With little more than a backpack and a dream, David Moriah ’72 founded Cornell Outdoor Education (COE)—the largest collegiate outdoor education program in the US, which has educated and exhilarated more than 200,000 students since its founding.
During his senior year at Cornell, David signed up for a 28-day Outward Bound course to go sailing, rock climbing, and camping on the Hurricane Islands off the coast of Maine.
“I had never done any outdoor stuff. I’d never been camping, even in my backyard before,” David admits. With graduation looming, David felt like he was on track to go from the ILR School, to law school, to ‘Big City America,’ until he had an epiphany after a morning run and swim in the North Atlantic.
“I got out of the water, and I looked at the sun rising across the bay, and the voice in my head said ‘This is what you’re gonna do with your life,’” he said.
When David returned, he implored George Patte, then director of the Physical Education Department, to let him teach outdoor-focused PE classes. He was initially allotted $500 per semester to get the program rolling.
“I was determined at 22 years old to create a world-class outdoor adventure program that would transform education at Cornell. And I was just young enough and bold and naive enough to think that I could do that,” David said.
David made good on his word. What followed was a lifelong commitment to volunteering his time and energy to give Cornell students a chance to learn boldly outside the classroom.
Those early years were only possible, David said, because of his wife, Dr. Deborah L. Moriah ’74. “Fortunately, my wife had a ‘real job’ and was able to support us for the first couple of years as I ran around campus putting posters up,” David laughed. In 1984, the pair agreed it was Deborah’s turn to pursue her goals, and they left Ithaca for her to attend graduate school.
In Minnesota, David continued his outdoor education work as the program director for the Voyageur Outward Bound School, and later in New Jersey as the executive director of the Princeton-Blairstown Center. Even out of state, he kept up his Cornell connections as a visiting instructor and consultant for COE, and spent many summers teaching COE classes for Cornell’s Adult University (CAU), as well as delivering seminars on leadership, teamwork, and communication for Cornell and other clients. He has volunteered as a member of the COE Advisory Board since 2001, and has served as board chair for the last three years.
David has also been heavily involved with Cornell clubs: on the board of the Cornell Club of Minnesota, as the president of the Cornell Club of Central New Jersey for seven years, and now on the board of the Cornell Club of Ithaca.
After 37 years away, David and Deborah moved back to Ithaca in 2021 with the COE 50th anniversary on their radar, and David as a driving force behind the festivities. The anniversary celebrations included a COE history webinar hosted by Corey Ryan Earle ’07, a whitewater rafting expedition to the Grand Canyon, and the 50/50 Project, with a goal of 50 service engagements in COE members’ hometowns. COE board members Jay and Julie Carter ’71 also launched the David Moriah Endowment for Program Access with the milestone in mind, and a goal of raising $5 million so any Cornell student can access any COE program, regardless of financial circumstances.
The anniversary culminated in July 2023 as about 200 students, staff, advisor board members, and outdoor enthusiasts gathered for four days of activities in Mt. Pleasant—a far cry from 1980 when David was the one and only full-time COE staff member.
From the start, David said, furthering the mission of COE never felt like ‘volunteering’ to him.
“I thought about it as continuing to make the dream come true—giving my time to help create, in many cases, life-changing experiences for Cornell students: to empower them, and equip them to go out and be a positive force in changing the world,” said David.