Remembering H. Neil Zimmerman
H. Neil Zimmerman, a steadfast leader of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference in various capacities for multiple decades, passed away in February. He was 77.
Neil served as president of the Trail Conference Board of Directors from 1987 to 1999, was an honorary life member, and received the Raymond H. Torrey Award, the Trail Conference’s most prestigious volunteer award, in 2004. Neil also served as chairman of the Map Committee, where he led the efforts to produce our first maps of the Catskills and Shawangunks in the 1980s, and his advocacy work in the Catskills was responsible for the Trail Conference’s initial trail adoption efforts in this region. He continued to be a strong advocate for the Catskills and Shawangunks throughout his life, including as longtime president of the Friends of the Shawangunks. Neil, along with fellow volunteer and friend Stella Green, co-authored two popular books, “50 Hikes in the Lower Hudson Valley” and “50 Hikes in New Jersey.”
Upon Neil’s completion of 12 years as board president, he was celebrated by 240 friends at Bear Mountain Inn, where he was also recognized with the National Park Service’s Conservation Hero award and congratulatory letters from the governors of both New York and New Jersey for his outstanding leadership.
Neil was not only a champion of the trails and parklands, but also of the volunteers responsible for their creation and protection, stating in 1997, "I will never cease to be amazed and delighted at the work of our volunteers." Neil will be remembered fondly by so many, and he no doubt created a lasting impact on the Trail Conference. Joshua Howard, Trail Conference Executive Director, stated, "Neil was such an amazing person and huge part of the Trail Conference. He will be missed tremendously."
JoAnn Dolan, former Trail Conference Executive Director for more than 13 years in the 1980s and 1990s, remembers Neil with these memories:
I first met Neil in the early '80s when he was very involved in creating the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference Catskill Trails map set and fostering Catskill land protection, earning him the nickname, “Catskill Zimmy.” This was in the early years of my serving as Trail Conference Executive Director.
Neil started to bicycle to the Trail Conference office every day after completing his full-time job at the Population Council. Fortified with a Burger King special in hand, he would immediately begin working on membership fulfillment, marketing outreach and fulfilling publication orders. Over the years, he trained many students to assist. This routine afforded us the opportunity to strategize about organizational growth and discuss many issues that related to the Trail Conference. Later on Neil became Trail Conference President and remained very insightful and supportive to me as Executive Director.
Neil was a rugged individualist who spoke his mind at all times. Often terse, he was to the point. Although he had strong opinions, he was open to listening, and was not afraid to change his mind. With Neil’s strong leadership qualities he advocated for land protection and public access for trail planning. He leaves proverbial handprints, as well as footprints, in the Shawangunk Mountains, the Catskills and Sterling Forest. In the process he earned great respect, developed strong partnerships and formed many fond relationships among colleagues, organizations and government agency people.
On top of that, Neil was a very funny person with a sense of humor that really appealed to children. In this spirit he inspired many young people to get involved with trail work - and some have gone on to become very successful in the field. My own three sons adored Neil and always looked forward to his jokes and playfulness at Trail Conference events.
Neil grew up in New York City and lived there until he retired. His apartment was about three blocks away from Lincoln Center and yet, unlike most cosmopolitan folks, he bristled at the idea of wearing a tie and was drawn to wide open spaces. He walked every Trail Conference mapped trail in Harriman Bear Mountain Park and the Catskills. Neil co-authored “50 Hikes in New Jersey” and 50 Hikes in the Lower Hudson Valley.” His search for hiking experiences radiated out to the Adirondacks, the White Mountains, and as far beyond as New Zealand. At rest, Neil’s heart was in the Shawangunk Mountains. He bought a home in the “Gunks”, and after retirement he lived there full-time, finally giving up his link to Manhattan. Here he lived in close community with many of the friends he made over the years.
The depth of Neil’s volunteer commitment to the Trail Conference was staggering… every day after work, and most every weekend, for many years. Neil was a gift to the Trail Conference and the Trail Conference was a gift and a way of life for Neil.
I am graced to have known him and to have worked with him. Neil is unforgettable, and I will miss him.
Malcolm Spector, longtime volunteer and former Trail Conference board member, wrote:
Neil was a full-time ambassador for the Trail Conference.
Out for a hike, Neil would see other hikers not using the Trail Conference maps. He always carried cards that would direct the hikers to the Trail Conference. He would remind them that they benefited from the work of Trail Conference volunteers, who not only built and maintained the trails, but published the maps and guidebooks, and lobbied and worked constantly to protect the land on which the trails were built. Shouldn’t they join the Trail Conference and give something back?
The Gunks were a special passion even before Neil moved to Accord. The energy he brought to the Friends of the Shawangunks was enormous and infectious. He was not only a charismatic leader but a hardworking detail-oriented person, who knew how to make an organization of volunteers work, and how to make the volunteer experience rewarding.
If you would like to share a memory of Neil, please reach out to Josh Howard at [email protected]. You can also designate a gift "in memory" of Neil here.