While many individuals throughout history have devoted their time and love to the preservation of wild places, Ernie Dickerman, a long-time wilderness advocate and "granddad of the Eastern wilderness," devoted his life to the conservation of the natural world.
Ernest M. Dickerman was born on December 22, 1910 in Austin, Illinois. At the age of three he moved with his family to the Adirondacks in New York and at age six to Richmond, Virginia. Not much is recorded about Dickerman's childhood though his mother died of tuberculosis when he was only five years old, leaving his eleven-year-old sister to care for him and his brother while their father, Judson C. Dickerman, worked as a civil engineer. The three siblings were eventually sent away to boarding school. Ernie attended Gettysburg Academy in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and then Oberlin College. From here he graduated in the class of 1931 with a degree in economics.
In 1934 he moved to Knoxville, Tennessee to work for the newly established Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). After several years he decided he did not want a career working for the government and left TVA to work with the Patent Button Company of Tennessee. Dickerman remained at this company for 20 years, retiring from the position of production manager in 1966.
Knoxville's close proximity to the Smoky Mountains allowed Dickerman to truly establish a love for the wilderness, and he spent much of his time hiking and camping in the mountains only 50 miles from his home. During a climb to the top of Mount LeConte, a peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Dickerman showed his enthusiasm for his surroundings by doing a celebratory handstand at the top of the mountain instead of planting a flag.
"When I found the Smoky Mountains (within a month after arriving in Tennessee), I knew I had found what I was looking for on this planet." - Ernie Dickerman
In Knoxville Dickerman served as a member of the Conservation Committee of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club and became an increasingly involved conservationist, pushing for designation of the Great Smoky Mountains, Mammoth Cave and Shenandoah National Parks. The Committee's main concerns soon became management problems in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the neighboring Cherokee National Forest.
Here Dickerman befriended well-known wilderness advocate Harvey Broome and the two became good friends, united by their common love for the wild places of the southeast. Through Broome, Dickerman was introduced to many of the founders of the Wilderness Society and joined the staff in 1956.
As a Wilderness Society staff member, Dickerman was mainly concerned with George Hartzog, Director of the National Park Service's 1965 proposal to build a new highway across the western half of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Dickerman was responsible for traveling around the country and educating citizens on the impending proposal. He found through his work that most people were in favor of preserving the Park's lands and opposed to the idea of a new road.
In 1969 Dickerman moved to Washington D.C. to work out of The Wilderness Society's headquarters and steadily continued his lobbying against road construction. After a seven year battle, Director Hartzog abandoned the proposal, marking Dickerman's success as a dedicated conservationist.
Aside from his consistent work on road prevention in the Park, Dickerman acted as manager for the Robert Marshall Wilderness Fund during the 1960s and played a large role in the passage of the Eastern Wilderness Act. Prior to 1975 the Forest Service took the position that few if any areas in the East qualified as wilderness because they were not "pristine" or "untouched." The passage of this law marked a distinct change in agency philosophy and resulted in the designation of 16 new wilderness areas in the East.
In 1976, Dickerman officially retired from his position with The Wilderness Society, though he did not retire as an advocate for wilderness preservation. This same year he moved onto his nephew's farm near Buffalo Gap in Augusta County, Virginia. Immediately after his move he was elected president of the Virginia Wilderness Committee, an organization founded in 1969 at William and Mary College to work for federal designation of wilderness areas in Virginia.
Dickerman held his position as president for four years, until 1979, and spent his remaining years living on the farm and acting as inspiration for the next generation of wilderness enthusiasts.
On July 31, 1998 Ernie Dickerman was found dead under a cherry tree near his farm cabin. Believing that he had lived beyond his years as an effective and active citizen, he decided to take his own life at the age of 87. He had long been open with his friends and family about his strict opinion that once a person came to the end of their life they should stop taking up resources and "get out of the way." Dickerman never married nor had children of his own, though he deeply touched the lives of others through his work and enthusiasm.
Dickerman, E. (Oral History). (1998). Ernie Dickerman: Biographical Information. Buffalo Gap, VA.
Ernest M. Dickerman Papers. James Madison University.
McCue, C. (1998, September 13). Wilderness Areas Owe Great Deal to Dickerman, Ex-Knoxvillian. The Knoxville News Sentinal.
Noble, H. (1998, August 5). Ernest Dickerman 87, Fought to preserve Wilderness Areas. The New York Times.