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A Life: Bill Ackerly, 1928 — 2016; ‘He Was the Neatest Man’

  • Bill Ackerly, left, his son John Ackerly and grandson Sammy Smith-Ackerly on their last hike up Mount Washington together in 2009. (Family photograph)

  • Appalachian Trail hikers take a break on Bill Ackerly's porch in Lyme, N.H., in an undated photograph. Ackerly served as a "trail angel" for hikers, offering free ice cream, croquet and a place to stay. (Family photograph)

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 7/18/2016 12:25:46 AM
Modified: 7/20/2016 12:45:43 PM

Lyme — For decades, Bill Ackerly worked as a psychiatrist, helping patients work through complicated problems.

Then, for years in retirement, he offered solace to people working through another path — as a “trail angel” along the Appalachian Trail who handed out free ice cream to thousands of hikers.

In 2015 Allyson Hester, whose trail name is Clarity, was hiking the AT and knew she wanted to visit Ackerly and enjoy an ice cream. She wasn’t planning on staying long, but wound up staying the night.

“He was the neatest man,” Hester said. “No matter where you were in life Mr. Ackerly could relate to you.

Ackerly, who died on May 23, 2016, at 87, had longstanding ties to the Upper Valley.

Born in Worcester, Mass., he grew up in Louisville Ky., and attended the Clark School in Hanover, which was co-founded by his grandfather, Clifford Clark. From there, Ackerly went on to Wesleyan University and the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

He was married to Frances Dickinson in 1954, and settled in Cambridge, Mass., where they raised their four children: Spaff, John, David and Susan. In addition to his role at Harvard as an adviser to psychiatric residents, Ackerly worked in state hospitals, later opening a mental health clinic in Somerville, Mass. Ten years later, he entered private practice.

John Ackerly, who works in renewable energy in Maryland, said part of his father’s legacy was his ability to take on tough patients, often referred to him by others.

A large reason for this was Ackerly’s approach as a Freudian psychiatrist — being more than just a dream interpreter.

“He really became people’s friend. That’s what he thought the best thing a psychoanalyst could do for someone — be their friend, be their advocate,” John said.

It was work that Ackerly loved. Working 12 hour days — leaving the house before his kids woke up — he was also dedicated.

“He saw his first patient at 7 a.m. and his last patient at 7 p.m,” John said.

The importance of loving your profession was something Ackerly felt was vital to instill in his children.

David Ackerly, a biologist at University of California Berkeley, remembered this lesson well.

“It is possible to to love your work — that it doesn’t have to be a burden or just an obligation. We definitely got that from him,” David said.

Even though he spent a lot of time in his profession, Ackerly always made time for family — specifically family dinners.

“I know he had many colleagues who traveled to conferences and all these things and he just said, ‘That’s not the life I want to lead. I’m going to do my work, I’m going to be home for dinner with my family,’” David said.

Quality family time expanded after Ackerly and Frances bought a house on Dorchester Road in Lyme near the Appalachian Trail in 1966, where they’d spend time during the summer months. Ackerly himself was a devoted outdoorsman, and last climbed Mount Washington in 2009, when he was 80.

Ackerly and Frances’ love of nature that drew them to Lyme.

“It was always about the trails because we spent so much time up here hiking and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, birdwatching, following animal tracks through the woods — it was just a huge part of our growing up,” David said. “That’s an important piece of the story that brought them here.”

Ackerly, who became known along the AT as the Ice Cream Man, started out more simply.

In 2000, a year where wells on the trail ran dry, Ackerly put up a sign offering free water to hikers.

From there it was a gradual progression, which took off after Frances died in 2011.

“After that the floodgates kind of opened and then he had the porta potty and then he had the art project, and then the ice cream. He put electricity out so people could charge their phones, and the Wi-Fi and the trash can,” John said. “Every year there was something more the hikers appreciated.”

Ackerly died unexpectedly from respiratory arrest after apparently choking on some food while eating at a restaurant in the Upper Valley, his family said.

“He was just getting ready for another year of sitting on the porch and talking with hikers. I really wanted him to have one more summer in the house,” his son John said. “His body was definitely falling apart a little bit. But his mind and the spark in his eye was still totally there. He was just a great conversationalist.”

Karen Hoffmeister who takes care of hikers when she can as they come across her Etna home, credited Ackerly with helping turn Hanover’s reputation towards hikers around, which Hoffmeister said was not good when she first moved to the area.

“It’s partially because Dr. Ackerly, ‘the Ice Cream Man,’ had been so giving,” Hoffmeister said.

Becoming a trail angel filled Ackerly with joy and kept him busy during summer months. So busy that David sometimes had trouble getting ahold of him.

“In the summer I’d literally call him and he’d say, ‘Nice to hear from you. Sorry, I gotta go!’ So I almost stopped calling in the summer because I knew he’d be too busy,” David said.

Aside from offering a campsite in his backyard, Ackerly offered hikers the chance to play him in croquet, a favorite pastime of his. A game he was particularly good at.

“The joke is that the ice cream was just a way to lure unsuspecting hikers back to the croquet field so he could beat them,” John said.

Although Ackerly was equipped with an inherent interest in getting to know what made people tick, he didn’t force conversation.

If they did connect, and most did, they’d end up staying as long as a week — some even keeping in touch long after their hike was over.

“He made a lot of great friends. He stayed in touch with a bunch of the hikers. We get Christmas cards and stuff from them,” John said.

Ackerly asked the hikers who stopped by to sign his logbook, which he diligently updated with every hiker who came through — 2,000 in the last summer alone.

It became clear that many of them stopped by not just for the ice cream and wi-fi, but also simply to talk to Ackerly, who possessed an inquisitive mind that had been honed by decades of being a psychiatrist.

“I think if you spend your life in that work, you develop a talent for getting people to open up and share their story,” David said.

Ackerly himself hoped that he was giving more than a treat to the hikers.

“Basically, I’m just a friend of the hikers and doing my part to help,” Ackerly told the Valley News in 2012. “All I do is welcome the hikers, give them a place to rest on my front porch out of the rain, chat with other hikers, swap stories, hear about their illnesses, or eat their lunch.

“While there’s no quid pro quo, my guess is they’ll give to others somewhere along their life’s journey.”

Dillon Walsh can be reached at walsh.dillon@gmail.com.




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