September 20, 2017
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Donn Fendler remembered as ‘true American hero,’ legend to generations of Mainers

By John Holyoke, BDN Staff
Updated:

For a nine-day span in 1939, the saga unfolding in the deep woods of Maine riveted newspaper readers around the globe.

Donn Fendler, a 12-year-old boy from New York, was lost on Mount Katahdin. At one point, he was presumed dead, and the search party shrunk from more than 300 to just 50.

And then Fendler walked out of the woods and told his tale.

On Monday, Fendler died at age 90. For thousands who read his story, “Lost on a Mountain in Maine,” or met the man during his frequent classroom visits over several decades, Fendler won’t be forgotten.

“What a terrific Maine legend,” said former Maine Gov. John Baldacci. “[He was] a true American hero to thousands of Maine children and their families.”

In 2007, Baldacci welcomed Fendler to Augusta in order to repay a debt: After emerging from the woods 68 years earlier, Fendler had been promised a lifetime fishing license by then-Gov. Lewis Barrows, but that pledge had apparently been forgotten.

Baldacci was the governor who made good on that promise. And the ceremony mattered to Fendler.

“He got choked up,” Baldacci recalled on Tuesday. “He had a very hard time speaking. It was a special time, because we were honoring a promise made, but at the same time he was such a humble person that he was just overcome with emotion. It was just a very touching moment for him and his family, and it was a time that I won’t forget.”

Baldacci said that he, like other Mainers, appreciated the way that Fendler handled himself, and the message of hope that Fendler always expressed while visiting students who’d read his book.

“He’s always given of himself. He always felt like he needed to try to inspire, try to ignite that light in each person,” Baldacci said. “He wanted to pay it forward [for the efforts of Mainers who tried to find him]. He was just a wonderful, wonderful person who will surely be missed.”

Lucas St. Clair, whose family donated land that recently was declared a national monument, is familiar with the area that Fendler had to traverse. In fact, when Fendler emerged from the woods and was found, he did so just across the East Branch of the Penobscot River from Lunksoos Camp, which is now on monument land.

St. Clair said that during recent discussions the National Park Service has expressed interest in commemorating the history of Lunksoos Camp and the Donn Fendler story.

St. Clair described the area between Katahdin and Lunksoos as “incredibly rugged,” and marveled at Fendler’s nine-day adventure. Reading “Lost on a Mountain in Maine” for the first time was a life-changing event for St. Clair.

“That was what really got me attracted to Mount Katahdin,” St. Clair said. “I read that book and then I began begging my dad to go up and climb Katahdin. That was probably second grade. I climbed it in 1988. I was 10.”

St. Clair said the way the story was told in the book stuck with him, and helped fuel his passion for the outdoors.

“It seemed more of an adventure than it did this terrifying experience, which I’m sure it was,” St. Clair said. “[Today] is a sad day, but at the same time, it’s amazing that he lived such a long and healthy life. He was such an inspiration.”

And Fendler always loved Maine, where he spent summers on Sebasticook Lake.

“What a great advocate he has been for our state, and especially the Katahdin region,” St. Clair said. “He never blamed the woods, despite what he went through.”

Sarah Smiley, a BDN columnist whose book, “Dinner with the Smileys,” recounts a year of dinners while her husband, Dustin, was serving in the Navy and away from home, said she has fond memories of Fendler.

“What an honor to have him ‘fill’ my husband’s empty seat while Dustin was deployed,” Smiley said in an email. “Despite his flawless coat and khaki pants, Donn was a kid at heart and had a great time with the kids. They played catch, and did tricks with the dog. My boys loved Donn. So grateful we had that time with him.”

Lynn Plourde worked on the transformation of Fendler’s book into a graphic novel — “Lost Trail: Nine Days Alone in the Wilderness” — and often spent time with him at library events and school readings.

“I look at him as Maine’s miracle,” Plourde said. “He should not have survived those nine days, if you look at everything that happened to him as a 12-year-old kid.”

Fendler’s touch with young readers was special, she said.

“He was so generous of heart,” Plourde said. “For each [young reader who wanted an autograph] he would stop and talk, and each of them felt like they were the star. He made everybody feel so special.”

And Plourde said Fendler got as much out of those interactions as his young fans did.

“He thrived on it. These past few years he had more health issues, and when he came back from [his home in] Clarksville, Tennessee, to Maine … I would sometimes look at him and feel that he wasn’t well,” Plourde said. “[Arriving at some school visits] he would look like a wilted flower that finally had water. He loved to share his story, and he loved the way people reacted to it. He looked at it as his way to pay back the people of Maine.”

Bangor historian Dick Shaw, who first had “Lost on a Mountain in Maine” read to him when he was in third grade, considered Fendler a friend. Shaw last saw Fendler at an event at Cole Land Transportation Museum about a month ago.

Fendler said he’d lost more than 30 pounds, but still seemed to enjoy telling stories to a crowd that was smaller than some he’d spoken to in the past.

“He was in high spirits. He said, ‘If there’s one person or 100, I’m going to talk to you people,’” Shaw said. “It was a little more intimate [than some speaking engagements]. He gathered people around.”

 


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