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DON’T QUIT: THE STORY OF ED WEIHENMAYER ’62

By Jerry Price

How do you get to the top of the mountain? You’re here. The summit is there. It looks so far away, so unreachable.

How do you get there? How do you continue to climb, no matter how tired, how beaten, how long the odds, how much you have to ask yourself if you’ve reached your limit?

If anyone can speak to that, it’s Erik Weihenmayer. He’s climbed Mount Everest. For that matter, he’s climbed the tallest peak on each of the seven continents — and he’s done all this despite the fact that he’s completely blind, the first blind man to reach the summit of Everest.

So, again, the question is: How do you get to the top of the mountain? The answer, in Weihenmayer’s family, came with a $20 reward for getting it correct.

“Don’t quit,” Weihenmayer says. “That’s the family motto. Don’t quit. It was right there in a poem that my father loved. He’d give the grandkids $20 if they could recite the entire poem.”

The poem is a work by Edgar A. Guest. It goes like this:

“Success is failure turned inside out
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far,
So stick to the fight when your hardest hit
It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.”

The father? He was Ed Weihenmayer, a man who always said he would live to be 100. He fell a few years short of that, passing away in June at the age of 81 after battling heart issues in his final year. And yet, in terms of a life well-lived, he packed a few centuries worth into those 81 years.

The “don’t quit” attitude is what enabled him Ed Weihenmayer to go from undersized offensive lineman walk-on at Princeton to the team captain his senior year. It’s what sustained him through 118 missions — one hundred and eighteen missions — in an A4 Skyhawk as a Marine Corps fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. It’s how he dove into his role as a single father when his first wife was killed in a car accident, all while navigating a high-stress, high-demand Wall Street career.

“He was always a guy who played above his ability,” Erik says of his dad. “I mean that as a real compliment. He had a massive work ethic. He was a hammerhead. He never stopped working hard.”

Ed Weihenmayer was born on Aug. 7, 1940. He grew up outside of Philadelphia, and he went to Penn Charter before coming to Princeton.

“He had a special love for three things,” Erik says. “He loved Penn Charter. He loved Princeton. And he loved the Marine Corps. He loved to spend time with his buddies from each.”

He came to Princeton in 1958. Despite being 6-1, 195 pounds, he became a starting guard on the 1960 Tigers as a junior, helping the team go 7-2 that season. He was then voted the 1961 captain, leading a team that went 5-4, before graduating in 1962 with a degree in engineering. He would become a lifetime member of the Princeton Football Association.

“I love my alma mater, but it’s not the same thing,” says Erik, a Boston College grad. “He believed so strongly in Princeton and everything it stands for. He loved the football team. He loved all the sports programs. He was very supportive of them. For him to go from being a walk-on to the captain, that was such an amazing point of pride for him for the rest of his life.”

Ed walked away from a job as an engineer to enlist in the Marines at the start of America’s involvement in Vietnam and attend Officer Candidate School, where he was chosen as Honor Man of his class of 600. After that he went to Naval Flight School in Pensacola and then to Vietnam, where he flew those 118 missions.

“He didn’t think it was fair that only poorer kids were going to Vietnam,” Erik says. “He wanted to do his part. He walked his talk. He was brave, and he was humble. He did talk about his experiences there, though not a ton. He mostly talked about the people, especially the ones who were killed. He did say that he did get into a bit of trouble at times. He said that there were targets that looked like schools, and he couldn’t do that.”

His post-military career began at Pfizer, where he worked from 1967-80, rising to vice president for human resources in Asia and South America and living in Hong Kong. He’d married a woman named Ellen, who had two children from a previous marriage, and together they expanded their family. The first child together was Eddi. The second was Erik, who was born with juvenile retinoschisis, a rare eye disease that they knew was going to rob him of his sight by the time he was a teenager.

What they didn’t know was that Ellen would be killed in a car accident when Erik was 16. Ed, now alone, threw himself completely into his work and family, and he didn’t let either suffer. While he navigated through the business world, heading HR efforts at Kidder Peabody and then Salomon Brothers, he also was there every step of the way for his children.

Erik, for his part, grew up as an athletic, adventurous spirit, something that he also got from his father. Their family trips were legendary, including explorations of Kenya’s wildlife, Peru’s Andes and Pakistan’s Baltoro Glacier, as well as a 1,200-mile father/son tandem bike ride across Vietnam. For that matter, while in Hong Kong, they also ventured into the People’s Republic of China, walking right past a sign telling them to turn back, and eventually being returned by Chinese soldiers.

His family grew again when he married Mariann Dahl, who had a son, Curtis, who also became part of the group. They would have 20 years together before Ed passed away.

“It’s great that they had that time together,” Erik says. “They were very much in love.”

Erik was a tremendous wrestler in high school in Connecticut, and his father refused to miss a match. It was also Ed who encouraged Erik to get involved in a sports program for the blind, and that is where Erik found his first climbing wall.

When he became more and more serious about climbing, Erik found the support from his father unwavering. In fact, Ed retired from Wall Street to work as Erik’s business manager in the 1990s, and from that point, he was with his son, if not quite every step of the way, through many of them, even on actual mountainsides.

Ed was at base camp when Erik reached the top of Mount Everest in 2001, something that landed Erik on the cover of Time Magazine. This was not a coincidence or an accident.

“My father wrote a letter to the editor-in-chief,” Erik says. “Seriously. Who does that? The editor told me that in all his time, he’d never put anyone on the cover after getting a letter like that. That’s how he was. He was dogged. He thought big, and he’d go for it, even if you thought it was a pipe dream.”

It’s the “don’t quit” mentality. Of all of the “don’t quit” that defined Ed Weihenmayer, perhaps it is best told by Erik, as part of a tribute that he wrote after his father’s death:

As a young kid, I loved to do tricks on my bike. at the top of my driveway, wearing an Evel Knievel T-shirt and black leather gloves, I’d fly down the driveway, hit a steep wooden ramp that I’d built, soar through the air, and land on a plywood landing ramp. As my vision waned, I could no longer see the ramp; it blended in with the pavement below, and I kept hitting it crooked. Mired in frustration, I threw my bike down and escaped into my room. I was so wrapped up with my failure, I didn’t notice my father spray painting an old chest in the garage. Ed looked at the dull wooden ramp and at the can of spray paint in his hand.
The next morning when I peddled down the driveway for another reluctant try, to my surprise, the ramps were totally recognizable. They’d been painted a bright orange. I hit the ramp dead-on and quickly regained my confidence, even convincing my two brothers to lie down on their stomachs between the ramps, so I could jump over them. They somehow agreed, but both flattened their bodies tensely against the pavement, their flesh quivering and their arms squeezed tightly over their heads. I soared over them in true Evel Knievel style and rode around the cul-de-sac waving my hand in victory. I felt like my dad in his A4 Skyhawk as I pronounced, “mission accomplished.”
My father could have easily said, no more bike jumping, but instead, he painted the ramps orange and illuminated the runway.

That was Ed Weihenmayer in a nutshell. If the choices were “no, it can’t be done,” or “yes, let’s do it,” he chose to paint the ramps orange every time.

As Princetonians go, he was a very special one. He didn’t make it to 100 like he said he would, but he certainly got the most out of his time, reached the top of so many mountains, one step at a time, filled with determination, defined by those two words at the end of the poem.

In the Weihenmeyer family, those words are worth $20 — or maybe they are just simply priceless.  

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december, 2022

Facts