Neil Ulman, a valued member of our Craftsbury community, passed away last weekend.
As I sit here in Palm Bay, Florida, between training sessions on a leap day, I have a lot of mixed emotions as I think of Neil. People often say that when considering a loss. They also often speculate as to how the deceased would have wanted things. Frankly, I didn’t know Neil well enough to draw accurate conclusions on what he may or may not have wanted me to do right now. However, I knew Neil well enough to know that he had a very unique perspective on the world.
Neil attended more fitness offerings at the Center than I ever could have expected. In the heart of winter, he would be at Community Fitness or out on the ski trails as we practiced around him. In the middle of the summer, he would be an avid attendee of Community Rowing. For his age, Neil was an astonishingly eager student always trying new challenges or activities even if it meant attempting pull-ups with a resistance band after not doing pull-ups for years. I guess one thing I know Neil would want right now is more coaching. No matter what realm we were in, he wanted the most informative coaching I could offer. It was almost to the point that it was off-putting to people how sternly he would request input on what he was doing. I could also be certain that Neil would attempt anything he did to the fullest of his capabilities. He would only stop his work for the buzz of the clock, and if he didn’t hear that (which happened), then you had to grab the weights from him.
What some people might not have known about Neil is that he was a very successful and distinguished journalist. Not many could have guessed from his crew neck sweatshirt, hiked up athletic socks, and his hand frequently cupped to his ear that he had traveled the far reaches of the globe to cover stories and experiences that many of us have only read about in works similar to his if not his. I was also fortunate enough to be one degree of separation from an individual who received a very, well-written poem from Neil, a poem that he spontaneously wrote to champion Craftsburian life when moved by a local holiday concert. That is not something everyone takes the time to do. Moreover, that is not something everyone has the ability to do to such a brilliant degree. Here is one more recent sample of his writing that is naturally pertinent:
Once, Neil took me up in his plane, a 2-seater Cessna, pictured below.
I am not built for small places. I’m also not built as flexibly physically or mentally as I’d like to be. I was still thrilled to go up in the air with Neil and cover terrain that I knew so thoroughly from one perspective but not from this one. Flying was another area of Neil’s constant quest to learn. As I look at this plane, sure, I remember getting airsick and worrying about how the landing was going to go as I recalled the humble athletic lessons Neil and I worked on during Community Fitness and elsewhere at the Center. At the same time, I just keep coming back to the thought of how such a learned person managed to be such an open student. In the areas where I was the teacher (weights, erging, rowing, stretching, etc.), Neil saw me as an expert for better or worse and somehow confidently trusted me to steer him in the right direction. Not many people have the humility to put his or her experience, seniority, and wisdom on the shelf even if his or her expertise is in a peripheral field.
I realize that the communities of Craftsbury, the Outdoor Center, and the Green Racing Project extend far beyond the geographical location. At the same time, it is from this geographical heart that we form our foundation and identity. Another member of the community took the time to share news of Neil’s passing with me while I’m miles away and for that I am grateful as I am for many other gifts from our neck of the woods. In my limited years of knowing Neil (just four), I can easily recognize what an exceptional human being he was. I am thankful for the opportunity to meet him, coach him, and in turn, learn a new perspective from him. He will be greatly missed by me and undoubtedly many others. For starters, I will make the most of this extra day, this leap day.