Daniel Fortner sports a tulip poplar leaf, a climbing helmet, and a climbing rope before his valedictorian address in 2016. Photo courtesy of Sewanee’s Flickr.
By Vanessa Moss
It’s nearly impossible to conceptualize 13,000 acres. There are endless ways to splice it, to categorize in hopes of burrowing into the grit of our Domain: By caves, by trees, by hills, by geometric equivalent to football fields (roughly 9,750), by the number of minutes it takes to walk from central campus to an unobstructed pool of trees (less than ten, if you pick the right direction).
The only way to comprehend the magnitude of our space is to explore it; to be shown it piece by piece by seniors and professors and lifelong treaders of the space. This year, Sewanee welcomes back an old face as a new guide to the Domain in Daniel Fortner (C’16), the new Assistant Director to the Sewanee Outing Program (SOP).
As a student, Fortner was a SOP work study, an EMS volunteer, a groundskeeper for Physical Plant Services (now Facilities Management), an almost-psychology-turned-natural-resources student, a veteran of the “total suffer fest” that was mineralogy with Steve Shaver, a creative writer, and valedictorian of his graduating class.
Before Sewanee, Fortner’s exposure to outdoorsmanship was limited mostly to hunting and fishing, culling turkeys in the early morning near his home in Georgia. But when he arrived, he rapidly picked up trail running, climbing, mountaineering, caving, anything that show him a new face of the Mountain.
“The SOP gave me the tools to explore on my own terms,” he explained. And by the time SOP Director John Benson invited him to climb some Alpine peaks for a week one summer, “the outdoor addiction was set.”
For the first 10 years in the SOP, Benson had no assistant. Nine years ago, the office began offering a one-year post-bacc job for student leaders. But when Seth Burns (C’15) got the job in 2016, it changed to a permanent position.
“Continuity is really important,” Benson said. In the context of orchestrating cross-country trips and major events like the SOP’s Pre-Orientation program, and just being a familiar face for student interaction, Benson is thrilled to have Fortner return to their team.
“To do this job, you have to have a strong proficiency for climbing, running, biking, caving, handling extreme temperatures and high elevations,” Benson clarifies. “A big part of these trips is to make it look like we’re not leading while we’re leading.”
Having fun while keeping students safe are the two key components to any SOP expedition. But beyond technical skills, Assistant Directors need to be friendly, passionate for student leadership, and eager to mentor and teach students.
Benson himself is a mentor to many students, and has been during his 19-year tenure at Sewanee. Fortner was one of them.
“Benson invests in students for years and years,” Fortner grinned. Even after his graduation, the two of them have gone every summer to climb and romp out west.
Before delivering his valedictorian address at his commencement ceremony, Fortner pinned a tulip poplar leaf to his gown, donned a climbing helmet, and swung a climbing rope over his shoulder.
During his speech, he spoke of existential anxiety that cripples people at cross roads; how infinite paths flare out from every turning point, particularly at graduation with the impending entry into the “real world.”
In retrospect, the path he’s taken has been unsurprisingly adventurous, oscillating between saving money and piling all his belongings in a van to return to the southwest. His three years away from Sewanee led him to a menagerie of landscaping and private jobs, marketing for an outing company in Montana, and most recently, curating at the famous Muirie Ranch in Wyoming.
“It was just five months in the Grand Teton National Park, teaching about America’s conservation legacy and living in a cabin.” He added, quietly, “That set my heart on fire.” Then it was four months back in the southwest before packing up and coming home to Sewanee.
He turned the angle of his commencement speech away from dread, and toward a wonderment with the world and appreciation for all his fellow seniors had already achieved. He shared insights to guide away self-critical narratives in the face of limitless choices, praising the marvelousness of everything he and his peers had already accomplished, from learning to walk to mastering organic chemistry.
“Yes, we will change the world. But we are human, so let us not neglect to give ourselves the mercy and patience we deserve,” he closed. “It’s time for us to go. So let’s move forward now, out of this place, but let us do so one miraculous, stumbling, human-sized step at a time.”
Sewanee is lucky that those stumbling, human-sized steps brought him back to the Mountain, to lead students through the infinite worlds caught in our 13,000-acre home.