In Memoriam: Donn Fendler

August 29, 1926 – October 9, 2016

Donn Fendler was 12 years old in July 1939, when a storm separated him from his group on top of Mount Katahdin. After nine days alone in the wilderness, without adequate food, shelter, or clothing, he stumbled upon a hunting camp. His story grabbed national headlines, and the book he co-authored, Lost on a Mountain in Maine, became required reading for Maine schoolchildren. He later served in WWII and the Vietnam War, retiring as an Army lieutenant colonel and settling in Clarksville, Tennessee, though he continued to spend half the year in Maine, on Sebasticook Lake. John Thurlow, now a grade-school assistant principal at Wentworth School in Scarborough, reached out to Fendler in the late ’80s while student teaching in South Portland. Fendler visited Thurlow’s classes for many years, and the two became close. We asked Thurlow to share his memories of his friend.

"Lost on a Mountain in Maine," by Donn Fendler

I was in my late teens or early twenties when I first read Donn’s book. At the time, I was working in the family business, at my grandfather’s lobster pound in Scarborough, and sometimes I delivered lobster and fish to a retired teacher named Margaret Small, who lived alone by Scarborough Marsh. She always shared books with me — and she lent me a pristine first edition of Lost on a Mountain in Maine.

In 1989, maybe 10 years later, I was student teaching fourth graders in South Portland. Of course, I remembered Donn’s book, and I really wanted to do something that got the kids excited. It turned out to be perfect.

I’d show the kids old Press Herald clippings to have them try to imagine what it would’ve been like to be a friend of Donn’s, seeing headlines about his tracks leading straight off a cliff and that kind of thing. We also used the book as a reason to teach map skills and to have an arborist talk about the trees of Baxter State Park.

Then, it occurred to me to find Donn. It didn’t take long. He was in Clarksville, and I called him up and asked if he’d do a phone interview with my students. Two classes of fourth graders crammed around a speakerphone I’d picked up at RadioShack, and they asked so many questions. Afterward, Donn told me, “Next time I’m up there, I’m coming to visit.”

I got hired in South Portland after student teaching, and Donn’s annual visits became a major thing for the kids. He always closed with what I called his will-to-live lesson. “You all have a strong will in you to survive, to live, to fight,” he’d say. It was really inspirational. Then, when he met one-on-one with kids, it was all about them. He wanted to know what sports they played, what books they read, if they’d ever climbed a mountain. The tables were turned.

A woman I taught with, Nancy Wentworth, grew up in Millinocket, and one day, she told me she had an old 8-millimeter film of Donn in a parade on Main Street. I couldn’t believe it, but sure enough, there was Donn in the welcome-home parade that Millinocket threw him in 1939. It was an amazing find, but we didn’t tell him about it before he came. The kids were all sitting around him on the gym floor when we surprised him with it, and tears just streamed down his face. He was seeing his mom, dad, and siblings all together again, while this massive parade was going on in the background, ticker tape and all.

In the past 25 years, kids have changed a lot. They’re very media-driven today, but they’ll still engage in the vicarious experiences you can bring alive through literature. Donn is so honest in the story about his fears and mistakes and his crying and praying. That still resonates with kids. When he last visited the school here in Scarborough, he was 89 years old, and the students were just as captivated as ever.

My wife and I have two adopted boys, 10 and 11, who love the story. Donn had us up to the lake a couple of times when the boys were little, and he had this great pontoon boat — he got that thing going so fast. The last year up there, though, he felt he was getting a little too old to handle the boat. It can be hard for kids, looking at the picture of the 12-year-old boy in the book but seeing this real-life older man in front of them. They have to use their imagination to understand that time has changed and that he grew up. It’s a good lesson.

One final thing that I thought was especially wonderful about Donn was that he bought books in bulk from the publisher, at his own expense, and always had them in his trunk. He was always worried about the kid who couldn’t afford one. Nobody ever knew that — he just quietly checked with teachers to see if anyone needed a copy. He was such a good man.