My wife and I met Greg Mortenson sometime in the early 90s, long before he was famous or the Bozeman-based Central Asia Institute had any financial legs. He had come to Ketchum, Idaho, to tell his story and raise funds for girls’ schools in Pakistan. As I recall, his presentation at the Community Center consisted of a modest slide show about how he tried to climb K2, was befriended by local villagers after his failure, saw the crying need for education there and decided to launch a school building effort. At the conclusion of the meeting, Jean Hoerni, the wealthy Silicon Valley transistor pioneer and Greg’s early financial backer, made a brief appeal for support.
Having just returned from an extensive trek in remote areas of Nepal, my wife and I needed no convincing that education, particularly education of young girls regularly sold off into virtual slavery and worse, was a crying need in that part of the world. Along with others at the meeting, we wrote Greg a modest check on the spot, all of $40.
What impressed us was what Greg said he could do with that check — employ a full-time teacher for a month. And although we had no way to check out the veracity of his claim, we were hardly betting the farm.
Over the next few years, we gave him additional modest donations to help get schools built and talked friends into doing the same. In response, we occasionally got thank you notes from somebody, perhaps his wife in Bozeman. It wasn’t Greg, who was presumably off doing good works on site. But the reports we got off and on about how our money was being used for the cause were quite convincing.
At some point, as Greg became more prominent, we stopped giving — partly because we never did receive any organized solicitations, partly because we figured he no longer needed the money now that he was on the best seller list and was hobnobbing with the rich and famous, and partly because we moved to more mundane things like trying to save horses in southwest Idaho from slaughterhouses in Mexico.
We did, however, continue to follow his career with interest and were very pleased that his ideas about education in Third World countries were finally being taken seriously by serious people as an alternative to the endless, bloody, pointless wars that were and are bankrupting our country.
At no point, from the day we met him in Ketchum as he was operating out of the trunk of his car, to the recent allegations by “60 Minutes” and Jon Krakauer that he fabricated many things in his books, exaggerated the number of schools, or used his charity for personal gain (a charge reportedly being investigated by the attorney general of Montana) did we ever imagine, or believe, we had been hoodwinked or lied to by this man or that our money wasn’t used well in a noble cause.
Of course, we are not investigative reporters, and we could be dead wrong. What we do know from observation and limited experience, however, is that being a “do-gooder” can be a perilous occupation and the more prominent and successful you become, the better the likelihood somebody, somewhere, for whatever reason, will try to bring you down, if not destroy you. And nobody is immune, not Greg Mortenson or Bill and Melinda Gates, the plaster saints of do-gooders.
Let’s face it: We are all imperfect human beings and have feet of clay. Our human failures can range from sexual indiscretions by presidents, priests and preachers to you and me padding our resumes just a little to get a big job.
In the end, all we can do as ordinary people who want to help improve the world in some small way is to make our best judgment about a person or organization and put our money down and take our chances. Whether Greg Mortenson deserves all this abuse or whether, in the end, it turns out he’s done far more good than harm, is an open question at this point. As for us, we will always believe Greg Mortenson put our money to good use back then helping innocent children get an education and a passport to freedom, and we’re glad we gave it to him.
And, if it turns out that in the ensuing years, he was less than truthful, cut financial corners, and misrepresented his accomplishments, it could hardly be worse than the gross misrepresentations that got us into Iraq in the first place, or the ongoing endemic corruption and waste of American lives in Afghanistan.
Dennis Higman is a freelance journalist and writer. He and his artist wife, Lee, own a small horse ranch in the mountains near Mackay, Idaho.