William S. Coperthwaite Jr. ’53, who reconceptualized the ancient Mongolian yurt and started a movement in simple, self-sufficient living, died November 26, 2013, in a car accident in Washington, Maine. He discovered the yurt in a 1962 National Geographic and was taken with its utilitarian design. He built his first yurt—a simple, round structure with a birch-bark roof—at Buck’s Harbor in 1964 and went on to build more than 300 worldwide over the course of his life. He led yurt-building workshops and lectures and created a foundation dedicated to promoting yurts. He lived on 300 remote, waterfront acres in the village of Bucks Harbor, about two miles from the nearest road, without a phone, running water, or electricity but with solar-powered lights. He got his water from a brook, had a yurt for an outhouse, and used a wood stove for cooking and heat. He made a life of tracking down the best artisans and learning their craft, from hatchets and spoons to Norwegian fishing boats and canoes. He is quoted as saying, “I want to live in a society where people are intoxicated with the joy of making things.” He was born in Monticello, Maine, on September 19, 1930, and was a member of Alpha Delta Phi fraternity at Bowdoin. He claimed conscientious objector status during the Korean War and instead served with the American Friend Service Committee. He went on to earn a master’s degree from the Putney Graduate School of Teacher Education and a doctorate in education from Harvard University. He taught at North Country School in Lake Placid, N.Y., and the Meeting School in Rindge, N.H., and lived and worked at various times in Mexico, Venezuela, Scandinavia, and throughout the United States. He wrote in his book, A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity (2004): “The main thrust of my work is not simple living—not yurt design, not social change, although each of these is important and receives large blocks of my time. But they are not central. My central concern is encouragement—encouraging people to seek, to experiment, to plan, to create, and to dream. If enough people do this we will find a better way.”
Bill was perhaps the most unique individual the tiny potato-farming community of Monticello, Maine, ever produced. The fact that I grew up on a potato farm in the adjacent town & was active in the sustainability movement established a bond when we first met in The Mysterious DownEast in the 1970s. His was a life of intent, creativity and service…altruism almost to a fault.
Many words have been written on his work, so I will share but one example of his generosity. On my first visit, I was helping him carry building materials into his remote site on Machias Bay, when he pulled out his pocket knife to cut a line. Never having seen a Swiss Army knife before, I marveled at it’s utilitarian design. “You should have this,” he said, immediately handing it to me. I’ve carried it daily for five decades.
Note – Not only was Bill born in the town adjacent to the community in which I was raised, he died in the very next town in which I reside, seven decades later and 200 miles to the south.
So just heard about Bill’s death. I met him in 1967 at said camp in Machias. I arrived with a friend who met him at an Outward Bound camp. I had no idea what I was getting into, but it was a life altering time for sure.