A Man of Many Worlds: Robert Bates

Exeter High School junior Meghan Donovan won the Nancy Carnegie Merrill History Award for this essay about long-time Exeter resident Robert Bates. Bates's widow, Gail Bates, was in the audience when Meghan read her essay at the historical society's annual Youth Night, April 19, 2012. Service Credit Union generously sponsored the essay contest and Youth Night.

There are some people who change lives; there are others who change communities, and there are even some who change the world. Very few however, are able to accomplish all of these as Robert Bates, of Exeter, did. He was an incredible man who inspired his students, promoted activism in his community and revolutionized mountaineering on an international level. Bates left a legacy behind, or rather, a philosophy, which stressed the importance of friendship, optimism, and risk taking.

Robert Bates
Known as “Bob” by his acquaintances, Bates was an Exeter Academy graduate of the class of 1929, and returned to the school as an English teacher in 1939. He was a personable, welcoming professor who mentored students throughout his career at the academy. He was the advisor of multiple clubs and organizations at the school and many looked up to him as a role model. In 1947, one of his first days back in Exeter following his military service, three students approached him and asked if he would be willing to advise a new mountaineering club He delightfully agreed, and continued to offer his support and guidance to the group for the next thirty-seven years, even after it evolved into a cross country and alpine ski team. Bob himself stated “[his] best teaching may have been with the Exeter Mountaineering Club.”

Others however, disagreed. Robert Anderson, a former student said “[he believes] Bob was the most inspiring teacher [he had] ever had.” Anderson went on to write numerous plays and novels, most notably Tea and Sympathy. Bates was the advisor of the literary society at Exeter, called the Lantern Club, which brought a number of famous lecturers to the school on a weekly basis. Not only was he able to influence the young people on an intellectual level however. George Russell was a student at Exeter, in the 1940s, who met Bates when he showed interest in the Mountaineering Club. His parents were concerned about his participation in the club because Russell had been diagnosed with a heart murmur. Bates asked his lifelong friend, Charlie Houston, to examine the boy’s heart. With this examination, he determined that Russell’s heart was stable enough to withstand exercise and that in fact it would most likely benefit him. Bates became close to Russell throughout his time at Exeter and watched him grow into a talented athlete. By extension, Bates enabled Russell to develop into an outstanding climber, runner, wrestler, and lacrosse player. Later in life Russell was a wrestler of Olympic caliber. He said “I’m just one student out of roughly 3,000 who were privileged to learn from Bob Bates…I don’t know anyone else like him. He formed my character and made me who I am today.”

Despite mentoring, Bates is most famous for his work in his natural habitat: the mountains. He climbed during a period known as the “Golden Age of Mountaineering” in which unexplored territories were tackled and adventure never ceased. He began his climbing while at Harvard from 1929 until 1935, where he was part of the Mountaineering Club and the group of climbers known as the “Harvard Five.” The group pushed mountaineering to unprecedented limits throughout the 1930s. In 1937 he made the first summit of Mount Lucania in the Yukon, which at that time, was the tallest unclimbed mountain on the continent. In 1937 and 1953 he climbed K2, the second highest mountain in the world. K2 is considered to be a much more technical, challenging mountain than Mount Everest. On these climbs they established routes up the mountain although they never reached the summit. On the second attempt, Art Gilkey died from a blood clot, and the group is famous for their heroic efforts to save him. On the way down, they experienced the most famous belay in mountaineering history, in which five men were suspended, held by the weight of one man’s ax in the ice. Despite the failure to save Gilkey and reach the summit, his success in the Mountaineering world won him international fame.

 James Bryant Conant, President of Harvard, had a son at the Academy and asked Bates to rock climb with them in the White Mountains. During their hike, they discussed the usefulness of mountaineering to the US army and days later, Conant met with General George Marshall to discuss the importance of soldiers training in harsh conditions. In 1941, before the US entered the war, Bates became the Captain of the Quartermaster Corps of the US Army. His team developed and tested equipment in cold and mountainous regions throughout the world. Bates was asked to yet again, to work for the greater good in 1962, when he served as the first director of the Peace Corps in Nepal. His civil service was a perpetual component of his life that never wavered. Bates was a strong preservationist in Exeter, saving the Dudley House from being replaced by a bank on Water Street and working to conserve lands on the outskirts of Exeter.

Gail Bates with essay author Meghan Donovan
Robert Bates was a man with a plethora of accomplishments on all levels: personal, local and international. His 96 years of life were so full; few will ever impact the people of Exeter and the global population at large, as he did. No obituary can ever express the impact that Bob Bates had on this world, but his sheer memory left in the words of his friends, colleagues, and family are the true legacy that he left behind. As written in his book, K2—The Savage Mountain, “No mountain is climbed by one man.”


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