The life in our years
Burnett Society members give back to inspire passion for adventure
Patti and Joel Meier have logged thousands of miles around the world. They’ve motorcycled through the Kalahari Desert in Africa, kayaked in the frigid waters of Siberia and hiked the breathtaking vistas of the Grand Canyon. They’ve salt-water kayaked in the Everglades, the San Juan Islands, Malaysia and Alaska. Actually, they’ve made 34 trips to Alaska.
This is not a comprehensive list.
“We rode BMW motorcycles through the Kalahari Desert,” Patti recalled, “and we’d have to be really careful when we got off our motorcycles to have lunch, as we didn’t know what animals were waiting there.”
Animals in Africa were not their only brushes with wildlife. Patti and Joel have had too many close encounters with brown bears and grizzly bears to count. They’ve watched an orca jump over Patti’s kayak in Alaska and been close enough to humpback whales that their breath fogged Joel’s glasses.
“We’ve had great adventures,” Joel said.
“We’ve lived a life of experiences — not stuff,” Patti added.
Patti and Joel have been able to live such large, extraordinary lives partly due to their decision to live small. They’ve lived in one-bedroom apartments for most of their 55-year marriage, keeping their expenses low and turning the world into their playground.
It also helped that Patti took an investment course at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with the professor who taught the world’s most famous investor, Warren Buffett. She learned how to be conservative as an investor. And when she and Joel decided to live on one income and invest the rest, they watched their investments compound.
“That’s where we’re so fortunate,” Patti said. “It meant we could start to give back to programs and institutions that have had major positive impacts on us.”
Patti and Joel, who are both Burnett Society members in recognition of planned gifts to their UNL alma mater, support what they love most. They hope to inspire similar passions in others for the excitement they’ve spent their lives chasing.
“It’s not stuff that brings you happiness,” Patti said. “It’s what you can share with others, what you can give back … I think the least footprint you leave is the best. But what you can leave behind is very important.”
The couple has set up an endowment to support UNL’s Campus Recreation Outdoor Adventures Program, which offers opportunities for students to kayak, ski and bike across Nebraska.
“It’s a beautiful facility … it married my interest with the outdoors and Nebraska,” said Joel, who grew up in Minden and whose first job was as intramural sports director at UNL before he went on to receive his doctorate at Indiana University and become associate dean of forestry and conservation at the University of Montana.
“Being from Nebraska, those roots were planted early,” he said.
Patti and Joel have also made gifts to support one of Patti’s passions: the arts. Patti, who grew up in Lincoln and spent her career as a dental hygienist consulting with the Indian Health Service, took an art course at UNL and has fond memories of the Sheldon Museum of Art.
“I was just in awe of it all,” she said. “From there on, I developed this passion for art.”
The two have established an endowed gift to support a curator of academic programs at Sheldon. The purpose: “So that faculty, students and children in the whole Lincoln area and around can be exposed to art like I was at Nebraska,” said Patti.
Patti and Joel’s gifts reflect the twin passions of their lives. They also reflect their marriage, which is based on an agreement made early on: Whatever one person was interested in, the other would try. They didn’t have to like it, but they had to give it a shot.
“I got him into things, like opera and symphonies,” Patti said. “He got me into these other things — riskier things.”
Yes, many of those remarkable trips were Joel’s idea.
“I’ve been lucky to have a wife who’s tolerated my wild adventures,” Joel said with a laugh. “She got dragged into so many things. I’ve scared the heck out of her too many times in our 55 years.”
Like the time he bought a plane and asked the sellers to throw in flying lessons for Patti. Or the time he bought a mountain chalet near a ski resort in Montana and encouraged her to hit the slopes.
“But then I would click in,” Patti said. Prompted by Joel, Patti jumped headfirst to meet the challenges. The flying lessons turned into getting a commercial pilot’s license, and trying it out on the slopes turned into 50 years as a professional ski instructor.
It goes back to a belief they share and what brought them together, when they met all those years ago on campus at UNL.
“He was different from anyone I’d met, because of this philosophy,” Patti recalled. “Your worth is not based on what you have. That’s why I fell in love with him. That’s who he was, and we’ve really lived that life.”