David Moriah

David Moriah helped lead 50 years of  The Cornell Outdoor Education program which provided students with an outlet to explore the outdoors and build leadership experience.

It was standing room only at the Robison Hall of Fame Room at Cornell University on Saturday. The large room was packed with about 200 people, many of whom have had a major impact on the university. Coaches past and present, boosters, national championship players, Super Bowl alumni, athletic directors… all were there for the plaque dedication ceremony in honor of the late Richie Moran. I stood next to David Moriah, who told me, “I feel like a fish out of water here.” I asked why. David looked at the dozens of photos adorning the walls and replied, “Well, all these programs play to win, to take down an opponent. Our program is different. It's the antithesis of the win/lose orientation. On a successful day of climbing, we help one another. Everybody summits. Everybody wins.” 


Moriah and I sat down the next day to talk about an upcoming event that will mean a great deal to him and to many others. From July 6–9, a few hundred people will return to Ithaca for Cornell Outdoor Education program's 50th Anniversary Celebration. Some will stay in dorms, some will stay with friends, some will rent hotels and many will camp out at the Hoffman Challenge Course, which houses the famed Moriah Hall (an upscale outhouse named for David Moriah, the revered founder of the program). 


I asked David — my friend of 42 years — how it all began, and he said, “In the fall of '72, I was a senior at Cornell, and the physical education program offered a pre-orientation experience — an opportunity to bond with other incoming freshmen in the woods. It was the first such program in the country.” 


Moriah had recently completed an Outward Bound program — a 28-day sailing adventure off the coast of Maine — and he told me, “In the middle of that trip, I had an epiphany. This was what I was supposed to do with the rest of my life.” In his words, “With the arrogance of a 22-year-old, I approached George Patte, the director of physical education. Patte agree to pay the upstart to design outdoor education programs in the P.E. lineup, and David recalled, “It became my full-time job for the next 12 years, before I passed the torch to the highly capable hands of Dan Tillemans.” Tillemans, Moriah said, “Was a guy with a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) background and a big vision. That vision included world-class outdoor education facilities. He connected with generous donors, took them on trips and sold them on what a world-class outdoor education program would mean to the university, and as a result, the program built the Lindseth Climbing Center and the Hoffman Challenge Course, a high/low ropes course near Mount Pleasant.” 


Since its inception, COE has provided adventures for thousands of students and hundreds of student leaders. With great pride, Moriah says, “I can't tell you how many people have told me that their experience as a student leader for COE was life changing. I am in no way denigrating or dismissing the value of academics, but the real-life responsibility that comes with leading a COE trip involves critical decisions that affect the safety of one's peers, encouraging people, managing conflict, interacting with people in so many ways. Many have said 'My experience with COE provided some of the most important lessons I learned in college and served me well in my career and in my life.'” 


David is also proud of the fact that his own passion for outdoor adventure has been passed on to his son, his daughter and his two grandsons. “My son has visited all seven continents, and my daughter — who co-led COE trips with me — is a diplomat with the U.S. Foreign Service. My wife, Deborah, has said, 'If they didn't have a father like you, they wouldn't be so adventurous, and if they didn't have a mother like me, they wouldn't be alive.'”


Believe me, David, in that room full of people who had a big impact on life at Cornell, you were by no means a fish out of water. 


Space does not allow me to list the vast number of adventure opportunities COE has provided over the past 50 years or the hundreds of destinations to which the program has brought students, but I highly recommend taking a look at the program's website. The program is, by any measure, world-class. https://scl.cornell.edu/coe.

(1) comment

Don Barry

"Everybody wins"? What an abuse of journalistic discretion. COE was predated by fifty years by the Cornell Outing Club, and after decades finally managed to turn it into a wastrel appendage. The goal? Monetization of the outdoors community which had been quite successful on its own through peer-led student outdoors adventures for over half a century.

Under COE, money drives everything. Whether that is signing up unfit candidates for an "Alaska Mountaineering" trip where sophomores with minimal training calling themselves "Alaska mountain guides" place students into unsafe conditions, or having insufficiently trained underclassmen supervising PE credit offerings in which students rappel with inadequate supervision, as one of my own students encountered some years back with a 45 foot slide down a rope after their device was not inspected or secured, risking a 20% fatality chance had he let go the rope (with 3rd degree burns on parts of one hand, he was initially offered "free credit" but not a refund), COE puts revenue first. The fake "student-led" Outdoor Odyssey program front for COE even had a suicide of its "leader" some years back, no doubt the result of stress in maximizing revenue and shortcuts in everything else.

COE is an embarrassment to Cornell. Whether it's the fraudulent "let's all trust one another" business "team-building" exercises or the monetized pay-to-play model of commercializing the outdoors, it has nothing to do with building independent peer communities who share their skills and build personal connections.

No, it's a commercial empire masquerading as a community.

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