Museum of the White Mountains and an old man in Bristol continue to pay tribute to the Old Man of the Mountain

By RAY DUCKLER

Monitor columnist

Published: 06-17-2023 3:42 PM

He didn’t have the original poem he’d written 70 years ago when the Old Man of the Mountain guarded Franconia Notch with a hard stare, but Charlie Poole of Bristol remembered the words, altering them to acknowledge his friend’s death.

“There was a man, who stood so high,”  began the poem that Poole, 88, wrote while in high school.“He reached 1,200 feet, to the sky.”

The 15-line poem was printed on a greeting card by Poole, with green letters bold against a white background that’s shaped like the Old Man of the Mountain himself. Poole’s affection for the big guy, who fell to his death 20 years ago last month, was shared by Granite Staters who knew the man as the state’s symbol, and other enthusiasts across the country.

That’s what inspired Poole – who grew up in Stoneham, Mass., and made yearly trips to the Old Man before settling in Bristol after World War II – to dust off the artsy part of his mind and recall the words to the poem he’d written as a teen.

It’s also what inspired people like Inez McDermott, who grew up in Chelmsford, Mass., to introduce the Old Man and all his wonderful qualities during an eight-part lecture program called “The Old Man of the Mountain Speaker Series,” at the Museum of the White Mountains at Plymouth State University.

The series will feature eight discussions through Sept. 13, with McDermott batting leadoff on Thursday night at 6. The lecture series coincides with the museum’s exhibit called “An Enduring Presence: The Old Man of the Mountain,” which ends Sept. 16 and examines the role the iconic rock formation played in New Hampshire’s identity.

McDermott is the curator for the museum’s “An Enduring Presence” display. She’s also a professor of art history at New England College, and she’s been an independent curator for some of the top presentations at the Currier Museum.

Like Poole, McDermott traces her fascination with the Old Man to her grade-school days, in Chelmsford. She moved to Concord 40 years ago.

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“I had a childhood friend who took us to Vermont through Franconia Notch,” McDermott said. “It was always exciting, each time.”

McDermott created a vision that fans of the Old Man know so well.

“We would stop, stand there and look,” McDermott said. “When there were no clouds, we always saw it just when it finally came into view.”

The children busted with excitement when spotting the profile live. The Old Man had that sort of power. It certainly inspired Poole to tap into his artistic side and pay tribute to the Old Man, back when Poole was playing high school baseball and basketball in Bristol.

“No, I don’t have the poem from high school,” said Poole, sitting in his kitchen sipping a cola on the rocks. “I remembered it and I went to the printing shop and she made that card from a picture I took of the Old Man.”

Feelings of nostalgia continue into adulthood. The Old Man forces you to rewind, think about what a big deal he was when you were a kid. And, for adults, the Old Man represented a mirror, reflecting the qualities of Granite Staters to any and all who visited. Toughness, resilience, stoic.

“When they print something about it, I am very much interested in that,” Poole said. “I know about all the times they drilled and put chains in. If they hadn’t done that, it would have fallen a long time ago.”

Poole retired 30 years ago from New England Telephone and lives in Bristol with his best friend, Jenn Corliss. People familiar with this landmark hoped the Old Man would live forever but knew better.

His bumpy forehead and square jaw, 1,200 feet above Profile Lake, were not as solid as the Old Man’s spirit or the influence he had on most who drove past.

On May 3, 2003, the layers of rock slabs stacked to create the side view of a face, after centuries of gravity and weather and water that froze, then thawed, finally gave way. The Old Man died alone in the wee hours of the morning, filmed by no one. A few people claimed they had heard the rumbling of seven tons of rocks falling. The state woke up and heard the news. A major loss for many.

Poole used to fish at profile lake, with the Old Man watching from high above. And no matter how many times Poole fished there, the  Old Man never disappointed. And when he collapsed, the ensuing emotions felt by so many went far beyond mere disappointment.

Poole updated his work recently, changing it from a present-tense celebration of comfort and greatness, to a past-tense version of sadness and loss. 

“Though from the mountain, he has fallen; he will not be forgotten, for he was the Old Man of the Mountain.”

“I was fishing there around two days before it fell,” Poole said. “No matter how many times I went, you wanted to see the Old Man every time. Everyone I talked to was affected. I thought we lost something very important to the state.”

If you go:

Old Man of the Mountain exhibit

Where: The Museum of the White Mountains is located in a former Methodist church on the Plymouth State University campus.

Old Man of the Mountain Speaker Series

This series will host in-person and virtual lectures on June 15, July 13 and 20, August 3, 10, 17, and 31 and September 13. The lectures are free but registration is required.

Exhibition curator Inez McDermott will kick off the series with a talk on Thursday, June 15, about how the Old Man enthralled the imaginations of amateur and professional artists alike, who sought to capture its image in various media.

Cost: Admission to the museum and the lecture series is free.

For more information, visit plymouth.edu/mwm/events

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