Jeff Kuller's legacy was large, visionary and inclusive

Camden's Ragged Mountain loses good friend

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Wednesday, November 7, 2012 - 10:00am
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Jeff Kuller sets sail on Penobscot Bay. (Photo courtesy Alison Kuller)

CAMDEN — Jeff Kuller got things done. From the moment he arrived in town to become Camden's director of parks and recreation in 2004, he took on projects of unwieldy proportions and created success stories, one after another, not just for Camden, but for the larger community that takes joy in hiking, biking and skiing Ragged Mountain. He had a few goals when he first started at the Camden Snow Bowl, and eight years later, there is no disputing that he accomplished them, and so much more.

The whole time he did it with a quiet dignity. He may have bristled now and then during a heated debate — and he saw a number of them during his tenure here — but Kuller never lost his cool. He was a strong, kind leader, and just after noon Sunday, the community collectively contracted with shock and sorrow at his sudden death.

At 12:10 p.m., Nov. 4, he was cutting a tree limb in his yard when he suffered a head injury and died.

"This is an enormous loss for the community, and felt not only in Camden but throughout the state," said Patricia Finnegan, Camden's town manager. " It leaves a big hole in our hearts."

The Ragged Mountain Recreation Area that fell under his stewardship is a mosaic of interests and activities. Its landmark toboggan chute comes alive in February, with thousands of visitors from all over the world. A terrain park halfway up the hill swells with life and music on cold January evenings, while the bends of Muscle Ridge and Foxy are favorites of downhill racers who fly over patches of ice and snow. The lodge is home for weddings, funerals and graduation parties, while the the playing field fills with baseball, softball, football and lacrosse games. Hosmer Pond has its dock in the summer and ice in the winter, and the mountain slopes are combed with trails for hikers, bikers and skiers. Then there is the rest of Camden's parks and recreation department that Kuller also oversaw, the picnic spots on Megunticook Lake, a fledgling Riverwalk along the old tannery property, and summer programs for children. The entire town, as one friend put it, is one big park, and put in those terms, it all came under Kuller's leadership. A job filled with politics and administrative tasks, and not for the faint of heart.

"We'd call him Cool Hand Luke, or Steady Eddy," said his lifetime friend, Bob Gordon, who has climbed through the canyons of Utah and up Himalayan peaks with Kuller, kayaked the seas around Newfoundland, or simply skiied down Clipper with his friend. "He is the guy you always wanted on the expedition with you. Steady, calm, patient. Jeff and Alison, that's who we would call if we wanted to go to Pakistan, or the movies."

You might have been lucky enough to encounter Kuller at the Camden Town Office, taking care of municipal tasks, or bump into him at a concert at the Strand. Or, you might have entered the lodge on a winter morning and caught him deep in thought, gazing up at the hill, absorbing all at once the weather, ski conditions, the lifts, and the people. He might have chatted with you, because that is what he did. He took time to smile, and listen.

"He was one of those few people in our community who you love to be around," said Geoff Scott, of Camden, who worked with Kuller on trail initiatives in Camden neighborhoods. "I loved to be around Jeff. I couldn’t get enough of him. He had an easygoing patient manner that put me at ease, while at the same time conveying a sense of competence and trustworthiness. He was a leader and I will sorely miss him in meetings, on the slopes, or simply enjoying pancakes with on a Sunday morning."

His persistence at finishing a job blended with his unique talent for engineering visions into reality. Go to Ragged Mountain and see. New hiking, mountain biking, downhill ski trails and glades have been built over the past six years. His appreciation of Nordic skiing resulted in a cross-country trail that winds through the woods of the Camden Snow Bowl and abutting conservation land.  Working closely with Coastal Mountains Land Trust, Kuller worked to restore a cross-country skiing tradition that thrived in the Midcoast during the 1960s and 1970s.

"This course is my passion," said Kuller, in February 2011. Holding a special pair of wooden Nordic skis that had been at the Snow Bowl for decades, he stood beaming, with 20 other outdoor enthusiasts who were about to inaugurate the trail under bright sun and powder snow. "Maybe in the not-too-distant future, we race around Ragged Mountain," he said. His love for cross-country skiing was so great that he built another loop around the pond at his Camden home, and would swing through the woods every winter morning.

Kuller's ability to work with all sorts of agencies, nonprofits, committees and personalities is what made the mountain hum with vitality, something the Ragged Mountain Recreation Area had not seen in years.

"He has left a big mark on this community and a big hole," said Rick Knowlton, chairman of the Ragged Mountain Redevelopment Committee, which is overseeing the biggest overhaul of the Snow Bowl in history. Kuller was in the thick of building a stronger community center, and used his position judiciously, aware that his purview was a municipal operation. At the same time, he thought like an entrepreneur. Like a sail that needs constant adjusting, Jeff pulled in, and let out, the lines with gracious skill. He stood at public meetings, most recently before the Camden Select Board in September, acknowledging all the volunteers, "the unsung heros," he called the legions of local citizens, who donated thousands of hours. “I don't do it in a vaccuum, " Kuller said, simply.

"Jeff brought a new spirit to not only the Snow Bowl, but to the entire outdoor recreation nature of our community," said Joe Ryan, of Adventure Advertising. "Through project after project, Jeff brought staff and volunteers together, often bridging differences with grace and professionalism. He truly loved Ragged Mountain and his mark on it will be enjoyed for generations. I am fortunate to have learned from him, and I'm grateful for the time we had to work together."

And always, he listened. He might not agree, but his ear bent your way. You didn't like the idea of a new lodge? Why not, he'd ask. You didn't like the idea of doing away with the Big T? That's OK, he might say, grinning. You are welcome to have it. He might even volunteer to move it to your backyard.

It seemed that Kuller brought snow with him when he arrived in 2004. For the first decade of the new century, the Snow Bowl saw snow like it hadn't since the 1980s. With help from Mother Nature, he moved the ski operation out of the red and into the black. In 2008, the snow fell and the mountain stayed open 12 more days that the previous year, netting a revenue surplus, a phenomenon repeated again in 2009. He upgraded snow-making guns and equipment, re-energized the learn-to-ski program in area schools, and got a bunny slope built for beginners.

The Toboggan Nationals flourished beside the Snow Bowl, and Jeff ensured the lucrative February weekend worked for the entire community.

"Jeff grew to become an integral addition to the group after his arrival in Camden in 2004," said Holly Edwards, chairman of the National Toboggan Championship Committee. "It was a bumpy start, as many on the committee are real Mainers, set in their ways and uncomfortable with change, but Jeff ultimately helped us grow, while never making us feel we had lost our autonomy," she said. "Jeff was never shy to offer his opinion, and we learned that he didn't have a need for control as some feared; rather, he wanted to be heard just as much as anyone else interested in the event’s success. Jeff also always respected the Toboggan Committee's need for democracy and so he became just as much a committee member as any of us. We thank Jeff for his unwavering commitment to enjoying the great outdoors, no matter the season."

 

A lifetime outside

Kuller helped to establish the Mid-Coast Regional Off-Road Bicycle Enthusiasts. He nurtured a relationship with Coastal Mountain and Georges River land trusts and Camden Hills State Park to develop and support cooperative trail use. In the summer, he and his wife, Alison, would sail Penobscot Bay. Or, he might have been out at Megunticook Lake, working with a crew to set new public picnic tables at Lands End.

He had an easygoing patient manner that put all at ease, while at the same time conveying a sense of competence and trustworthiness.

He was a leader and we will sorely miss him in meetings, on the slopes, or simply enjoying pancakes with on a Sunday morning.

Rick Knowlton was on the 2003 search committee, comprising Bob Gordon, Frank Morong and then-Town Manager Roberta Smith, that found Kuller — "Rather, Jeff found us," he said.

Kuller grew up in Minnesota, but had spent 12 years living and working with Outward Bound in the Midcoast. Just prior to taking the Camden job, he was director of a sailing program in Boston, and before that he worked in a variety of public, private and nonprofit outdoor and educational organizations. He met Alison at Outward Bound, and they had two children, Ben and Sophie. They were world travelers and explorers. But while Jeff had a skill for embracing the adventure, he had a sense of caring. On one three-month climbing expedition he and friends made up the 8,000-foot peak of Gasherbrum II in Pakistan, Jeff would spend every afternoon holding a clinic for the 100-plus porters, distributing aspirin and checking wounds.

He spent his first year in Camden listening and learning, an intention he articulated from the outset. After that, he went to work growing the recreational opportunities at Ragged Mountain, and bringing the community in on a decision-making process.

Finnegan characterized Kuller as a man with boundless energy, and a leader in exemplifying how to live an active life. Under his watch, the ski patrol and courtesy teams got stronger, and volunteers were recruited. The doors were heaved open on many aspects of mountain operations, and Kuller invited participation. From clearing trails in the fall to summer work, he recognized the value of community.

A memorial service, followed by a reception, will be held Thursday, Nov. 8, at 11 a.m. at the Camden Opera House. Memorial donations may be made to the Ragged Mountain Recreation Area Foundation, P.O. Box 438, Camden, ME 04843.

Condolences, photos and memories may be shared with the Kuller family by visiting their Book of Memories at longfuneralhomecamden.com.

"It is truly remarkable how one person has so positively changed the personality and spirit of the Snow Bowl," said Galen Todd, a former ski patrol director. "We all witnessed Jeff’s steady leadership as the terrain park evolved, the glades were opened, the Toboggan Nationals continued to grow, the expansion of off season fall lift operations and mountain bike trails, etc. The list is long. He brought a solid team of employees and volunteers together and great things happened for our community. His perseverance and dedication to the Ragged Mountain Recreation Area redevelopment effort will not be forgotten. Jeff will be missed by us all. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and his wide circle of friends."

Beth Ward sits at the desk just feet away from Kuller's desk, with a thin wall between them. Their perch is upstairs in the lodge, and it is tight quarters. Beth worked with Kuller for eight years, and she remembers him as a "kind, caring, gentle leader, who was enthusiastic about possibilities and opportunities every day. He was always planning his next adventure with Alison or living one through his kids, Ben and Sophie. The Snow Bowl and the town of Camden has lost a great man.  It was truly a joy to work with him and he will be missed."

He was also a health nut, she said, forever exploring nutrition and the next new diet. And Kuller delighted in energy conservation, with audits and solar panels, his electric bicycle and car.

"The guy was frugal," said Bob Gordan. "He was a tinkerer. He was inquisitive."

For families, the Snow Bowl is one of the finest treasures the community has, and Kuller recognized that. He knew the pure joy children and teenagers take in having a home mountain. He was both strict and generous with the thousands of children from Camden and surrounding towns. An adventurer himself, he knew when they went out of bounds, and excelled at drawing them back in, and teaching them. There are hundreds of young adults across the country right now, in dorm rooms, in the military, working jobs, or on their own outdoor adventures, who are saddened by his death.

"The Snow Bowl, and Jeff, gave my two boys their first jobs," said Kathryn Baxter, of Hope. "It takes a village to raise a child, and Jeff and the Snow Bowl did that for my family."

Kuller left the community early, and the region is saddened by his death. People have said repeatedly that he "left a mark" and a "left a big hole." Those are simple words, yet they characterize a man who thoughtfully accomplished so much, and established a remarkable legacy, not for himself, but for the world.

"He lived a great life," said his friend, Bob. "It was just way too short."

 

PenBayPilot.com Editorial Director Lynda Clancy can be reached at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 706-6657.