Impact Giving: When Passion and Purpose Align

In this piece from Mountaineer Magazine, past publisher of Mountaineers Books and current Executive Director of Conservation and Advancement, Helen Cherullo talks to us about the history of publishing, starting a new chapter with Mountaineers Books, and how she feels about the organization's shift toward philanthropy.
Bri Vanderlinden Bri Vanderlinden
Assistant Director, Development
September 01, 2020

It’s always a joy to visit with someone who speaks passionately about the things they love. For Helen Cherullo, her passion is books. Helen’s love is about more than a simple bound text; it’s about imagery and place-based storytelling, and how their subsequent ripple effects move communities to act.

As we continue to celebrate Mountaineers Books 60th anniversary, I wanted to learn more about the woman who has influenced such an extraordinary history, first as Director of Prepress, twenty years as Publisher, and now as our Executive Director of Conservation and Advancement. Not only that, but Helen has myriad gifts and hidden talents. A graduate from the University of Montana, Helen earned a degree in editorial journalism with a major in fine art. A far cry from her Chicago upbringing, the mountains of western Montana were a revelation. Missoula reminded her of summers gardening with her grandparents in Wisconsin, an experience that likely inspired Helen to become a King County Master Gardener when she and her husband moved to Seattle. For many years she volunteered to help school children grow food relevant to their lives (hello pizza gardens!) and build worm bin composters.

But it was her experience as a master gardener that had me longing to sit in her yard for our interview. Still in the time of COVID, we opted for a laughter-filled video chat and wrote a rain check for a future garden party. I listened for hours as she wove a narrative about the history of publishing, new beginnings, and how she feels about the organization's shift toward philanthropy. Even from a distance her passion for Mountaineers Books shined through, making for a fascinating and uplifting conversation.

Celebrating 28 years with Mountaineers Books

When Helen joined Mountaineers Books in 1992, she was hired to navigate a revolutionary shift facing the entire publishing industry. “Helen was a forward-looking risk taker,” said former CFO (and Publisher) Art Freeman, “She arrived during the start of the ‘desktop publishing revolution,’ a challenging time for publishers who were all trying to transition from stone age methods of book production (imagine gluing typeset pages and illustration onto boards that were then photographed by printers!). She skillfully guided us through that, and much later, the ebook revolution.”  

Nearly 30 years later, Helen continues to elevate a talented and experienced leadership team. She is most proud of guiding the company through changes in the book marketplace, the recession, consolidations in the publishing industry, and the 2001 Nisqually earthquake that wreaked havoc on the warehouse. Earlier this year, Helen announced that she would be handing over the reins as Publisher to focus efforts in a new role where she will continue to build capacity by establishing a stronger and more stable base of philanthropic support for Mountaineers Books and Braided River. 

With over 750 books published in the course of her tenure, I asked Helen to give us a tour of the most influential title by decade. She resisted at first, noting there are too many amazing publications to choose from, but eventually agreed to name names:

1990s: The Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory & Irvine
“What started as a modest biography of George Mallory quickly turned into an international sensation when our author team on expedition discovered the body of Mallory on Mount Everest. Before we knew it, three major publishing houses were in a race to the finish line. After condensing a multi-year effort into a four-month window, we released first. This title cemented the reputation of Mountaineers Books as a preeminent publisher of mountaineering history and literature around the world, selling more than 50,000 copies worldwide and generating over $1 million in revenue through book sales and co-publications.”

We share bonus material about the Ghosts of Mallory and more below in the addendum.

2000s: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land
“The development of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was transformational for many reasons. This book is credited with playing a role in protecting the Refuge from drilling at the time, held up on the Senate floor during a passionate debate. Having the opportunity to work with photographer Subhankar Banerjee inspired a new approach for shaping stories, working with strategic partners and donors, and becoming a galvanizing force for change. This book inspired the launch of the Braided River imprint of Mountaineers Books, supporting some of the most exciting and consequential conservation work in North America today.”

2010s: Living Bird: 100 Years of Listening to Nature 
“The Living Bird partnership with Cornell Lab of Ornithology and photographer Gerrit Vyn was the first time Mountaineers Books appeared on the New York Times best seller list. Our association with a highly respected institution like Cornell led to an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air in a Peabody Award-winning segment on one of NPR’s most popular programs. The accomplished editorial and production staff, under the leadership of Editor in Chief Kate Rogers, made this book as well as many other titles possible, including Kate’s vision of Mountaineers Books outdoor lifestyle imprint, Skipstone.”

New beginnings

The shifts we’ve experienced in 2020 have impacted our personal lives, our businesses, and our world significantly. But Helen’s relentless commitment to Mountaineers Books is not stopping anytime soon, and she’s recently taken steps to embrace new beginnings by joining both Peak Society and Summit Society. This is just one way she’s committed to further ensuring the lasting impact of our mission. 

“Over the years since I became an accidental fundraiser for our conservation work via Braided River, I’ve recognized how important unrestricted support can be. This was a big part of me joining Peak Society.  Realizing I could make a monthly donation made it an easier lift financially. We have a very solid strategic plan and many initiatives are just waiting to be funded. It's not about keeping the lights on, it's about ensuring future generations have the same life-forming experiences living closely with the natural world. That's what philanthropy can do.”

When Helen talks about her decision to join Summit Society by leaving a bequest in her will, she reminds us how important it is to have a plan.

“If you want to have some control over what happens and to leave the world a better place on your terms, it is important to be very clear. For me, I’ve chosen to leave Braided River and Mountaineers Books in my will. My advice is to go through the formality of including the tax ID, just so there isn’t any confusion. I chose a DIY estate-planning option and it was very easy. Depending on circumstances, you may need to invest in hiring a lawyer. For me, it gave me tremendous peace of mind having it done. I also took the time to share my wishes with my family.”

Leaving a legacy through philanthropy

One of Helen’s primary motivations is ensuring that The Mountaineers, Mountaineers Books, and Braided River are set up to thrive for future generations. Her personal connection with the natural world, and her passion for supporting the health and wellbeing of society, continues to drive her commitment today.

“You have to get people outdoors—ideally from a young age—to build that connection to nature and wild places. This is something The Mountaineers has done beautifully for over 100 years. Mountaineers Books provides guidance and inspiration to live a full life grounded in the outdoor experience – from day hiking in urban areas to ambitious, high-altitude climbs. Images and stories can take people to wild places they might not otherwise experience. This trusted wisdom captured in books will continue to be important for people to live healthy, fulfilled lives, build community, and offer a foundation for generations of future conservationists and advocates.”

As an observer, I believe Helen has truly answered her calling to celebrate and develop a culture of shared purpose in the outdoors. Choosing to plan for the future of Mountaineers Books with a gift in her will is just another example of how she can make a difference in a way that aligns with her passions. If you’re considering taking this step and would like someone to talk to, Helen would be happy to be a resource for you. Her servant leadership and tireless efforts have already left an enduring legacy, and choosing to support the outdoor community in this way is one more step toward supporting generations of conservationists and outdoorspeople to come.

Helen can be reached at helenc@mountaineersbooks.org. If you have general questions or would like to notify The Mountaineers about a gift of bequest to become a member of Summit Society, please reach out to development@mountaineers.org.

Addendum

Bonus material not featured in our print edition:

1990s: The Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory & Irvine (continued)
“In the beginning, Mountaineers Books contracted the book to be a very modest biography of George Mallory. Surprisingly, Mallory’s biography had never been written, and the surviving climbing team wanted to go to Everest to recover Sandy Irvine's body. There had been sightings and whispering of locations, and because Irvine was Malory’s climbing partner, if they could find him it would add a contemporary aspect to the story and we planned it to be the foreword for the book. The publishing team said, 'Yeah, knock yourselves out. Go to Everest and find Sandy Irvine.'

“Not long after, the publisher at the time, Art Freeman, received a disturbing voicemail from the Editor In Chief, Margaret Foster, and Art's wife, Jo, was the first one to hear it. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall as Jo yells out to Art, 'Why is Margaret calling us to say that they ‘found the body?’ What does that mean? What body? What is going on?'

“Art returned Margaret’s call to discover that the climbing team hadn't found the body of Irvine. They had actually discovered the body of the legendary George Mallory! The story rocketed around the planet and was international news overnight. Rarely do we see mountaineering history hit the front page of every newspaper world-wide, and we knew this was a chance to get the world excited about the world of mountaineering. When the climbing team returned to the US in May, we knew we had a hot story on our hands and would need to produce this book as fast as possible.

“As the Director of Prepress, I was looking at what seemed to be an impossible task. We were competing with two books that we were aware of: one by Simon and Schuster and the other from National Geographic. We had the writer and the whole climbing team live at our Editor in Chief's house for a full month, and the book was written by the first week of July. I went to the printer in Roanoke, Virginia and I slept on the couch in the print shop and all I did was press proofs around the clock for two days. It was an insane and really intense time, but our book came out first. 

“The entire Mountaineers Books team went into high gear. The book was written, and we edited, designed, selected photographs, and printed a four color hardcover book that was also shipped in record time to hit stores by mid September. A process that normally would take 2.5 years or more took place over the course of 4 months. The whole experience was just exhilarating. But it also took a toll on us, and I promised I would never do it again.

“What I loved about this experience is that it was remarkable that we were able to produce a book so beautiful, so fast, and so well that it generated so much interest and media attention - and we also sold A LOT of books. But it was also a way to really put Mountaineers Books on the map as the publishing company of record for mountaineering history. We already enjoyed that reputation in a quiet way from all the work that had been done over the years. This was a high profile moment and an opportunity that took us even further.”

2000s: A Commitment to Trail-Tested Wisdom
“As I became publisher at the turn of the century, not only were we planting the seeds for what was to become Braided River, but we also navigated the graceful but difficult transition from the iconic and seemingly unreplaceable Harvey Manning/Ira Spring guidebook era to the next generation of adventure guidebook authors and adventurers. We found the perfect fit in someone who revered Harvey and Ira - and who got to know what Harvey called “the lessons and pleasures” of the great outdoors of the Pacific Northwest. Led by the amazing and infatigable Craig Romano, a new wave of authors also included Susan Elderkin, Tami Asars, and others, who are crucial to the growth and continued impact of Mountaineers Books on the outdoor community.”

WHAT LIES AHEAD

As The Mountaineers celebrates 60 years since the first printing of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, Mountaineers Books continues to publish titles of exceptional quality, giving voice to a wide range of authors, photographers, and artists who seek to share their passion for human-powered activities, sustainable living, and engagement with the natural world. With roots in one of the Pacific Northwest’s most respected outdoor organizations, Mountaineers Books has reached audiences around the world through our expert instructional and destination guidebooks, inspiring adventure stories, and enlightening natural history and conservation books.

Books are made possible through the generosity of donors and through sales of our more than 700 titles on outdoor recreation, sustainable lifestyle, and conservation. To donate, purchase books, or learn more, visit us online at mountaineersbooks.org.


This article originally appeared in our Fall 2020 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

Main Image: Helen with Old-growth Douglas fir, Moran State Park, Orcas Island.