Alex MacPhail of Easthampton, MA, died peacefully on January 19, 2022 after a brief illness. He was 78.
Alexander Lee MacPhail, Jr. was born on June 11, 1943, the second child and only son of Lee MacPhail and Barbara (May) MacPhail. His parents’ marriage was not a happy one, and when Alex was about five, his mother took him and his sister Polly to North Conway, NH, where Alex would spend most of his childhood. The time in North Conway had a lasting influence on him. Throughout his life, Alex loved the White Mountains deeply, and he cherished the sense of community he’d found there.
When Alex was a young teenager, his parents reconciled, and the family moved to Wellesley, MA, where Alex attended high school. He was a star on the track team and continued to spend time in the Whites, working for the Appalachian Mountain Club, one of the most formative experiences of his life. Throughout the 1960s and well into the 1970s, he worked for the AMC hut system in many capacities, including hut “croo,” naturalist and guide, and made a group of friends who stayed with him his whole life.
Alex attended Dartmouth for a year, but unhappy with the fraternity culture, he left to take his education into his own hands through travel and exploration. When he finally returned to formal education, it was at Windham College, a small experimental school in Putney, VT, from which he graduated with a B.S. in 1968.
In his 20s and 30s, Alex was known for daring physical feats and a sense of rootlessness. While his strongest sense of home was in the White Mountains and Lake Winnepesaukee, where his family had a camp on a small island, he mostly lived other places and traveled extensively—to England and Scotland, to Germany, Morocco, Mexico and elsewhere. He lived for a time in San Francisco and in South Dakota, in Boston and Vermont. When not traveling, he was known for showing up at friends’ houses asking to spend the night and then staying for months, to the great delight of their children. He accomplished amazing physical challenges including, in 1963, running more than 50 miles across the White Mountains in just over 12 hours, a feat still referred to in trail running circles as the “MacPhail Hut Traverse” and one he was still being asked about almost 60 years later.
During this time, he had many talents but no singular career path. He once described himself as having worked as “a journalist, film maker, photographer, teacher, tree surgeon, sushi chef, wharf planker, bale stacker—among other occupations.” In 1973, while he was working as a journalist for the Rutland (VT) Herald, his doctor told him he had to stop drinking. Instead, he decided to walk across the country and take photographs. The photos from his epic walk, which lasted nearly a year, remained a source of pride to the end. There are coal miners, cowboys, millworkers, prison guards, sullen teenagers and suburban families among many others, and they are an encapsulation of an era. Everyone he photographed seemed to have allowed him to capture them openly and honestly. This gift of easy connection with others never left him, and to the end of his life he still had his photographer’s keen eye and an appreciation of light and the beauty of nature.
By the time he was 40, Alex was finally ready to reconsider his relationship with alcohol. With the help of a skilled therapist, after whom one of his daughters is named, he stopped drinking in 1983 and remained sober for the rest of his life, something he considered a defining accomplishment. He married Viki Gable, an artist, in 1984 and moved to a house on 14 acres in Leeds, MA, where their two daughters, Julia and Lizzie, were born in 1985 and 1988. Alex adored his girls and once described them as “two of the strongest, smartest, wildest goddamned kids in the world.” Alex renovated the house, built the barn out back with a studio for Viki, and eventually started a small farm on the land where he kept cows and grew corn and watermelons, among other crops. Alex also returned to school, earning a master’s degree in environmental education from Antioch New England in 1994. He was instrumental in the founding of CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture), working with other local farmers under a grant from the Kellogg Foundation.
After his separation from Viki, Alex made one final career change, earning a master’s from the University of Connecticut School of Social Work at the age of 60. For the last fifteen years of his career, he worked as a therapist and social worker, first at several agencies in Springfield, MA, and then in a small private practice. Alex was a compassionate and gifted therapist. He read extensively in the field, but he also approached his work as one who himself had had a difficult childhood. Difficult children, it turned out, were his forte, and when there were clients too challenging for his colleagues to reach, Alex volunteered to take them. He usually saw his clients at home or outside, and he could often be found playing basketball or going for hikes with his younger clients. He took great satisfaction in his work and was devastated when he had to retire in 2019 after being diagnosed with dementia.
Even in his last difficult years, Alex still enjoyed being in the woods, the place where he always felt the most comfortable. He remained extremely proud of his daughters, both of whom had been inspired by him as they followed their chosen paths, Julia in social work and Lizzie in wilderness conservation. Until the final six weeks of his life, he was able to live at home with his partner Sue and his beloved cats on the side of Mt. Tom surrounded by trees and woods. He also never lost his wonderful sense of humor or his desire to connect with people. In his final weeks in the hospital and a rehab facility, he was still trying to make the nurses laugh and usually succeeding. He died peacefully in the late afternoon of January 19 with Sue and his dear friend Kristen by his side.
Alex was predeceased by his parents and his sister, Jossalyn (Polly) Randall. He is survived by his partner of 20 years, Sue Dickman; his daughter Julia Gable-Perez, her husband Joshua Perez, and his grandson Mykah, of Manchester, CT; his daughter Lizzie MacPhail and her partner Tyler Roos, of Reno, NV; many friends; and his cats Lino and Loofa who miss him every day.
A celebration of his life will be held in the summer 2022. Donations can be made in his name to the ‘Easthampton Neighbors’ non-profit at https://www.easthamptonneighbors.org/