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Gerry McDade, Blowing Rock Outdoor Educator, Was a Quintessential Mountain Man 

It didn’t need to be warm and sunny to get Gerry McDade outdoors. Shown here on a Roan Mountain cross country trip past at Roan High High Knob Shelter.

By Randy Johnson

Local outdoorsman “Gerry” McDade of Blowing Rock passed away Monday July 11, 2022 after complications from a 2021 heart operation.

McDade was a local  adventurer, athlete, and a fitting symbol of the High Country outdoor lifestyle he embodied. He made a significant professional contribution to his community working for twenty-five years with the North Carolina judicial system as a young adult court counselor in Caldwell County where he was born and raised in Lenoir, his family’s home for generations. 

Combining concern for his young clients and a passionate love of the North Carolina mountains, Gerri created an outdoor adventure program that led his charges onto the highest mountains and wilderness trails of the High Country. 

His hiking, backpacking, rock climbing and fishing trips enhanced his youngsters’ self esteem, built confidence, inspired a love of nature, respect for the planet and the people we share it with. His groups were among the early volunteers helping Grandfather Mountain’s late 1970s trail program reclaim deteriorating trails. It wasn’t unusual for him to hear, “Mr. McDade!” on the street, and find one of “his campers” stretching out their hand.

He was instrumental in organizing the non-profit “Caldwell Friends” organization in the early 1980s that still pairs mentors with young people coping with the challenges of life and school.

Gerry wasn’t focused on academics in high school until elders at his Presbyterian church noticed the young man’s promise and regular attendance (even without other family members) and arranged a scholarship to Glade Valley School, a boarding school in Sparta.

Gerry McDade, enjoying the High Country outdoors.

Gerry attended and played soccer at Montreat College in the early 1970s and often recalled small student dinners at the Montreat home of Billy and Ruth Graham (longtime Montreat supporters who were married in 1943 at the school’s chapel, later named after Graham).

At Aurora University, a private college in Chicago, Gerry earned his undergraduate degree in corrections and sociology on a soccer scholarship. Closer to home, at Eastern Kentucky University, he pursued a masters in clinical psychology then returned to Lenoir to get his start as a probation officer.

Gerry learned his love of the outdoors accompanying his father Earl McDade and brother Joe on visits to Blowing Rock and hikes to the waterfalls and trout pools of his beloved Wilson Creek area (where brother Joe earned a place in the Hall of Fame of the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians). 

Gerry knew that area like few other fisherman, but his career as an outdoorsman and athlete spanned the entire Southern Appalachians, and sports like cross country skiing, rock climbing, rafting and kayaking, trail running, mountain biking, and competitive road cycling, all sports he pursued even more passionately during the last 20 years of life after he retired from the court system. 

At one time during the late 1980s, Gerry was a top, nationally-ranked time trial road bike racer in his age group. One friend who says he “tried to keep up” recalls, “Gerry only knew one way to ride, all out.” 

Gerry was always an educator. Besides the kids he counseled, McDade taught cross country skiing and led group ski tours with High South Nordic Guides on Roan Mountain. He loved to share his knowledge of the mountains, outdoor skills, and wisdom gained from a life spent helping others and exploring his own philosophical inclinations. That started with his parents, whose words of wisdom he often recalled at the perfect teachable moment.

Gerry McDade readies his cross country skis for the trip back to the parking area from the Old Rag Shelter in Shenandoah National Park.

McDade was great fun to be around, but he was comfortable in his own skin and often explored the trails, streams and campsites of his mountain setting with only himself for company. He traveled the world too, places like Europe, Canada, South America, riding his motorcycle to Labrador, Alaska, Guatemala. There and in many other places, often on solo trips, he invariably made life-long friends along with epic memories. 

His passion for convertible sports cars, especially Alfa Romeos, included a diverse collection of other distinctive rides, among them a “convertible” Chevy Blazer. As a dedicated “gear junkie,” he was known for his ritual gifting of outdoor gadgets.

When not actually in the woods, he was always seen at Boone’s Banff outdoor film festival or heading for a Boone Greenway bike ride, most recently with an electric bicycle on the back of his Honda Prius.

Tall and almost “male model” handsome, McDade had rugged good looks and a big heart. One friend called him a “gentle giant.”  Another said, “Gerry was courageous. But even more importantly, Gerry taught courage, independence, and self reliance. And he did it with all the love and care of an older brother.” He will be much missed.

Celebrate Gerry’s Life:

An informal celebration of Gerry McDade’s life will be held on Wednesday July 20th, at 4 pm at Faithbridge United Methodist Church, 194 Aho Road, close to US 321 in Blowing Rock. 

The gathering will take place outdoors at a prayer garden near the rushing Middle Fork of the New River, with a reception and light refreshments following.

In lieu of flowers, please make donations to the Blue Ridge Conservancy, also very close to the church and near Gerry’s home.

A lot of people ski Snowshoe Mountain Resort in West Virginia. Leave it to Gerry to prefer touring deep into the backcountry far from the slopes.