Donn Fendler, who survived nine days in the wilderness after getting lost on Mount Katahdin in 1939 and told the tale of his ordeal in the harrowing classic “Lost on a Mountain in Maine,” has died.
Fendler spent summers at his camp on Sebasticook Lake in Newport and inspired generations of children with his Katahdin survival story. He died Monday at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. He was 90.
The Fendler family had gathered in Falmouth on Sept. 3 to celebrate the 90th birthday of Fendler and his twin brother, Ryan Fendler of Falmouth.
“He was one of a kind,” Ryan Fendler said of his brother Tuesday. “He loved this state. He knows people from one end to the other. He had friends everywhere.”
When Donn Fendler was 12, he became separated from his family near the summit of Mount Katahdin and got lost, triggering a massive manhunt that made headlines nationwide. He survived nine days in the woods without food – walking 48 miles and losing 16 pounds – before he finally happened upon a hunting camp.
Afterward, Percival Baxter, the former governor who donated the land that became Baxter State Park, called Fendler “a very brave and plucky boy.” Fendler credited his survival to his faith in God, his Boy Scout training and a will to live. Fendler also admitted that going off by himself in the fog was a dumb thing to do.
In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented Fendler with the Army & Navy Legion of Valor’s annual medal for outstanding youth hero. He was celebrated with a parade and an article in Life magazine.
Fendler later told the tale of his journey to Joseph Egan, who authored the book “Lost on a Mountain in Maine.” The book became a children’s classic and is still assigned in Maine schools. Fendler frequently visited schools and libraries to talk about his experience.
“Maine people can relate to it,” Fendler said during a 2014 phone interview from his Newport camp. “They’re self-reliant, hardy people, basically outdoors people. They know what the Maine woods are like, so reading the book or the newspaper articles, they knew exactly what I was going through. The book means an awful lot to them, apparently.”
Fendler’s sister, Kathryn Fendler Meyers of Oklahoma, said she accompanied her brother on several of his talks with school children.
“He always spoke individually to each child for as long as they needed. He didn’t rush them and listened to everything they said,” she said. “He treated them as if they were the only ones in the world at that moment. It was a joy to watch.”
Jensen Bissell, director of Baxter State Park, said Fendler returned to Katahdin nearly every summer to share his survival story.
“It’s a story of him being lost, but its more about hope, perseverance, faith and love of family,” Bissell said Tuesday. “He delivered that message really well and got that message across to thousands of kids in Maine.”
Ryan Cook, director of a movie adaptation of “Lost on a Mountain in Maine,” posted a video on Facebook late Monday announcing Fendler’s death. He encouraged everyone who was affected by Fendler to share their thoughts. As of 5:15 p.m. Tuesday, Cook’s post generated 45,000 views and 128 comments from people who said they were inspired by Fendler’s story and the time he took to visit and talk with Maine children.
“Donn Fendler’s legacy will live on forever in the state of Maine, not only because of story and because of his book, but because of the character of the man that he was and how deeply he cared about other human beings, especially children,” Cook said. “He took the time to return every single one of their letters and hear all of their stories and truly cared to hear them. They don’t make many men like Donn Fendler and I feel very blessed to have been a part of his life and see the impact he had on the lives of others.”
In 2014, the Maine State Museum hosted a special exhibit to mark the 75th anniversary of Fendler’s ordeal. It included the jacket Fendler wore while he was lost, complete with holes torn in the cloth when Fendler ran into a thorny vine on his fourth day in the woods. Other memorabilia displayed included a newspaper announcing he’d been found, a letter from Baxter and the medal presented by Roosevelt.
“How many people get a medal from the president of the United States, especially young people?” Fendler said in the 2014 interview. “It’s one those things you treasure all your life.”
Fendler’s experience on Katahdin shaped the course of his life. As a young man, he served in the Navy during World War II in China and the Philippines, his family said. He then joined the Army and served during the Vietnam and Korean Wars. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and retired after 30 years of service.
Another hallmark of Fendler’s life was his love for family. He was married to the late Maryrose Fendler for 56 years. The couple raised four children and lived half of the year in Clarksville, Tennessee.
His nephew Peter Fendler said he was a character.
“We had a very fun relationship,” his nephew said. “He had a hell of a sense of humor. He would tease me that the only reason I came to visit him was to have him autograph books. It was a running joke.”
McReynolds-Nave & Larson Funeral Home in Clarksville is handling his services. It was unclear Tuesday night if a service would be held in Maine.