by Micah Wilkins, Editor-in-Chief
Rick Gaukel was organizing a school trip as a student, but first he had to find a staff person to help lead the trip. He chose to ask Jonna Book, the AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer coordinator in the Service Program Office. He excitedly explained the trip to her.
“I can lend you my mountainboard,” he told Book.
Jonna reluctantly agreed, and later returned to her friend Natasha Shipman.
“What’s a mountainboard?” Book asked her.
They met in the Fall of 2004, when he was a student and she was a staff member. But, in his mid-20s, he was an older student.
“He was more like a peer,” said Shipman.
Book and Gaukel spent their first date watching Shrek on Shipman’s couch. Two years later, they married and held their wedding in the Warren Wilson garden.
“Once you saw them together, you knew that they had found the perfect match,” said counselor Art Shuster, who was the coach of the mountain bike team when Gaukel was a student.
Book and Gaukel have been living in Colorado for the last two years, but returned to Warren Wilson to visit and to participate in the Smoky Mountain Relay with Shipman. The morning after the race, Book had several messages on her phone, from friends asking her to call them.
Rick Gaukel was one of five snowboarders killed in an avalanche at Loveland Pass in Colorado April 20, during a fundraiser for avalanche awareness. Book was 1,500 miles away from home, but comforted by being in the place where they had first met.
After they had received the news, Shipman and Book walked around campus, visiting the place where they got married, and went to Ultimate Ice Cream, one of his favorite spots, in memory of him.
“It was almost like the whole day was a dream,” Shipman said. “Things were happening, but it almost didn’t feel real.”
In his time as a student at Warren Wilson, Gaukel majored in Outdoor Leadership, and received the outstanding graduate award in 2005, for excellence in academics and service to the community.
As a student at the college, he made his presence visible. He was one of the first students to bring a mountainboard to the college, and could often be seen skating down the large hills throughout campus.
“He loved participating in anything that was human-powered and went fast: biking, snowboarding, skiing, skateboarding,” said Ed Raiola, his academic advisor.
“If he wasn’t on the bike he was going to Beech Mountain for skiing and snowboarding or going down to the river to paddle,” Shuster said. “He wasn’t a crazy energy. He was a measured energy known for having a lot of talent.”
Gaukel appreciated the here and now, according to Shipman, and took advantage of every moment, while motivating others to do the same.
“Rick was that person who was able to live in the present,” she said. “He could encourage you to do something that could be out of your comfort zone.”
Every Outdoor Leadership student must complete an internship to fulfill their degree, and Gaukel chose to work with at risk youth in the San Francisco Bay area, in his homestate.
“He had a really amazing passion for wanting to work with young people, especially kids that were having troubles and didn’t quite fit into the traditional academic system, kids with ADD or kids that came from family backgrounds that weren’t supportive,” Raiola said. “He liked using the outdoor adventure activities as vehicles for developing self confidence.”
For Gaukel, the mountainboard was more than just a fun hobby, or a way to get around. It was even more than a conversation starter to woo his future wife. For this internship Gaukel wrote a curriculum for teaching kids how to ride these boards made for cruising down mountains.
“That was the first time anyone had done that at a summer camp,” Raiola said. “He was wild about that.”
Gaukel was a natural leader on campus, and other students often took advantage of his skills and knowledge to ask him for advice.
“He would always be swarmed by people asking him for help with this, for better technique on that, to fix this,” Shuster said. “He was the go-to-guy with no limits on what he was willing to share. It will be a little darker without him, but a little brighter for having known him.”