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The Roots of an Environmental Philanthropist

Family values inspire AU professor’s new scholarship

By Mike Rowan

Photo of Chris Palmer, Shooting in the Wild

When Chris Palmer set off for the United States in 1972, Londoners regarded America as the land where all the excitement was. “We had gone from being Great Britain to Little England,” he jokes, shrugging off the meteoric rise of The Beatles. “I had to visit the US to see what it was like.”

Little did Palmer know, 41 years later he would still call the U.S. home. Though he knew virtually no one upon his arrival, it only took until the first day of orientation to meet his future wife, a fellow graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. And yet his move across the pond was just a prelude of his penchant for adventure.

As a wildlife film producer, Palmer sports a bio that reads he “has swum with dolphins and whales, come face-to-face with sharks and Kodiak bears, camped with wolf packs, and waded hip-deep through Everglade swamps.” Even after he and his colleagues have garnered two Emmys and an Oscar nomination for his documentary films, which have appeared in IMAX theaters and on primetime television, Palmer hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. In addition to sustaining his film career, he is currently writing two books, while serving as a frequent keynote speaker, board member of 14 nonprofit organizations, and a full-time member of the AU faculty.

In 2004, intent on launching his own nonprofit to produce ethically-made wildlife films, Palmer was persuaded by former dean Larry Kirkman that SOC was the perfect place to bring his vision to life. Utilizing the world-class resources, reputation, and colleagues the school had to offer, Palmer and Kirkman founded the Center for Environmental Filmmaking. Under Palmer’s leadership, nurtured by the assets of SOC, the center has flourished, boasting over 20 programs that train emerging filmmakers to produce films and new media to strengthen conservation efforts around the globe.

One glance at Palmer reveals a person with seemingly boundless energy, but he credits a simple formula for enabling his achievements. He pushes himself to be the hardest worker around—a principle he continually advocates to his students if they want to be successful. “Hard work is not glamorous. People don’t really talk about it much. In the movies and TV, things appear as if they just sort of happen,” he says. Palmer admits that he is consistently up until one or two o’clock in the morning working on his books, films, or other projects. “We undervalue just how far you can go if you really apply yourself.”

Palmer isn’t just referring to his career. In his personal mission statement, which he follows devoutly, he outlines seven identities that bring his life purpose; of these, his career-related roles are listed seventh. Among his commitments to family, friends, and himself, being a loving father is a subject he is especially passionate about. He and his wife, Gail Shearer, are parents of three grown and highly successful daughters, and one of his books in progress is on what he has learned about parenting.

Paying tribute to his own parents, Palmer and his wife established The Mavis and Sidney John Palmer Scholarship this year to support young filmmakers at AU. The scholarship recognizes outstanding graduate students with an interest in environmental filmmaking. Reflecting on the inspiration behind his gift, Palmer’s admiration for his mother and father is apparent.

“My father was never shy about enforcing the rules,” he says, then adding with a smile, “and I think I appreciate that more now.” Raised in a family with four boys during post-WWII rationing in England, Palmer notes he is a product of a different era. His mix of relentless discipline and infectious warmth likely came thanks to having a Royal Navy officer as a father and a beloved naval family hostess as a mother, but some lessons were more fundamental. “I always wanted to create a legacy for my life that was bigger than who I was. I suppose a lot of that came from my parents,” he says.

While striving to honor the memory of his parents, he also sets an example for his students to follow. Sarah Gulick and Erin Finicane, the newly selected inaugural recipients of the Mavis and Sidney John Palmer Scholarship, evidently display his trademark hard work ethos. Palmer hails them as two extremely driven and gifted young women who will have a great impact on the field of environmental filmmaking.

Gulick, already a founder of her own studio specializing in interactive educational experiences, spent her previous summer in a Belize village filming and assisting efforts to preserve the endangered hawksbill turtle. Finicane’s passion is using digital storytelling as an instrument for social change, and she has a background in organizing for affordable housing in D.C. Both students are part of an award-winning web series for the National Park Service called America’s Wilderness.

As he expands his impact on students and his field of work, Palmer still manages to satisfy his hunger for new challenges at AU. He says with a smile, “My wife says that AU and SOC is the perfect match for my passions.”