Royalty. That’s what they called her, and that’s how they treated her. Like royalty.
SCA Founding President Liz Putnam was invited to Grand Canyon National Park this week to keynote the Alternative Break Citizenship School (ABCs). The week-long course sponsored by Break Away, a nonprofit that trains college students to direct high-level service programs, drew campus leaders from around the country, including numerous SCA members.
Under bright blue skies outside the Horace Albright Training Center, Jamie Rosenburg, the SCA Centennial Volunteer Ambassador at Grand Canyon, and Sarah Lechich, the Ambassador for San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, greeted Liz as she arrived for breakfast. Jamie, a recent Tulane grad, and Sarah, a co-site leader at last year’s Grand Canyon ABCs, immediately hit it off with Liz and hatched a plan to, well, break away.
The two interns ditched their morning classes and escorted Liz on a VIP tour of the South Rim, using secret codes to bypass locked gates and gain spectacular views of Hermits Rest, Shoshone Point and other select sites. During a private moment at one of the most-visited parks in America, Sarah stated “You are conservation royalty, Liz. Without you, I wouldn’t be here. It’s an honor to return the favor.”
After a quick lunch, the Ambassadors whisked Liz off to an exclusive tour of the historic Kolb Studio, a century-old structure that clings to the canyon rim near Bright Angel Trail. Gazing at six million years of geologic history, Liz could manage only a single word. “Incredible,” she whispered.
From there it was back to the Albright Center. National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis was addressing the ABCs and park personnel about the need to connect young people from all backgrounds to national parks. When Jarvis spotted Liz in the crowd, he called her to join him. “Do you know who this woman is?” Jarvis asked the students. “She’s a legend! She started a movement!”
Soon Liz the Legend was on the move again, hosting a roundtable with local SCA alumni. At least 40 members of the Grand Canyon staff started their careers with SCA, and one by one they shared their stories: the chief of cultural resources, a law enforcement ranger, the vegetation crew coordinator, an archaeological technician, an environmental educator. Invariably, they concluded their comments with “I owe my start to SCA.”
Liz marveled at the often emotional tales, at times becoming teary-eyed or, in her words, “leaky.” That didn’t stop her from applauding the group’s collective efforts.
“Thank you so much for what you are doing for this incredible park and our beleaguered planet,” Liz said. “Some of you started as far back as 1973 and some of you are just starting your work now. It speaks to the fact that we can’t do this alone. We need your teamwork and commitment.”
And Liz was needed at the Shrine of Ages. It was time for the main event.
At the center of the stage sat a welcoming wing back chair, the Grand Canyon equivalent of a throne for its royal guest. SCA alumnus and park Volunteer Coordinator Todd Nelson, who brings the ABCs to the Grand Canyon each year, introduced Liz to a full and spirited auditorium. “For me,” he said, “it all began with an SCA recruiting poster on a campus bulletin board.”
Liz thanked Todd for “staging this week-long examination of nature’s role in the human experience,” and talked about her own experiences launching SCA, how she overcame challenges along the way, and how SCA transforms participants in as little as four weeks in the wild. She was joined for part of the presentation by Jamie, Sarah and two Centennial Ambassadors who came up from Saguaro National Park, Kelly Gnann and Rachel Wehr.
Liz closed by urging the crowd to unleash their passions, stand up for their beliefs, and follow their dreams. They choose, however – at least for the moment – to follow her voice. After a prolonged ovation, the audience suddenly swarmed the stage. “Can I get a photo?” one student pleaded. “Can I have your autograph?” queried another. One said simply “Can I have a hug?”
It was more than 30 minutes before Liz’s “subjects” dispersed. The majority of them had never met her before and, after this night, they would never forget her.
The following morning, Liz started the journey home, departing the Horace Albright Training Center, a facility honoring the former National Park Service director and one of Liz’s most influential mentors when she first sought to enact the concepts in her Vassar College senior thesis in the mid-1950s. On her way out of the park, she enjoyed one last glance at the Canyon from Mather Point, named after Stephen Mather, the Park Service’s inaugural director whose daughter, Bertha McPherson, was another of Liz’s early advisors.
For Liz, people like Albright and Mather are conservation royalty. Places like the Grand Canyon are nature’s palaces. And the students she’d met the day before are the heirs to the crown.