The Lessons of Jim Fowler

June 4, 2019

I used to joke about being the “Marlon Perkins of test prep.” To better understand the experience of taking standardized tests, I “go into the field,” sit with a room of teens, and take official ACTs and SATs. This keeps me familiar with the energy — and the stress — often found in rooms full of students taking standardized tests, as they grapple with the pressure of making the scores they need for their college plan.

For those of you scratching your heads about Marlin Perkins, he was an American zoologist and the host of the TV show, Wild Kingdom, from 1963 to 1985. I grew up watching that show with my grandparents, and each week, I sat mesmerized by Mr. Perkins and the habits of lions, zebras, crocodiles, and the like that he shared with his viewers. Even more compelling for me, though, was his long-time assistant and sidekick, Jim Fowler, a fellow zoologist, whose job appeared to take him as close as possible to peril as he tranquilized and tagged lions or rescued a young chimpanzee from poachers. This was broadcast TV after all, and it was gripping stuff!

Mr. Perkins died in 1986, and Mr. Fowler (who grew up in Falls Church, VA) died this past week at the age of 89. Following Wild Kingdom, Mr. Fowler became a wildlife correspondent for NBC’s The Today Show and made forty appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Carson would frequently introduce Jim with humor, describing him as the one who handled dangerous wild animals in the field while Marlin Perkins narrated safely from the studio.

Although Mr. Perkins was an eminent zoologist, as a child, I found Mr. Fowler more compelling because he was out there in the actual wild. As parents, we would do well to remember that although we have knowledge and wisdom to share with our kids about navigating school, friendships, and life, they are the ones who are actually out there on the savannah every day. At every turn, they are keeping eyes out for potential predators and looking for collaborators in their pack, all while navigating the challenges and opportunities of adolescence — and they are not operating from the safety of the studio or my grandparents’ couch. 

Lastly, remember that your familiarity with the terrain of high school and the ecosystems of teenage life may be a little, well, dated. Sure, you have wisdom and experience to share from your youth. But those recollections may be imperfect. Landscapes and change and personal, subjective experiences often matter as much or even more than objective facts. When revisiting his hometown, Mr. Fowler observed, “I was amazed at the house I grew up in; it looks practically identical to the way it actually was, but I couldn’t recognize it because of the size of the trees.”

Although high school may look the same from the safe distance of years past, your kids may be right when they say, “You have no idea what it’s like. It’s just different!” So even though you may think of your children as mere pups, believe your kids. Trust what they share. Lean on the wisdom of the teachers, coaches, and counselors who are right there with your kids. 

This week, I tip my hat to Jim Fowler who, throughout his career, was out there in the field to help us better understand our world and its wild creatures.