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The Homeless Saint

David Oliver Relin’s book “Three Cups of Tea” documents the life and work of Pakistani school builder Greg Mortenson. Mortenson is the son of missionaries who grew up in Tanzania where his parents built a teaching hospital. Mortenson climbed Kilimanjaro when he was eleven and became hooked on climbing. He became a nurse in the San Francisco bay area to support his rock climbing living in his Buick.

Greg Mortenson Greg Mortenson and kids.

After rescuing a French climber during an attempt on K2, Mortenson got lost on his descent out of the mountains and ended up in the Balti village of Korphe not on his map. The village headman Haji Ali and his wife offered the hospitality of their own home while Mortenson recovered and Mortenson promised to build the village a school (emulating his parents and hero Sir Edmund Hillary).

Mortenson wrote an article about his K2 experience for a climbing journal where venture angel Jean Hoerni learned about Mortenson’s wish to build a school. Based on a single phone call (from a pay phone) Hoerni sent Mortenson a check (to a P.O. box) for $12,000. Mortenson bought materials for the school only to realize that the materials couldn’t be delivered to the village without a bridge. Mortenson met Hoerni at the annual Himalayan Association meeting where he was given another $10,000 for the bridge and $20,000 to live on so he could work full time on his school.

Hoerni died of Leukemia shortly after the school was finished leaving Mortenson $1,000,000 to build more schools.

When he had spent the money, Jon Krakauer “Into Thin Air” and “Under the Banner of Heaven” introduced Mortenson to the editor of Parade magazine who ran a cover story on Mortenson’s work. The article resulted in a deluge of letters and contributions, allowing Mortenson to continue building schools. To date Mortenson has built 55 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Along the way, he turned down a U.S. military offer of surreptitious funds. Mother Teresa would probably have accepted the money.

Mortenson seems to have an instinct for surrounding himself with able associates. He has defeated two fatwa’s from fundamental mullahs using the Shia legal system. The first ruling came from Qom in Iran praising Mortenson’s (the infidel) work including the education of girls. The second ruling from Pakistan nullified the Fatwa and ordered the mullah to pay for the material his thugs had destroyed when they attacked a school under construction.

Mortenson provided an important source of information via his extensive contacts in the mountains of Pakistan after the recent earthquake.
Greg Mortenson on the Pakistan Earthquake

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