointment to the bench, he was a distinguished admiralty lawyer and not so much a climber as a distance walker—though he had made the ascents of Fujiyama, Whitney and Shasta, as well as the Breithorn. In mid-January of 1912, when he was 61 years of age, he had been holding court in Brooklyn on a Friday afternoon and was due to open court in Riverhead at the eastmost part of Long Island on Monday morning—so he packed up his judicial robes and walked the 74 miles from one courtroom to the other, over the weekend. You’d probably be killed, if not jailed, for trying that now.
Our next president was Henry Greer Bryant ,a lawyer who had been President of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia, thus Angelo Heilprin’s boss, and who had climbed all over the world from the Jungfrau to Popocatepetl, and from the icy cliffs of Labrador to the lava-covered slopes of Mauna Loa. In 1915, at the mid-point of Bryant’s term, the Club became incorporated, an act made necessary so that we could legally receive the first installment of the immense personal library of Henry Fairbanks Montagnier, this Club’s greatest asset to this day—but which has received a number of notable additions over the years, through the generosity of Roy Thorington, Horst von Hennig, Henry Hall, John Boyle, Armando Menocal, and most recently from Nick Clinch.
But then came the Great War (as our British friends still call it, for such it surely was to them) and everyone else was too busy, so, for the third time, we called on Professor Fay head the Club. During Dr. Fay’s final reign, Captain Albert Henry MacCarthy of the United States Navy, entered the management team and, 30 years later—long after his brilliant career in North American mountaineering—we elected him to Honorary Membership.
In 1920, Professor Fay returned to the teaching of modern languages at Tufts and we elected another lawyer, the second such from New York, Lewis Livingston Delafield—gotta watch out for those lawyers—they keep showing up in our management.
However, in 1923 we gave up—temporarily—on those devils, and elected the Reverend Harry Pierce Nichols rector of Holy Trinity Church, near Wall Street, a noted afficianado of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. ‘Uncle Harry’, as he was known thereabouts, celebrated his 85th birthday by making his 250th ascent on foot of Mount Washington; and it was under his aegis that the late Henry Hall came into the Club’s management. Henry soon served the longest sentence on record as the Club’s Secretary, and was primarily noted for his strenuous personal efforts to retain and enhance our membership. It was also in Henry’s library and livingroom that many great American mountaineering accomplishments were generated and planned.
Those New York meetings came to be held on the ground floor of the old firehouse at 113 East 90th Street that had been given to the Club in 1948 by another of our past presidents, Columbia University’s Dr. William Sargent Ladd. Up in the northwest corner of the ceiling one could make out a discontinuity in the metal tiles that showed where the traditional brass pole had once been, and which the New York City bureaucrats had required us to remove, as it was deemed a hazard for the premises’ new users.
During the annual meeting of 1957, as the various committee chairmen were giving their reports, it was soon to be the turn of the Chairman of our Safety Committee, the late Dr. Benjamin Greely Ferris, but he was not in the room. So a friend of his in the back ducked out of the meeting and called upstairs to the office: “Tell Ben he’s on next.”
Ben called back down: “Tell John [Oberlin, another Californian, then president] that I’ve just gotten a raft of new data from the West Coast and it’ll take me most of an hour to merge it all in. Go on with the first program, and fit me in later.”
So, a note to that effect was passed it to the front of the meeting room.
Some 3/4 of an hour later, as the late Jack Graham was describing his scary traverse of the Matterhorn the previous summer, a long, rumbling crash reverberated through the wall separating the meeting room from the stairway. Jack froze in mid-sentence and Ben’s friend stepped out again to see the Chairman of our Safety Committee at the foot of the stairs, trying to regroup from the most serious fall of his long and distinguished climbing career.
Maybe those bureaucrats were on to something, after all.
In 1926, we elected another president (and lawyer) I never met—but whose footsteps I came to follow—almost literally—throughout the mountains of Western Canada, Howard Palmer whose major literary work remains one of the classics of North American adventure. Palmer went on, after his presidency, to edit the first number of The American Alpine Journal, an endeavor in which he was assisted, and then followed by Dr. Thorington.
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I’m not going to bore you with a lengthy account of the almost election to membership of Henry S. Pinkham, a malamute with a distinguished climbing record, except to observe that despite the obstructionism of our then Secretary and later president, Bradley Baldwin Gilman, who finally got suspicious as he was writing up the Board minutes in the autumn of 1949 and held that application over for further consideration, there is nothing in our By-laws to this date, despite two major revisions, declaring such four-legged individuals ineligible for membership, and all you’ve got to do is listen closely to the cocktail hour conversation at any of our meetings and you’ll learn that a good many of our members apparently have canine ancestry.
Gilman was yet another lawyer, but he mostly did estate work for an insurance company, so we’ll forgive him, for his name rests—with that of his late cousin, the distinguished Princeton topologist, Hassler Whitney—on one of the early, and still finer, routes on what’s left of the great cliff on Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire.
However, because the UIAA has sent some spies to the meeting, in the form of our friend, Mike Mortimer, its first non-European president, and Paola Peila, the former Director of the Club Alpino Italiano, and her special escort, our friend Silvio Calvi, I must note that the AAC joined in the formal establishment of the UIAA in 1932, though when we woke up to how Eurocentric it was then, we dropped out, and only rejoined when Fritz sold us on the idea that the UIAA had come of recognize the center of the Earth was not Milan or Geneva, but really just north of here in the Grand Canyon.
Anyhow—after surviving the presidencies of Delafield (who disapproved of young Brad Washburn) Ladd, Palmer, then Henry Baldwin deVilliers-Schwab, a cotton broker whose 98-cent name came about from his marriage, and James Grafton Rogers, we finally elected presidents that I actually did know and work with, sometimes to their regret.
I would like, therefore, to take a moment to talk about my favorite Club president—other than some of those in attendance here tonight. Joel Ellis Fisher was our Treasurer for two lengthy periods—somewhat of a record, in between which he put in a stint as our President. I single out this major item in our history for two reasons:
1] I loved him; he helped us with that proxy fight—and we damned near won—for he knew more about how to pull off that sort of thing than the rest of us young Turks—Beckey, Matthews and Kauffman, and—I drew up his obituary for our Journal.
2] Ellis was an important business executive—mostly of the late Melville Shoe Corporation, and his generosity to alpinism and this Club was extraordinary. For years, he funded research into glacial recession, all around the world—a condition which many present-day omniscient (and mostly Republican) politicians tend to dismiss as insignificant, if not irrelevant—and he managed the Club’s portfolio in a manner that was decidedly unique. A dabbler in Wall Street affairs, Ellis often invested some of our limited funds in speculative stocks, and, if they went up, the Club was the winner, but if they went down by year-end, he would make us whole out of his own pocket.
Speaking of the Club’s money reminds me of our dues. Back when we lived in New York, and Ellis was our Treasurer, it cost a nickel to ride the local subway—from one end to the other; and our dues were five dollars per year. Today the subway costs 30 times as much, and by that standard, our current dues are a terrific bargain.
However, I want to assure you once more that many of the greater accomplishments of this Club have been done by others than our elected leadership.
“Name a few names,” you might say: SURELY!
• H. (as in Henry) Bradford Washburn, Jr.—for whom the Club By-Laws were amended twice—by adding minimum age restrictions to keep him out, and he then became North America’s best known mountaineer.
• H. (as in Hubert) Adams Carter whose tireless energy, over more than a quarter century, made our A A J the most inclusive and widely-read such journal in the world;
• Dee Molenaar, artist and cartographer, whose watercolors adorn many a mountaineer’s livingroom wall, along with those of another of our Honorary Members, Glendon Weber Boles;
• Dr. Ben Ferris, who developed this Club’s Safety Report into a ‘must read’ for climbers around the world—a work carried forward for the last 30 plus years by one of tonight’s honorees;
• Captain A. H. MacCarthy, who organized and led several major ascents, and who had the grace to turn down a gold medal proffered for the diligence of his work as leader of the 1927 expedition to climb Canada’s Mount Logan;
• Kenneth Atwood Henderson who wrote the original Handbook of American Mountaineering, which I helped to proof-read, and from which a great many people—including most members of the famed 10th Mountain Division—learned the game.
Yvon Chouinard, Francis Peloubet Farquhar, Royal Shannon Robbins, Friedrich Wilhelm Beckey, Raffi Bedayn, Dr. Charles Snead Houston, Fritz Wiessner, and another Honorary Member, the English geology Professor, Noel Ewart Odell ,who introduced ice-climbing to the Harvard Mountaineers and through them to North America—we have been blessed by the company of some of the world’s most notable mountain people, who advanced the techniques, the arts, the literature, the physiology and the manufacture of mountaineering materiel, and thus set an ever higher bar for those who aspire to follow as patrons of alpinism;
One of our foremost members was the late Miriam O’Brien Underhill, America’s first lady of alpinism, who deftly defined mountaineering as “a form of insanity,” and who also did not suffer fools gently. At one Annual Meeting, held in Boston, I was talking with Miriam and a group of her friends when a brash and pompous young climber came over and announced a wonderful litany of ascents he had made in the Dolomites, the previous summer—which included one route on the Torre Grande—the Via Nuvolau—which he proudly said was done “sans gide.”
Miriam, then in her seventies, looked him straight in the eye: “Young man, before you were born, I led that route, sans homme.”
For those who may have a small amount of wine left, I ask you now to rise and offer a toast to the honor and memory of those who have brought us this far.
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Now for a few additional introductions, it is my privilege and duty to present to you the latest persons the Directors of The American Alpine Club have elected to Honorary Membership, thus telling the world that we wish more people would go out and do likewise. Two of them could not be with us this evening, but in alphabetical order, as well as perhaps in seniority if not merit, I am privileged to present to you:
 Walter Bonatti, somewhat younger than me and a native of Bergamo, made numerous spectacular climbs in the Alps, including a winter solo climb of the north face of Il Cervino, and new routes on the Aiguille du Dru and Grand Capuchin as well as his famous climbs in Patagonia; but his great and most heroic work was high on K2, in setting things up for others to finally make that summit.
 A contemporary of Walter’s, Joe Brown is known as one of England’s “hard men,” who made many spectacular post-war ascents in the British Isles, some of his best with our friend, Ian McNaught/Davis, being on the sea cliffs and stacks of the British Isles, as well as further afield in the Atlas Mountains and on the Mustagh Tower. But he is probably best known for his first ascent of Kangchenjunga (all but the last meter) with George Band. We have a message from Joe…
 Tom Frost, the principal savior of Camp 4 and a Yosemite pioneer beyond our praise, was at his greatest in the ascent of the south face of Annapurna. A mountaineering visionary of the first order, Tom was in the forefront of probing the Ruth Gorge area of Alaska and in a great many other good and laudable events for the benefit of American mountaineering.
 In vocation and avocation, Dr. Louis French Reichardt has gone about the adventure of life in style. It’s hard to top a mountaineering curriculum vitae that includes Nanda Devi, K2, and Everest’s Kangshung Face, plus the presidency of this club. His professional life is no less distinguished as a top-end cell physiologist at U.C. San Francisco, pioneering new routes in developmental neurobiology. Happy Birthday, Lou!
 As a literary researcher and author of numerous authoritative accounts, Audrey Mary Salkeld has contributed more to the accuracy of the historical record than anyone since the Reverend Coolidge and our Dr. Thorington. Her presence on our list of Honorary Members is a continuing sign that this Club’s interests transcend more than physical success, and shows we have a strong, ongoing commitment to the intellectual record as well.
(6) The grandson of Arthur Oliver Wheeler (1860 -1945), surveyor of the B.C.- Alberta boundary through the Canadian Rockies and founder of the Alpine Club of Canada; and son of Edward Oliver Wheeler (1890-1962), the first surveyor of Mount Everest and later Surveyor-General of India nearly 100 years after Sir George Everest; Dr John Oliver Wheeler, now retired from the Geological Survey of Canada, was their Chief Scientist for seven years, but spent much of his career charting the mountains of Western Canada. His work was of great interest to many, including myself, for I came across him on several occasions in the Selkirks while he was mapping the bedrock and I was working on the guidebook.
 John Edward Williamson, a sometime official of Outward Bound, is a mountaineer of international distinction, who guided us through the trek from New York to Golden, and who continually makes me proud that I brought him into this game. For uncounted years, ever since my valued associate in alpinism, the late Ben Ferris, laid it off on him, Jed has been Editor of the Annual Report of this Club’s Safety Committee; a service of incalculable value to climbers, young and old, across North America and around the world. Happy Birthday to you, too, Jed!
And now, it is my unusual pleasure to announce the election, though a few years too late, of one additional honorary member, who also cannot be with us tonight, for he died two dozen years ago— the late Arnold Wexler whose labors at Carderock, near our nation’s capital, in conjunction with those of another late honorary member Richard Manning Leonard in Yosemite, led to the greatest mountaineering treatise, perhaps of all time—the ongoing value of which it is impossible to overstate: BELAYING THE LEADER.
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Finally—having arranged with the wine steward to offer every table a special sample from the private cellars of my great-uncle, Percival Lowell who died in office, nearly a century ago, while serving as President of the oldest mountaineering organization in the Americas—I ask that we all rise again, in a toast and salute to these eight highly deserving members of our craft.
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President Swenson, I hope I have served you well; and now I can—as Mrs. Putnam and I used to say in television broadcasting—fade to black. Perhaps, however, you’d like to allow Ms. Salkeld to say a few words in collective rebuttal.
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In any subsequent publication of these remarks, I wish them dedicated to those kind and tolerant friends who brought me up in alpinism: Maynard Malcolm Miller, William Robertson Latady (1918-1979); Benjamin Greely Ferris, Jr (1919-1996); Andrew John Kauffman, II (1920-2002); and Dee Molenaar—all of whom have also played significant roles in The American Alpine Club.
—William Lowell Putnam
Check out all the photos that illustrate this speech on the Photo Galleries page.
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