A Life: Karol Bottinger, 1939-2013; ‘She Looked for Opportunities to Show Kids What They Could Do’
In this undated photo, Karol Bottinger prepares to canoe the Allagash River in Maine with Project Challenge. Bottinger, who died Sept. 5 at age 74, co-founded the program while teaching physical education at Stevens High School, introducing hundreds of Stevens students to challenging activities such as backpacking, winter survival and canoeing. (Family photograph)
Karol Bottinger (Family photograph)
Claremont — For some people, pursuing their passion just isn’t enough. True fulfillment comes from sharing that love with others and seeing them discover the same zeal.
Karol Bottinger loved the outdoors but loved even more the opportunity to introduce young men and women to the challenges of rock climbing, backpacking and other outdoor activities.
Bottinger, who died Sept. 5, 2013 at 74, served the Claremont School District in several capacities, including principal at Stevens High School. But many students from the 1970s and ’80s perhaps best remember her for Project Challenge.
Bottinger arrived at Stevens in the late 1960s to teach physical education, but soon realized the routine gym classes she taught were not benefiting students.
As Bottinger tells it in her 1991 booklet on Project Challenge, Les and Me and PC, the seed for Project Challenge was planted on a “muggy spring afternoon” in the Stevens physical education office with the late Les Greene.
“Why do these kids hate calisthenics?” Bottinger wondered. “Why are they so apathetic in physical education classes? Where is the challenge? Do we dare try something different and if we do will the kids be interested?”
Greene shared Bottinger’s love for the outdoors and wanted to bring an Outward Bound-type program to Stevens. Thus was born in 1971, Project Challenge, offering a different approach to physical fitness with demanding outdoor pursuits that also taught self-reliance, self-confidence, trust in others and problem solving.
“Les and her saw such low enthusiasm for physical education class,” said Chris Bottinger, Karol’s husband. “She was looking for a new philosophy to get kids interested. She wanted something different.” It began with a zip line strung across the high school gymnasium balconies. That was followed by a makeshift-climbing wall built using some old wood donated by Chris.
“They put it up on the side yard e_SEmD there was no parking there back then — and they would meet after school,” said Chris Bottinger. “The kids were ecstatic with it.
“I also had some canoes and we borrowed some. That is how Project Challenge started.”
The program was an immediate success with students, and for about the next 20 years, Greene and Bottinger, with the support and help of many others, teamed up to provide exciting outdoor experiences for hundreds of Stevens students.
“It was an amazing program. It meant a lot to young people,” said Torrey Greene, one of Les’ three sons. “She, my father and Chris put a lot into it and it really helped develop kids.”
Before school ended in 1971, Project Challenge took its first two trips: rock climbing at Mount Monadnock and backpacking in the Pemigewasset Wilderness in the White Mountains. The second adventure, in mid-May, perhaps would have made others think twice about bringing groups of kids into the wilderness, many for the first time.
Bottinger wrote in her booklet that she and Greene arrived late on a Friday night and began hiking in to meet the kids, who left school earlier that day. Hours later, wet, cold, tired and hungry, they pitched a tent in the middle of the trail, boiled something and ate it then settled in for a seemingly interminable night.
The next morning, the pair found the students eight miles back, right where they were supposed to have met them. The experience did not discourage Bottinger in the least.
“We packed up, joined them and continued to pack in a Memorial Day snowstorm.”
At graduation that year, when the valedictorian spoke of the benefits of Project Challenge in her remarks, Bottinger wrote, “We were convinced that this was the direction to go.”
Paul Couture, who was assistant principal under Bottinger in the late 1990s and followed in her footsteps to become Stevens principal, said she knew how to instill confidence in kids through things like ice climbing, orienteering, canoeing and winter survival.
“When I was at Stevens High School, that was the essence of Karol Bottinger,” Couture said. “She looked for opportunities to show kids what they could do.”
A 1978 Project Challenge yearbook is filled with photos of the adventures and many of the students are pictured with big smiles as they hike, climb and canoe. Each Project Challenge leader is pictured along with some words of thanks from the students.
“We are very fortunate to know such a devoted and concerned person, for it has been this wonderful individual who has given us the confidence that we can make it in life,” the students wrote to Bottinger, who was Karol Richardson at the time.
Bottinger’s son, Kris, said his mother could reach students in a unique way.
“I think mom had a wonderful way to befriend students and kids but also demand respect.” Project Challenge often included students who were struggling in school, Kris said.
“It helped them become successful. The program changed many lives and gave kids direction and a feeling of self-worth.”
Bob Hingston was student teaching at Stevens in the early 1970s under Bottinger and Greene when he reluctantly joined a Project Challenge adventure one winter in Canterbury, N.H. Though the cold and deep snow made him declare winter survival was “crazy,” Bottinger wrote in her Project Challenge book, Hingston returned to tell everyone “how valued PC was to kids.”
Hingston, currently the athletic director at Windsor High School, said Bottinger was always “a kids person.”
“I was blessed to have worked with them,” Hingston said. “You talk about two mentors. They were a great team and were ahead of the curve with Project Challenge. It reached a lot of kids.”
Project Challenge was honored in 1977 by the New Hampshire Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation for its work with Project Challenge.
Couture said Bottinger, as a coach at the high school and college level, valued competitive sports but also knew not every student had the talent or drive to compete at that level. Fitness was not always about competing but staying active, was her philosophy.
Former Stevens High School varsity basketball coach Jim Gleason had a unique perspective into that philosophy.
Gleason was a physical education teacher at the Claremont Middle School when Bottinger was the department chair of physical education at Stevens.
“She had a wonderful personality and had her priorities correct,” Gleason said. “She was a strong leader and very passionate about her job.
“I am the proud father of a handicapped child. I told Karol, we need to come up with an adaptive physical education program. I said my son is not going into regular classes.”
Gleason said Bottinger fully supported his wishes.
“She advocated what I insisted on and I’ve always been thankful to her for that,” he said. “She was fun to work with because she and I were on the same page. Karol was a great lady who served her profession well.”
A graduate of Towle High School in Newport, Bottinger earned an undergraduate degree at University of New Hampshire and a master’s at Keene State College. She taught in Lebanon for two years and in the Claremont school district from 1969 until her retirement in 1998.
While the outdoors was a great love of hers, Bottinger was equally devoted to seeing students succeed in the classroom.
“She really valued education,” said Judy Couture, who chose to study and teach physical education because of Bottinger’s influence.
“It was important that everyone she was involved with was well-rounded.”
Couture played basketball at Stevens for Bottinger and said college was not on her radar during her senior year. Her mother had died when she was younger, leaving Couture busy helping at home with her father and three brothers and there was not a lot of money.
“ ‘Yes, you are,’ ” Couture recalled Bottinger telling her about going to college. “ ‘I am bringing you down to Keene. You can do this.’ ” Couture said Bottinger went so far as to fill out the application for her.
“She saw in you what you didn’t see in yourself. Her belief in me made me think that I could at least do as much.”
Bottinger’s influence and respect extended to staff as well.
Paul Couture, Judy’s husband, was teaching at the Claremont Middle School in the late 1990s when he was encouraged by then-superintendent Bob Patterson to pursue administration in the district. Eventually he applied for the assistant principal’s job at Stevens under Bottinger.
“With an offer to work with her, I could not turn that down. I remember her for being a strong positive person,” he said. “I’m not sure I would have taken the job were it not for Karol Bottinger.”
Sugar River Valley Technical Center teacher Scott Pope said fairness defined Bottinger, with students and teachers.
“She was probably the fairest person I’ve ever worked for,” said Pope. “She disciplined students but was always fair. When she helped them with a problem she always helped them to do better. And she sure was dedicated to Stevens.”
Outside of her career in education, Bottinger served as a First Aid and CPR instructor trainer for the Sullivan County Chapter of the American Red Cross and volunteered at New London Hospital.
Whether canoeing the Allagash, backpacking in the White Mountains or serving as a principal or teacher, Bottinger’s interest and devotion to seeing students improve themselves inside and outside the classroom never waned.
“Karol was just an amazing person, teacher and advocate for kids. She was everything you would expect in a teacher; someone who really cared,” said Torrey Greene.
Patrick O’Grady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.