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Chairman Column: Tributes to Merrill Sterler and Paul Zumwalt

A lot has happened since the last quarter which has dramatically changed the highpointing culture as we know it.

To begin with the sad news.

Merrill Sterler, the owner with a heart of gold of Hawkeye Point, Paul Zumwalt, the patron saint of all things highpoints, have left us.

On a happier note we have one less privately owned highpoint as South Carolina has purchased Sassafras Mountain summit from Duke Energy.

And in the life goes on department, we are going to see some big changes soon on the Club’s Board of Directors with the new crop of Board members and the impending term limit retirements and we have a great crop of new board prospects.

Since I am a native of rural Missouri with parents grew up on farms initially without electricty, the passing of two highpointers with rural backgrounds has particularly hit me.

I first visited Merrill in 1973 shortly after Hawkeye Point was named Iowa’s highpoint. I was on a weekend trip with my parents to visit my mom’s old stomping grounds in northwest Iowa at Climbing Hill.

The high point designation on the Rand McNally map jumped off the page and of course required a side trip. We got specific directions at a grocery store in Sibley and drove out arriving at sunset.

As we pulled up to the house I was expecting the residents of the house to be annoyed with having visitors. Merrill came to the door and pointed the way to the summit and told us to park in the drive. This was my first taste of the legendary Sterler hospitality.

The one thing that was always wonderful about the Sterlers was that they always enthusiastically welcomed highpointers and were always curious about their visitors. They didn’t seem to mind late night or early morning visits – that was part and parcel of the quirks of the visitors. In fact it was not uncommon for the Sterlers to invite visitors into their house for coffee and hot chocolate.

Hawkeye Point was the only highpoint that I visited with my parents. My dad’s picture on the summit had graced my americasroof webpage even as buildings and towers came and went on the Sterler farm. After my parents died in 1998, I saw just how deep a chord the visit had resonated with them. I found a short story in my father’s papers – “My son has an unusual hobby – he likes to go to highpoints.”

My last visit with the Sterlers was in 2003 after the Highpointers Convention when we visited for the scattering of Jakk Longacre’s ashes.

As pulled up, the Sterlers were sitting in the yard. They had pulled out all their summit log books (which they started in 1990 with the first entry from Travis Canon). It included an entry from Jakk Longacre visiting en route to the 1993 convention.

We sat in the kitchen for an interview which appeared in the Third Quarter 2003 Apex to Zenith Newsletter. It seemed almost as there was never a highpointer the Sterlers did not like. Greatness in a sense was thrust on the Sterlers. When they moved into the farm home (that comes Donna’s family), they had no idea it was the highpoint until nearly 20 years later! They had always enjoyed the fun of meeting new people. They were a little nervous about the liability issue but were trusting in the good intentions of highpointers. They were so unassuming that they didn’t want any help for the new granite monument they had placed on the summit.

And in things coming full circle, Merrill, a Korean War veteran, was very moved when I unfurled the flag that had draped my dad’s coffin which we used for the background during the Jack scattering.

We were very fortunate to have had Merrill in Iowa.

On a day to day basis, Highpointers probably had more dealings with Paul Zumwalt.

Although Paul had highpointed for fun his entire life, he was 76 in 1988 when he published his guidebook “Fifty State Summits – Guide With Maps to State Highpoints” – the first highpoint guidebook after Frank Ashley’s effort.

Paul had a demeanor and smile that you immediately loved. And it was clear he was much beloved by his family as 20 more members of the Zumwalt clan attended each Highpointers Convention – a record which may never be equaled.

The Club seemed to almost come up with awards to celebrate him.

In 1989 he was awarded the first Vin Hoeman Award (an award to be won later by the likes of Frank Ashley, Jakk Longacre and Don Holmes). In the 2001 he received what was then called the “Highpointer Cum Laude” Award. The award was subsequently named in the Jakk Longacre Award after its only other recipient – our Club founder.

Happily in 2001, I also did an interview with Paul that appeared in the Third Quarter 2001 Apex to Zenith in which he talked about living virtually his entire life within 30 miles of where he was born (much is the same story for Merrill Sterler) and his childhood romance with Lila who preceded him (their grave marker in Illinois depicts a mountain).

Everybody in the Club has their own precious Paul moment.

From a Club perspective Paul has pushed for a museum and has made donations towards it. We of course were very moved by Paul’s scattering of Jakk Longacre’s ashes on Charles Mound during the 2003 convention – a task that he joked he would do when Jakk first suggested he wanted to do that in 2001 at a time when nobody realized how soon that moment would arrive.

The Club will never be the same without Paul.

Now moving on to a happier note, we are delighted that South Carolina has purchased the Sassafras Mountain summit from Duke Energy. Duke Energy had always been a great friend to the highpointers and provided no restrictions to the summit. But placing the summit in public will guarantee the protection of the summit. There was some debate in the South Carolina newspapers that a developer was going to sweep down and steal the summit. I don’t think Duke would have ever agreed to that. But I’m still glad it’s public property now.

Finally, I am delighted that we have such a great crop of candidates for the Board of Directors. I’ve always been a bit nervous about the future of the Board as we enter into a time of mandatory term-limit retirements. Dave Covill, Don Holmes, Jean Trousdale, and Diane Winger are going to retire in 2006. The following year John Mitchler and I will retire. George Vandersluis is not running for re-election this time after serving since the beginning of the board and Mary Maurer is also stepping down.

The upshot of all this is that we’re going to have the first significant change in officers of the board in several years. The slate of candidates running this year is excellent and the club will be in good hands.

Keep Klimbin’.