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 said. “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 going to Princeton – the Princeton of the South. She was not amused.”
John 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 and William Workman, as well as hard, “pre-Lefty Driesell” years on the basketball court.
“The academic work was brain-frying – I came in with great eyesight and left wearing glasses,” he said with a laugh. “But the positive parts were the intellectual discipline and the respect I gained for good ideas and critical thinking. And on the court, I learned how to keep hustling no matter what and to keep going in the face of defeat.”
After serving active duty in the army and attending graduate school, John applied for a teaching job in Alabama. The headmaster told John about his plans to start an Outward Bound School in Minnesota.
“He described it to me as a rite of passage for young men,” said John. “He spoke eloquently about helping young boys find harmony with oneself, each other and the natural world. When he paused, I told him it was 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.
“Letting people discover what they can from overcoming adversity in the wilderness – it’s a beautiful model,” said John. “And when I discovered Outward Bound was grounded in the philosophy of Kurt Hahn, a Jewish-German educator who had spoken out against Hitler in the 1930s, I latched onto it totally. I quickly learned that it wasn’t just about bagging peaks and shooting rapids in the wilderness; it was about becoming a fully alive human being and a world citizen.”
John 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. Eventually, he 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 expanded its programs not only in the NC mountains but also in the Atlanta Outward Bound Center, the Florida Everglades and in South America.
“Outward Bound is actually a powerful complement to a liberal arts education,” he said. “It promotes communication, problem-solving skills, love for the environment, respect for all people and, above all, compassion. My Davidson foundation served me well in my leadership role.”
Outward Bound began in 1941 in Great Britain and now has more than 75 locations in 30 countries. It aims to help everyone who is motivated and who wants to be challenged, 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, and they find out that the common human denominator transcends all other differences,” said John. “When there is a problem in an Outward Bound course, it doesn’t matter what you look like or where you came 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.”
John 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 it 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, John 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 said.
Growing up in Albany, Georgia, John 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 NC Outward Bound School during his tenure. What started at Davidson—his Princeton in the South—has been felt the world over.
Recommend a Game Changer
Do you know a member of the Davidson community — alumnus or alumna, faculty or staff member, current student — who has championed positive change — in family, community or world? If so, we invite you to nominate a game changer. Davidson will follow up to tell the story.