Jack Tuholske, Superstar
One of my most salutary bits of career-related happenstance occurred a decade ago when I joined a triumverate consisting of me and two distinguished environmental law professors: Pat Parenteau and Jack Tuholske.
Vermont Law School -- where, at the time, I was teaching energy and administrative law while serving as associate director of the VLS Energy Institute -- had decided to take the bold step of becoming the first American law school to make a serious run at offering a full-blown distance learning program. Figuring that a pilot program was the right way to start, VLS wanted three professors to give it a go by receiving training in online course design, putting together a web-based version of a flagship VLS class, and doing the web-based teaching thing on an experimental basis.
Pat and Jack were obvious choices. Not only was each a legendary figure on the VLS faculty -- each was a known innovator and risk-taker in both the classroom and the courtroom on behalf of the environmental principles revered at VLS.
Then there was me: not really prospering in the academy (insufficiently smart) nor getting anything better than mediocre reviews from students (insufficiently kind and empathetic). But VLS wanted an energy course as part of the distance learning pilot and the director of the Energy Institute, though similar to Pat and Jack when it came to accomplishment and fame, apparently had no patience for such an endeavor. So the opportunity passed to me.
News of Jack's death a few weeks ago from cancer, at the far-too-young age of 66, reminded me what a privilege it was to be part of this experiment and, in the process, get a taste of what a remarkable person Jack was.
I learned a bunch of new information about Jack's remarkable life by reading his obituary in The Missoulian. Of course I already knew that Jack was a notorious figure in his home state of Montana -- notorious, I mean, among those who would plunder and desecrate the Big Sky State. Always and affably good listener, Jack never minded hearing me go on and on about Butte -- my grandmother's home town -- even though (as anyone who has ever spent more than a half hour in my company well knows) my obsession with the Richest Hill on Earth could wear out even Evil Knievel (a Butte native) or Steve Bullock (whose brief presidential candidacy in 2019 began with an announcement that referred to Butte).
I did not, however, know about Jack's tumultuous childhood in Missouri nor his troubled youth; his is a classic story of a person who figured out how to get himself together and spend his adulthood making the world better than the one to which he was introduced as a child. I just knew Jack as someone I could always seek out -- whether it was during his annual six months in Montana or his annual six months in Vermont -- if I needed some advice about how to make some aspect of my online courses worthy of the storied VLS brand (as the nation's premier institution for studying environmental law). Jack was patient, practical, and not afraid to flout the rules in quest of excellence. Naturally, I always took his advice.
[The Berkeley Pit in Butte -- strangely beautiful considering it's a huge Superfund Site.]
"Failure to thrive" would be a succinct summary of my tenure at Vermont Law; I simply was not cut out for the academy. Still, I designed and taught online courses in energy law at VLS right through to my first few month's as New Hampshire's Consumer Advocate in 2016. I'm proud of what we were able to deliver, and it's always a great pleasure to savor the success of my former online students even though I never met most of them in person.
How bittersweet, though, to contemplate that Jack Tuholske has now become the third former VLS colleague to leave this reality plane too soon -- after having been notably kind and helpful to me personally. I am thinking now of the late Gil Kujovich and the late Cheryl Hanna. Jack, Gil and Cheryl were each revered figures on the VLS faculty and could easily have ignored me as too insignificant and irrelevant. But, instead, each in their own way found opportunities to help and to encourage. It was unforgettable.
I should add, by the way, that Pat Parenteau is alive, well, and still teaching while also causing trouble. He too went out of the way to be helpful and supportive while I was at VLS, and here's to many more years of Pat's health and success as a law professor and environmental advocate.
When hanging out with Jack I used to imagine, not entirely in jest, about joining him on one of his world-famous courses that he taught in the midst of a backpacking trip through the Montana wilderness. Jack cheerfully suffered my talk of that as well. According to his fabulously written Missoulian obituary, "Jack was at his happiest bushwhacking and off-route, with his family usually trailing behind and murmuring to each other, 'Why is this fun?'"
I hope, therefore, that his family does not mind if I brag that I never spent a moment with Jack that wasn't fun. And, now that so much of the nation's education has been driven on line, I often find myself saying, as a longtime inhabitant of the 'virtual classroom,' welcome to my world! Jack Tuholske was one of that world's major figures.