Major espoused science education with conviction

January 17, 2018

There’s a certain class of people who will go down in Jackson Hole annals as fundamental to the valley’s identity as a bastion of conservation.

The Murie and Craighead families, to name two. They were the contemporaries of Teton Science School founder Ted Major, who will also be remembered as a giant of Jackson Hole environmentalism, longtime friend and fellow teacher Patty Ewing said.

“Unfortunately,” Ewing said, “they’re getting fewer in number.”

The contingent lost one more to history last week. Major, 97, died Jan. 10 after a monthslong stretch of being in and out of the hospital. The Victor, Idaho, resident and former Jackson Hole High School science teacher was at the forefront of environmental education when he started Teton Science School as a side project in the summer of 1967.

Ewing, a Science School board member in the Major era, looked back on her friend as “the consummate teacher.”

“Ted Major’s vision and passion for teaching kids in the natural world,” she said, “was the seed from which Teton Science School grew and flourished.”

Though Teton Science Schools (now plural) has grown into a large, complex institution that teaches more than 15,000 people annually, in Major’s day it was simple and small. His field ecology class brought a dozen or so high school students into the open air of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem — their everyday classroom.

One experience brought Jackson Hole youngsters into Yellowstone National Park to observe a sedated grizzly bear being handled by Frank Craighead for research. More routinely, there were backpacking trips into places like the Red Desert, the Wind River Range, Dunoir Valley and remote reaches of the Tetons.

Major’s instruction, which “exuded love for the natural world,” left its mark on former Jackson Hole resident Penny Morgan. She had him as a teacher in seventh, 10th and 12th grades, and for the summer of 1970 as a Teton Science School student, when she took on a research project looking at lichen in recently burned and older-growth tree stands. It was a bellwether: Morgan is now a University of Idaho professor of fire ecology, teaching and researching in forests all over the Rocky Mountains.

“I love my job,” Morgan said. “I get to work with students, I get to teach outside and I get to learn and teach about why things are like they are. And I was inspired to do that by Ted.”

Jean Jorgensen first met Major in the late 1960s, when she was helping whip into shape an old homestead along Moose-Wilson Road that was Teton Science School’s first facility. She was wiping up cobwebs alongside Mardy Murie, an early Teton Science School board member, and was impressed enough with the operation that she sent her kids to school under Major and later become a board member.

“His ideas about outdoor education turned out to have way more impact than he probably ever expected,” Jorgensen said, “because by this time there are thousands and thousands of kids who have had this exposure.”

Among those students was Terry Tempest Williams, a writer and activist who co-authored an award-winning children’s book with Major, “The Secret Life of Snow.”

Before founding Teton Science School in his late 40s, Major tried his hand in ranching and, for a time, ran a Hereford ranch near Pinedale. He earned a master’s degree in science education at the University of Utah-Salt Lake City and taught in Utah and Alaska before a job offer drew him back to Jackson Hole in the 1960s.

In retirement, Major lived with his wife, Joan, in a brush-choked house on the Teton Valley side of Teton Pass next door to their son.

The man who had big ideas about environmental education was known for his big personality. Sources interviewed by the News&Guide described Major as “opinionated,” “forceful,” “on the gruff side” and a “my-way-or-the-highway” kind of guy.

“He was a strong-willed person who recognized not just the importance of education,” Jorgensen said, “but the importance of really meaningful education.”

Wilson resident Zaidee Fuller, who knew Major her whole life, looked back on him as a “man of steel.”

“He was one tough guy,” Fuller said. “He was in the Normandy invasion.”

“He was always devoted to science and plants and biology,” she said, “and teaching other people about it.”