Ernest “Tap” Tapley, an all-around outdoorsman and World War II veteran who helped found a U.S. Outward Bound School and a similar organization to teach wilderness and leadership skills, died Monday following a short illness. He was 91.
Tapley was born in Amesbury, Mass., in 1924, the only son and the eldest of four children, said his wife, Anita Stalter. He spent his youth outdoors, accruing numerous wilderness skills that would serve him throughout his life. His father, a baker, taught him how to fish at an early age, and he told The New Mexican in 2012 that his life benefited from his father’s “big influence.”
In 1942, Tapley was drafted to fight in World War II. An avid outdoorsman already by that point, he found his way to the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, a unit that navigated mountainous terrain via skis. And he used his rock-climbing skills to scale cliffs in the Aleutian Islands, scouting for Japanese troops.
After the war, he worked as a fire ranger for the U.S. Forest Service and fought many a wildfire in Montana and California. He later spent time in Colorado catching wild horses, among other assorted jobs. He hunted, fished, trapped, sailed and generally could survive any outdoors situation, Stalter said. One time, Stalter said, Tapley even strapped a piano to two mules to transport the musical instrument to a mountain home in Montana at the behest of a friend’s wife.
“Tap could do anything, and people knew it,” Stalter said.
In 1961, Chuck Frolicher, the headmaster at the Colorado Academy, asked Tapley to start a school that would teach outdoor and survival skills to young people. Tapley found an ideal swath of 20 acres for the Outward Bound School, a branch of the English organization of the same name, near Marble, Colo.
He laid the literal groundwork for the school, along with student volunteers from the Colorado Academy. They built roads, a sewage and water system, and the office, dining hall and foundations for the tents. Tapley also helped to devise the school’s curriculum after visiting the Outward Bound School in England.
Tapley must have liked the concept of teaching — in 1965, he started another educational organization. That time he partnered with one of his trainers from the 10th Mountain Division, Paul Petzoldt, and the two started the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyo. The school is now famous for teaching wilderness training and leadership skills.
“He just felt comfortable outside of doors,” Stalter said. “He loved instilling people with the gift of being there peacefully and comfortably.”
He relocated in 1971 to Santa Fe, where he taught mountaineering at Camp Stoney, an adventure camp at the time. And in 1983, he met Stalter, his wife said. She was looking for rare strands of garlic in Mexico, and Tapley knew where to find them. They later married on a Mexican beach in 1986.
“I got the garlic and the man,” she said.
In his later years, Tapley still focused on the outdoors. The husband and wife would spend their summers in Santa Fe and their winters in Mexico. He also chased his artistic passions. Tapley, Stalter said, modeled extensively for the Southwestern artist Tom Lovell. And Lovell taught Tapley how to paint — he even had a show on Canyon Road. Stalter said he loved to play his viola, the piano and the harmonica. And though he was multitalented, Stalter said, her husband never had an ego.
In 2004, he and Stalter were named Santa Fe Living Treasures. He told the nonprofit organization he grew up in the wilderness.
“I learned how to work with Mother Nature and not against her,” he said. “So it came naturally to teach all that.”
Aside from his wife, he is survived by two daughters from a previous marriage and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his parents and siblings.
Contact Chris Quintana at 986-3093 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @CQuintanaSF.