Polak stands atop Saddleback Mountain. He completed all 48 4,000-footers in New Hampshire and all 14 of Maine’s 4,000-foot mountains. submitted photo

WOODSTOCK —  “It was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life,”  Woodstock resident Marcel Polak said of section hiking a a part of the Appalachian Trail. The avid hiker started from South Kinsman Mountain in New Hampshire and hiked to the trail’s end at Mount Katahdin. With his wife Emily, he’s climbed all 62 4,000 foot Maine and New Hampshire peaks mostly in the last couple of years.

His love for hiking and being outdoors in general have been lifelong, but are only a small part of his story.

When he was born in a hospital in France in 1949, no doctors or nurses were there to attend to his mother.  Like his parents, Polak was born stateless, which means that he was not recognized as a citizen of any country.

“America was unique in having birthright citizenship,” Polak said. “If you are born in this country, it doesn’t matter what the status of your parents are, you are a citizen. That was not the case in many countries at the time, including France.”

He eventually obtained French citizenship.

Both of his parents were Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. His mother was deported from Germany to a concentration camp in France. She escaped two camps and was able to survive the rest of the war.

He also lost two grandmothers to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi concentration and death camps.

In 1953, he came to the United States. His early childhood was spent in Brooklyn and then Queens, N.Y.

In 1960, he became a naturalized American citizen.

Outside of English, three other languages were spoken in his house. Polak’s primary language was French, but his parents also spoke Yiddish and German. He remains fluent in French today and can still speak some German and Yiddish.

Polak benefited from a strong public education system in Brooklyn and Queens, when he moved there at age 11.

An important part of the public education system in New York City was attending Queens College of the City University of New York essentially free ($70 a year, plus costs for textbooks). He worked through college and graduated with no debt. Free education allowed Polak to explore and figure out exactly what he wanted to do in life.

In college, he discovered two tracks, which would later “define his life.” The first was pottery. He had taken a ceramics class. The other was a class he took on winter ecology. Polak said that part of the ecology class involved him going to the Adirondacks in the middle of winter and sample some of the lakes to determine why the fish were dying off.

They had to ski in to the lakes. That is where Polak first learned how to cross country ski. He continues to cross-country ski regularly at the Mahoosuc Pathways Trails at the Bethel Inn.

After graduating college, he followed up on his pottery interest and attended Brooklyn Museum Art School. Soon after he found an apprenticeship in Toronto.

“I learned the full range of how to run a business and how to produce pottery on a production scale,” Polak said.

After his apprenticeship, he was unsure that being a potter was something he wanted to do at that time in his life.

To his luck, another opportunity came his way shortly. At the time, the National Parks Service was taking over some natural coastal areas in New York City that was called Gateway National Recreation Area, one of two in the country. He was hired as an interpretive naturalist at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. It was there that he discovered his passion for bird-watching and where he learned how to identify birds.

“It was a great job, I got to wear a Smoky the Bear hat. I also got to give tours of the bay,” he said.

Once he finished his job at the refuge, Polak was at a crossroads in his life and opportunities were wide open for him. He was still living at home and did not have the burden of college debt holding him back. Polak heard about an outdoor education center in Ohio that had a graduate program. Attendees would serve on the staff of the center, receive training and could earn 10 graduate credits. Polak decided to go to Ohio and the decision proved to be life-changing. He met his wife Emily during the one year he spent there. They’ve been together ever since. He returned to New York with Emily and began working at an environmental center there.

After working there for a bit, he and Emily moved to Maine in 1978. In 1979, they found their current spot on Cushman Hill Road in Woodstock. It was a small cottage, that had power, but no plumbing. They decided to keep the house that way, and also chose not to use the power to live more simply.

“We had kerosene lights, we got water from the spring and we used an outhouse,” Polak said. “Neither one of us had any debt so we could live on very little.”

The next goal of Polak’s was to find some kind of employment. He worked as a waiter at the Boiler Room in Woodstock, the Bethel Inn and the Sudbury. Although he enjoyed waiting, Polak wanted to return to one of his passions. He left waiting in 1984 after his daughter Rachel was born and renewed his interest of pottery. He started building a studio for his work on another section of his property.

He and Emily built a two-room, 800-square-foot house that stood on posts.

“When we finished the house Emily and I turned to each other and said that this is better than the cottage we are living in,” he said.

They opted to move into the studio and the cottage wound up being Polak’s pottery studio.

The location made Polak’s business challenging, though.

“Being a potter was not an easy job because you not only have to produce, but you also have to market. I was strong on the production side, but I was not particularly as good with marketing,” he said.

He made three different kinds of pottery when he was an active potter: porcelain, raku, and earthenware.

Polak would rely on attending art shows to make a profit. He said some shows went better than others, but that he always made enough to get by. However, he realized eventually that having a child meant that he needed more of an income.

Next he would turn to something “he never thought he’d do,” and that was becoming a real estate broker. He said helping connect people to homes in the area was good because it related to his interest in community building.

Polak also had a strong interest in land conservation. He was one of the founders of the Mahoosuc Land Trust and was their first part-time executive director of the MLT.  He was also the first executive director of the Norway/Paris Heritage Trust (which is now Western Foothills Land Trust). By this time, he had also left the real estate business.

While he was serving as executive director of MLT, Polak decided to go back to graduate school. He went to Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, N.H. and commuted 400 miles round trip once a week for two years to finish his master’s degree. For his thesis, he came up with a land conservation strategy for MLT.

Next was a job working for the Appalachian Mountain Club as a field director for the upper Androscoggin Valley. He did this for six and a half years. It was the only full-time benefited job Polak has had in his more than 40 years in the area. He co-founded the Androscoggin Source to the Sea Canoe Trek and collaborated with paper mills in Berlin, NH, Rumford and Jay to highlight water quality improvements in the Androscoggin River.

He joined the MSAD 44 school board in the early 1990s and has served as chairman of the board in the past.

He is also dedicated to the NorthStar Program, “a hands-on mentoring program” in its third year “that connects young people with caring adults through community engagement, cultural exchange, and adventure challenge and leadership. ”

Polak has been one of those mentors for students, taking them on canoe trips down the Androscoggin and on hikes in many of the areas mountains. He strongly believes that an excellent public education is critically important for students and for the future of this community. He’s paying it forward for his excellent public school education.

Today, he remains passionate about hiking and plans to hike the remaining five 4,000-foot peaks in Vermont with Emily this summer.


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