Linguist, teacher, and … world famous alpinist?

Archival reference isn’t always about searching for the sparse facts that cleanly define an event or person in three sentences or less. It offers a microcosmic view of the interconnectedness of life and history - a question leads from one person to another, to an organization, to a piece of artwork and back to a person and then maybe three…on down the line until it relates to something I saw on television last week. Biographical research in particular allows me to study, if only for a brief time, a person long forgotten. But for the hour I spend, they come alive again - at least to me. The vocations and avocations of one individual - their choices and desires are illuminated - and I recall Mary Oliver’s words, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

One such person, whose life seems to have been both wild and precious, was Tufts professor Charles Ernest Fay. The bare bones of his story are that he was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1846 and graduated from Tuft in 1868. Young Charles showed an aptitude for languages and was promptly employed by Tufts as a professor of modern languages, a post he would hold for 60 years. Of course, that’s the kind of information we find everyday - I’m getting to the internationally renowned part…


Fay’s life offers a bewilderingly wide array of organizational involvement. He was one of the founders of the Modern Language Association (MLA); a life member of the American Philological Association; president of the New England Modern Language Association; and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Fay was also a member of the Boston and Cambridge Shakespeare Clubs; the Boston Browning Society; the American Folk Lore Society; the Metropolitan Improvement League of Boston; and the Massachusetts Forestry Association.

But what might be the most bizarre, and to my mind interesting, aspect of Fay’s life is his international reputation as an alpinist. A dedicated lover of the outdoors since his youth, Fay, prior to the age of 50, had already climbed the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Adirondacks, the Rockies, and the Sierra Madre. He had made 19 visits to the Selkirk Range of the Canadian Rockies by 1921, and was still climbing there at the age of 76. He climbed with and/or led many international groups, especially throughout the Canadian Rockies. Fay made two ascents of the peak known as "No. 1" in a chain known as the "Ten Peaks" of the Bow Range near Alberta. This peak, at 10,612 ft, was the second highest of the Ten Peaks and was named Mount Fay in 1904, in Fay's honor. At more than 80 years of age, Fay attended the camp of the Canadian Alpine Club - he hiked the 14 miles from the railway station to the camp and still had energy left over to attend the evening’s festivities. Fay's ascents often involved snowy peaks and treacherous ice fields, however, during his years as a mountain climber the only injury he sustained was a sprained ankle - a testament to his skill.

Fay was a charter member of the Appalachian Mountain Club and served as its president four times, and editing its journal “Appalachia” for 44 years. He remained heavily involved with the American Alpine Club (he was one of the founders), serving as president and journal editor. Fay was also in demand as a lecturer, including a series given in Washington DC and sponsored by National Geographic. He was also a prolific writer - the author of hundreds of articles. His activities brought him numerous honors, including membership in the English, French, and Italian Mountain Clubs, as well as Centro Excursionista de Catalune in Spain. While serving as a delegate to the International Congress of Alpine Clubs in 1920, Fay was knighted and made an officer of the Order of St. Charles by Prince Albert of Monaco. Fay completed his final climb just 6 months before his death in 1931 at the age of 84.

There’s more information to be found about Charles Fay and all the other remarkable, yet sometimes unknown, Tufts people at the Digital Collections and Archives.