greg mortenson

Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian, Activist and Author

October 30, 2010
by Shannon Firth
Greg Mortenson is known around the world for the promise he made to the people of a remote Pakistani village. That promise grew to become his life’s mission: to build schools for children.

Greg Mortenson’s Early Days

Greg Mortenson was born Dec. 27, 1957, to Irvin “Dempsey” and Jerene Mortenson in St. Cloud, Minn. His parents were Lutheran missionaries and moved their family to Tanzania, near Mt. Kilimanjaro, when Greg was still a baby. Dempsey spent more than a decade helping build Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, a teaching hospital. Meanwhile, Jerene founded the International School Moshi, according to Greg’s Web Site.

When Greg was seven years old, his sister, Sonja, saw him sitting with a beggar on the road to their home, sharing his cookies. “He didn’t just give the beggar a cookie,” Sonja told the Omaha World Herald in a 2003 article. “He sat down with him and talked to him.”

After high school, Greg served in the U.S. Army for two years, and then graduated from the University of South Dakota with degrees in nursing and chemistry, according to the Academy of Achievement. In hopes of finding a cure for epilepsy (his younger sister, Christa, struggled with epilepsy), he pursued a graduate degree in physiology at the University of Indiana. But “the more Mortenson learned about epilepsy, the further away any possible cure seemed to recede,” according to his book, “Three Cups of Tea.”

Mortenson decided to move to California and indulge his passion for mountain climbing. He worked as a trauma nurse in two San Francisco Bay Area hospitals. In 1992, Christa died from a massive seizure at the age of 23.

Mortenson’s Notable Accomplishments

The following year, Mortenson vowed to climb Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, as a tribute to his sister. After battling to reach its peak for nearly 80 days, having lost his crew—five of whom were dead—and most of his rations, he was forced to turn around 600 meters from the top, according to CNN.

Mortenson stumbled back down K2 to Korphe, a small village in Pakistan. The villagers there nursed him back to health. One day, he saw a large group of students practicing their lessons outdoors, without a classroom and without a teacher.

“Everything about their life was a struggle. They reminded me of the way Christa had to fight for the simplest things,” he would write years later in “Three Cups of Tea.” He promised the villagers he would come back and build them a school. 

Mortenson returned to California to his nursing job, lived out of his car (to save money) and began trying to fundraise. “I was computer illiterate at the time, so I hand typed 580 letters over 10 weeks,” he told NPR in an interview in 2009. The first check he received was from Tom Brokaw for $100. He sold most of his possessions, including his car, his books and his climbing gear. After three years, he returned to Korphe to build his school—and realized he’d found his calling.

“As of 2009, Mortenson has established or significantly supports 131 schools in rural and often volatile regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which provide education to over 58,000 children, including 44,000 girls, where few education opportunities existed before,” according to the “Three Cups of Tea” Web site.

Mortenson also cofounded the nonprofit Central Asia Institute (CAI) with a mission to “promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan,” according to the CAI Web site. He also founded the Pennies for Peace program, which helps children around the world raise money for the CAI to build more schools.

The Rest of the Story

Mortenson has been granted dozens of awards and honors for his humanitarian work, including the Sitara-e-Pakistan “Star of Pakistan,” Pakistan’ highest civilian award, in 2009.

He has penned four books about his experiences building schools and continues to give lectures and host fundraisers, always emphasizing how educating children helps promote peace.

His first book, “Three Cups of Tea,” spent 100 weeks on The New York Times’ bestseller list, and is required reading for U.S. senior military commanders, and for U.S. Special Forces deploying to Afghanistan. “Stones into Schools” is a sequel to “Three Cups of Tea,” and was followed by a picture book, “Listen to the Wind.” 

In his 2009 interview with NPR, Mortensen described the impact schools have on families and communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “[W]hen a girl learns how to read and write, the first thing she often does is write a letter for her mother to her family,” Mortenson said. “Because when women are married off, their maternal ties are severed, so they can’t communicate with their family. That’s very empowering.”

Watch Bill Moyers interview Mortenson in January 2010. Mortenson describes being kidnapped by the Taliban in 1997 and explains how he won his release by befriending his captors.

When he isn’t traveling, Mortenson lives with his wife, Dr. Tara Bishop, and two young daughters in Montana.

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