Twenty four years ago, I sat where you are now. I was eager and ready to move on to the next chapter of my life. I remember that after graduating, there were still a few days of school left. As an eighth grader, one of our privileges was that we could paint on the walls in the art room. The day after graduation I came to school to finish my masterpiece, and the building felt different.
It would no longer be the place I would be going to. Next year, when I got up, the bus would not take me here. I would not see some of my friends at school anymore. I would have different classmates, in a new place. Sports would be played on a different field, and some other teacher would be kicking me out of class.
The building was different because my time here was over. This place was in the past. Now, I had to start using the things I learned here.
My father and mother lived in Cornwall for over forty years. I grew up in the Village when it was the campus for Marvelwood School. My older brother and sister spent kindergarten through eighth grade here at CCS, as did I. When my brother, Rusty, graduated, he got so many awards his friends teased him by singing “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”. He went on to Salisbury and later graduated from Dartmouth, an Ivy League college. My sister, Hope, graduated from Hotchkiss and Colorado College. She is now a writer. Lastly, my younger brother, Tyler, graduated first in his class from Hobart Willam Smith. I did well here at CCS and also at Housatonic Valley Regional High School. I succeeded at the University of Colorado, but never graduated. Out of all my siblings, when it came to school, the only record I held was how many times I had been sent to the principal’s office.
Once in first grade, when the teacher asked us to label all the bones we could on a picture of a skeleton, I returned it with a more anatomically correct version. Mrs. Grant was not amused. In fact, there might be some teachers still here that taught me. Mrs. S., if you are out there tonight, I am sorry. I will admit, I was a little surprised when I was asked to be the speaker for this year’s graduation. I thought, “man, they must really be desperate”. However, this has offered me a unique opportunity to reflect on how CCS has shaped my life and I am truly honored to be here.
I graduated in 1997 and now my son and daughter both attend school here at CCS. My wife and I had been living in Alaska for the last 13 years and moved here to Cornwall last February, right before the pandemic. Perfect timing. As a family we were struggling to adjust to our new surroundings, while at the same time jumping the daily hurdles the coronavirus threw at us. As it was for them, it was a hard school year for everyone.
Through my children, I saw how hard everyone had to work to get where we are today. This is something to be proud of. It is fitting that as we were overcome by the pandemic, you graduates are also taking a major advance in your lives.
I would like not only to acknowledge the accomplishments of the class of 2021, but also how adaptable the parents and teachers of these students had to be. I commend the extra effort that was put forth to achieve success during such a challenging year. Freshman year is going to be a breeze after this. The problem solving techniques you learned during this time will give you all an advantage in the future. Your time spent at CCS will also give you an advantage. Although that might not be clear just yet, trust me when I say that the lessons you learn here will stick with you the rest of your lives. While this is also true about your pursuits in the future, your time spent here really is the foundation for those endeavours.
In preparation for tonight, I was flipping through my CCS yearbook. I hoped it would remind me of what CCS was like for me. It did. Twenty four years removed, I could still see how Cornwall shaped my foundation. One of the great things about CCS when I attended school here was that Mohawk Mountain would generously give season passes to students in the fourth grade and above. This immediately got generations of kids hooked on skiing and caused parents to up their insurance. CCS had led me to my passion, skiing.
The season pass, however, came with a catch. In order to get your pass for awesome, downhill skiing, you had to complete a year of obviously less cool cross country skiing, The winter I learned to cross country ski was a bleak one. Not only were my friends on the mountain, shredding without me, but the lack of natural snow had confined us cross-country skiers to the gym. Our PE teacher, Mrs. Loi, clearly lined the floor with mats. We spend agonizing days sliding on the synthetic surface learning the kick and glide herringbone and how to side step uphill. While my friends were having the times of their lives, I was being tortured, learning useless stuff I would never use again. As it was for me then, it is often hard to see the value of a lesson as you are learning it. One nice thing about graduating is you can clearly see the reward of your hard work and the things you have learned.
I continued to ski every winther throughout school and was the captain of the ski team my senior year. Playing sports was my main motivation during school. My passion for skiing led me to the University of Colorado. There in the front range, I fell in love with backcountry skiing and untracked, powder snow.
In college I felt disconnected from the other students. My friends and classmates all seemed to have a plan in effect. They carefully picked a major and were taking classes to reach some goal in the future. I chose geology mostly because that is what my dad did. Unlike my peers, I could not see where I was going with my school work; again the value of what I was doing was gone to me. I lost interest in my academics and my motivation slipped away. While others around me were very focused, I questioned what my goals were to begin with. I had no direction. After my sophomore year, I did not enroll in the next semester and moved deeper into the mountains of Crested Butte, Colorado.
Through this confusing, hard time, the one thing that remained strong was the force that drew me to the mountains. I was fascinated by snow science and learned all I could about avalanches and how to read the snowpack and terrain in order to safely ascend and descend Colorado peaks. I read books, watched movies, and kept journals on every snowstorm throughout the winter. In short, I dropped out of college and became a ski bum.
Believe it or not, I struggled with this choice. Traditionally, Cheneys had done very well in school and graduated college. I was going against the grain. I felt that I was letting my parents down. As I ventured into bigger mountains, they expressed their concern for my safety and I felt I burdened them with worry. One of the things I love about my dad is his ability to help me work through conflicting emotions. Although it was hard for him, he told me to march to the beat of my own drum. It was around this time that I learned about Alaska and helicopter skiing.
In coastal Alaska, the mountains rise 8,000 feet out of the ocean. The frigid Arctic wind mixes with the moisture laden air from the Gulf of Alaska and coats some of the biggest, steepest peaks with the best snow in the world. The unique weather conditions create a snowpack that can stick to steeper terrain than elsewhere. The wind and relentless snow create features in the mountains that make them appear as if they are out of Dr Seuss’s “Whoville”. Due to these facts, ski and snowboard enthusiasts, as well as professional athletes travel from all over the world to ride these mountains. Because of the remoteness of these peaks, the only way to access some of them is by helicopter.
People pay thousands of dollars for a single day of heli-skiing. It allows you to get to places no other human has been to. One job you can have is riding helicopters and taking people skiing. I knew what I wanted to do. I dreamt of being a helicopter ski guide. In 2007 I moved to Haines, Alaska, over 3,000 miles away from here.
Now, Haines is not just a place for crazy skiers. It is home to indiginous people who have lived here for centuries. They exist in harmony with the natural cycles of salmon runs and hunting seasons. Haines is also known for its mining history. Early pioneers flocked to Alaska by the thousands during the Klondike Gold Rush. Every spring, the snowmelt washes gold from the very mountains I was there to ski down to the creeks below. 30 miles west of Haines is Porcupine Creek, the site of John Schnabel’s gold claim. His grandson, Parker, is the star of the reality tv show Gold Rush, which was filmed there.
Mining in Alaska is a lifelong endeavour. It takes ingenuity and countless cycles of trial and error. Most people do not succeed. The ones that do, adapt to the challenges put before them. They do not give up. For every ten failures, they have one success that they build from. Before he passed away, John Schabel said that “it is not so much the gold, but finding the gold”.
Not all of us are cut out to be miners. But, what I think that means is that, no matter what you are passionate about, the process in which you do it is equally as important as the end result.
The gold I was seeking was powder snow in the mountains and becoming a professional ski guide. The process of finding it taught me how to achieve my goals. I worked hard. I got training. I built my daily routine so I could focus my energy on being able to learn and take in the skills necessary for guiding. Unlike my schoolwork, I was able to see tomorrow’s results for the work I put in today. Finally, I could see the value in lessons I was learning. After years of education and hard work, I became a guide.
One day, while taking a group of clients down a particularly long run, everyone was tired at the bottom. It was towards the end of the day and we had time for one more run. I radioed to the helicopter pilot that we were ready to be picked up and despite sore legs, the group wanted to go back to the top. The pilot responded that the helicopter was broken down and that there was no way for him to get us. We were 20 miles deep into the mountain range. Hiking out before dark was not an option. We were not equipped to spend the night on a glacier in the middle of February. I told the group we had a problem. The joy and elation of the last ski run was replaced by panic and fear. Our options were limited. We started to prepare for a long, cold night with hopes another heli would get us in the morning. We began to empty our packs to see what resources we had. Our helicopter pilot was in the same predicament, stuck on the valley floor, the next ridge over.
As the sun started to go down, a call came out on the radio. There was a helicopter coming in from another company to come get us. They were going to pick up the stranded pilot and then come back for us. Due to the fading light, we were in the shadows on the valley floor. By the time the heli came back, it would be too dark to land. The pilot said the only way to get us is if we ascended a steep ridge to get to the opposing side, which was still in the sun.
We had to get moving quickly. The deep snow made it impossible to walk out. We needed to have our skis on to distribute our weight and stay on top of the snow. The frightened clients struggled to gain any ground.
As our options were running out, I remembered the herringbone and side step that Mrs. Loi taught me so many years ago. I shared that information with the clients and we were able to reach the waiting helicopter safely. The useless stuff I had vowed I would never use in real life came back to save us, twenty years later. Something I gained early on in my learning process proved valuable so many years later.
The finding of my gold led me to my wife and the most rewarding thing in my life, my family. At heart, I still am just a ski bum. But, the pursuit of my passion has made me live a good life. After my guiding career, I got a job on the Haines Public Works crew. I learned how to operate heavy machinery and my experience doing that allowed me to get a job here and return to Cornwall. For that, I am grateful. Going out into the world and learning skills to come back and help your community is a lesson for another day.
Twenty four years ago I stood where you are now. Your parents and teachers have been there, too. We can give you advice and guidance to help you on your way, but ultimately while the path you are on is one we know, you are the ones who are walking it now. There is a big difference. I encourage you to also turn to each other for support. The ones you share this path with will help you in ways we cannot. Follow your passions. Do not cheat; achieve your goals in a righteous way, Whatever the gold it is you seek, CCS has gotten you off to a good start
—Ted Cheney – his graduation speech to the Cornwall Consolidated School class of 2021