Joe Kahn doesn’t do much sitting around.
So a recent injury—a detached quadriceps that required an operation and ongoing physical therapy—meant some rearranging of his home in Au Sable Forks to relocate his art and music studio so he can continue painting, practicing guitar and harmonica inside without having to walk on the ice and snow.
Skiing is definitely out this season, but the 77-year-old is doing special exercises and expects to be back on his mountain bike by spring. The recovery has gone well, helped by good physical fitness. (He’s ridden a bike, walked or skied daily for 50 years) And the Tai Chi he practices doesn’t hurt, either.
He feels so good, in fact, that when he walks downstairs to his makeshift studio, he grabs his crutch more for his wife Linda’s benefit than his own. He gets in trouble, he says, if he doesn’t take it with him.
And the lull in his usual outdoor activities has given him more time to “learn patience.” He just finished reading “The Gift of Anger: And Other Lessons from my Grandfather Mahatma Gandhi” by Arun Gandhi. Maybe it’s more a sharpening of a longtime skill.
Kahn spent 32 years in education, as a biology teacher and then as a principal, first at L.P. Quinn in Tupper Lake and then Au Sable Forks Elementary. He coached high school football in Tupper Lake and later in Au Sable Forks, and in 1983 took that team to the North Country Class C Super Bowl Championship and won. Twenty-three years into retirement, he’s still teaching—and learning.
He picked up guitar, and harmonica, and spent time in Mississippi last summer honing his harmonica skills. He had always dabbled in painting, but took it up seriously after retirement and continues to improve his techniques.
Before he retired in the early ’90s, Kahn would lead bike tours in Europe and over weekends in Vermont. When his second daughter graduated college and left home, he started looking around for something he could do closer to home so he wouldn’t have to leave Linda alone. He found High Peaks Cyclery, where he has taught mountain biking for more than 20 years. Frustrated watching kids come from summer camps, ride for 20 minutes and get bored, he developed an instructional progression that worked them slowly from flat ground to the “kick in the ass” course.
“My goal as an educator was to empower people, for people to find themselves doing something they didn’t believe they could,” he says. “That’s how you get satisfaction rather than just have fun.”
“I empower people to go out and enjoy the out of doors in ways they didn’t think they could.”
Kahn wasn’t new to the Adirondacks when he arrived in 1963 for a teaching job at Tupper Lake High School after college. He’d visited when he was in high school for hunting trips. But this time, he stayed. He met Linda that first year, the school’s student hygienist, and they were married. The couple has two daughters, Erin and Jackie, and their “French daughter,” an exchange student who stayed with the family 36 years ago and is still in touch.
“The best thing that ever happened to me in my life was moving to Tupper Lake,” he says.
He found many great role models there—Jimmy Frenette, Bobby LaBarge, Bill McGinn, Leo Robillard—who mentored him in his teaching, coaching and learning.
They were people who worked hard and were self-sufficient. They could fix cars, electrical systems, build a house. Many in the community spoke French at the time, settled from Quebec. He learned his French from the people in town, night school courses, and a French immersion program at the University of Quebec.
“It was a humbling place,” he says. “As I stayed and lived and worked, my respect grew for people who work hard.”
“I was so lucky to be exposed to people of this quality,” he says.
After two years at the high school and then graduate school in Syracuse, he returned to Tupper Lake as principal at L.P. Quinn Elementary. It was an open-space school with movable half walls, 125 kids and five teachers. They taught kids in small groups at their individual level, not by grade level. And he regularly invited people from the community from different backgrounds and experiences to come to the media center and expose the kids to a bigger world.
Students knew if they got into trouble, there were desks, coloring materials and clay in Kahn’s office where they could come and “figure things out.” It was a treat for them to eat lunch there or participate in a small group of students he was teaching French.
“There are two reasons kids fail in school: One is frustration, and one is boredom,” Kahn says. He didn’t allow either.
He took many of these same ideas to Au Sable Forks Elementary when he became principal there in 1974 and watched the school performance increase steadily.
At the time, the town had just lost its paper mill and the school merged with Keesville, which caused some friction with the football program. They hadn’t won a game in three years. Kahn offered to work with the team and in the late ’70s was hired as coach.
“You don’t do these things overnight,” Kahn says. “We got respectable quickly, but didn’t win a lot of games.” Until the team won its Super Bowl in 1983.
Most important, Kahn says, no fists were thrown in the last six years he was principal there. Kids knew that wasn’t the way things were done.
“I demanded accountability,” he says. “They had to talk to me.”
Looking back, Kahn says, he learned as much from the students as they did from him.
“Interacting with them resulted in me learning as much about teaching and life as I was able to teach them math and science,” he says.
And, like many teachers, he hears from them years later. Like the young woman he helped get through a difficult test. She wrote to tell him she never understood why he was so excited for her when she passed the test—until she had her own kids. And one young man said Kahn’s advice: “Life is easier when you’re not a smart ass,” replayed for him every day while he was in the Navy.
And his daughter tells him, “I can’t get north of Albany without someone knowing you.”
Place he wants others to know about: Mount Van Hoevenberg Recreation Area
Kahn became a cross-country ski instructor at Mount Van Hoevenberg a few years before he retired from his job as school principal at Au Sable Forks Elementary. He says he most appreciates the people who work and ski there because they “have chosen to live here and believe in the lifestyle.”
“I was happy to work into that (job) a couple years before I retired.”
He taught the Mount Van Hoevenberg group of the Snowboomers club, a group of retired people who have “chosen to live in the Adirondacks,” from the time it began 15 years ago.
Editor’s note: This first appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine. Click here to subscribe