Outdoor programs director Dan Nelson '75 will retire at end of month

by Abby Mihaly | 11/6/17 2:30am

Dan Nelson ’75 is retiring from his job as outdoor programs director this month after 30 years of service to the College.

Assistant outdoor programs director Rory Gawler emphasized Nelson’s contribution of providing stability to the outdoors programs.

“When he started, the organization very much needed a steady hand,” Gawler said. “It had been through a lot of turmoil in terms of its leadership.”

When Nelson was named director, he had already worked at the College for two decades. Gawler said Nelson’s familiarity with the institution made him an important asset.

Dartmouth Outing Club vice president Carolyn McShea ’18 said she will miss Nelson’s presence.

“Whenever he walks into the room, he might not be the loudest person or the chattiest person but when he talks, people listen, because they really respect what he has to say,” McShea said.

Nelson was drawn to Dartmouth as a student in 1971, in part due to the DOC’s reputation.

“Dartmouth’s Outing Club and its reputation for commitment to supporting students and doing things in the outdoors, and the location, was a big part of what attracted me to come to Dartmouth from [the state of] Washington,” Nelson said.

His DOC First-Year Trip served as his introduction to the College. He said it rained and snowed during the majority of his trip through the Presidential Range, but, to this day, he speaks of the experience as one of his favorite Dartmouth memories.

“When we got to the Ravine Lodge, I was cold and wet and tired and exhausted but really excited to have had that experience,” Nelson said.

He also participated in the sunrise hike up Mt. Moosilauke on the last morning of the trip. At the time, however, there was an emergency shelter just below the summit with a woodstove, but there was no firewood easily accessible at the summit.

“The sunrise hike was really a ploy,” he said.

The students carried backpacks with trash cans full of 50 pounds of wooden spindles latched to them, he said, adding that the sunrise was spectacular.

After graduation, Nelson worked at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire for a year, and earned a Ph.D. in religion and political philosophy at Princeton University.

He returned to Dartmouth in 1987 as an assistant dean of the College. After working various jobs in the Dean’s office at Dartmouth, he started his job as Outdoor Programs Office director in September 2009.

Since Nelson started in his role, Gawler said Nelson has been a huge advocate for the DOC and has bolstered the club’s reputation.

“He wants us to, be as a department, trusted and well-respected across the institution,” Gawler said. “He wants us to be people who reliably respond to email communication, and who are professional … He’s worked very hard to make sure that we maintain and have that reputation.”

Nelson also emphasized risk management during his time as director.

“I think that the organization as a whole is more on top of what it needs to be doing on a regular basis,” said Gawler, citing examples such as bringing in outside opinions, from members of the general council to community members, to advise on how to better manage risk better.

Nelson said his favorite part about his job is introducing students to the outdoors.

“[The best part of the job is] working with my colleagues to help students experience the outdoors and experience the kind of learning and adventure and sense of leadership, accomplishment and community building that comes out of that,” he said.

Nelson expressed the importance of experiencing nature in today’s world.

“I think increasingly we live in a world that is humanly constructed,” he said. “There are so many human-made things that come between us and the natural world and that come between us and other people.”

The remedy, Nelson said, is the outdoors.

“I think there’s something about doing things in the outdoors where you are intimately connected to the natural world that we’re a part of ... I think it can help people develop a real sense of self efficacy and confidence,” he said.

2017 Trips director Doug Phipps ’17 said Nelson contributed significantly during first-year Trips, reflecting a genuine care for the students and their experiences.

“He cares so much about Dartmouth, in the institution and the community,” Phipps said. “And he shows that care in so many different ways, and is willing to do whatever it takes to make it a better place.”

Nelson said his retirement is due to a combination of event. He will have completed 30 years of working at the College, he turns 65 soon and Moosilauke Ravine, where he was first exposed to Dartmouth college, has finally been renovated.

“Those things together seem to me to be a good time to step down and let somebody else move things forward,” he said.

In his retirement, Nelson said he will be involved in community service work and spend more time where he loves most — the outdoors.