People of the Year: John Pumilio



Maggie Dunn, Sustainability Intern

Each year, The Colgate Maroon-News chooses a topic to highlight for a Special Edition. This December, our theme is “People of the Year,” modeled after Time Magazine’s annual “Person of the Year” issue. In this special section, we have profiled sixteen individuals who have had made significant—and perhaps lesser-known—impacts on Colgate’s campus this year, be they in the classroom, at the football field or even on the Cruiser. Inside, read about what defines them as worthy of recognition.

As the Director of Sustainability at Colgate, John Pumilio has remained largely under-appreciated and unknown by Colgate’s student body and, believe it or not, he prefers it that way. He has worked everywhere from the Galapagos Islands to Machu Picchu and East Africa, and is now the most influential person in sustainability at Colgate. However, rather than being known as the face of Colgate’s sustainability, he continues to humbly preach teamwork and environmental responsibility.

Pumilio was named Colgate’s Employee of the Year in 2017-18, though he hardly likes to talk about it.

“It was probably one of the most uncomfortable moments I’ve had at Colgate,” Pumilio said.

Pumilio said he would much rather be getting the work done than taking credit for it. In fact, even the individual recognition of this feature was something that Pumilio was especially quick to emphasize as being potentially problematic. He doesn’t want people to ask “What is sustainability?” and have the answer be “John Pumilio and the Sustainability Office.” Instead, he emphasized that the responsibility of sustainability rests with every individual at Colgate, not just one office.

“We don’t need sustainability to be this thing with a border, it needs to instead be integrated everywhere,” Pumilio said.

His humble work ethic was inspired by another less well-known man, Louis Howe. As a political advisor and close confidant to Franklin D. Roosevelt during his administration, Howe was essential to getting things done and had a hand in sculpting presidential actions during many of the big events that happened over FDR’s presidency, including the Great Depression and World War II.

Howe was one of the most influential people in making the political careers of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, according to PBS. Pumilio says Howe is an important role model for him.

“Service was more important for him than personal recognition, and I think that’s probably something that has been lost,” Pumilio said.

The work that Pumilio has done behind the scenes reflects this sentiment. In his ten years at Colgate, Pumilio has been able to take great strides in prioritizing and promoting sustainability at Colgate, although he acknowledges that the Sustainability Program at Colgate is nowhere near finished.

The biggest challenge for our office is to always make people feel somewhat accountable and responsible for campus sustainability,” Pumilio said. “You need other people to care to make it happen.”

When asked for one fact about Colgate Sustainability that he wishes every student knew, Pumilio responded that he wishes people would appreciate that Colgate generates most of its energy from a renewable resource: wood. Colgate’s energy comes from either hydropower or from its biomass boiler, which uses wood chips to create energy. In upstate New York, wood is a renewable resource because it is so abundant and state forests are expanding each year.

“We are supporting local businesses, we are getting our wood chips from responsibly managed forests, and it’s all in-state as far as that part goes,” Pumilio said.

He also wishes to convey to people that a lack of solar panels or wind turbines does not mean that Colgate is ignoring sustainability. While solar panels and wind turbines would work at Colgate, alternatives like hydropower and wood chips make much more sense and have a greater impact on Colgate’s carbon levels.

“We could do that but it would be for demonstration. That’s not what sustainability means here. If we were in Arizona, yeah,” Pumilio said.

When asked what part of Colgate’s sustainability he was most proud of, Pumilio immediately spoke about the program for students to get involved in sustainability on campus. He feels rewarded when he looks back on what past graduates have accomplished.

While the Sustainability Office is taking many steps to reduce Colgate’s ecological and carbon foot- prints on campus, Pumilio admits that this effort alone will not be enough to combat climate change.

“We need to educate people and we need to get competent professionals out there who are doing work in some field related to sustainability,” Pumilio said.

He, however, started his path toward becoming interested in sustainability in a much different context.

Pumilio worked for a number of years giving tours all over the world. Some of the most notable include the Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu in Peru, safaris through Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in East Africa and Alaska. He said it was perfect for him at the time because he was so interested in the places in which and people to whom he was giving tours.

He also saw some unforgettable sites, such as two albatrosses that were doing their courtship ritual right next to him, birds landing on his shoulder and iguanas, all in the Galapagos. Additionally, he said because of the many years he spent giving safari tours, he was able to witness a number of things that others who only went once would not have been able to see, such as lions hunting and making kills, droughts, rain events and wildebeest migration.

Though he wishes everybody could see all of these amazing places so that people were able to appreciate their planet more, Pumilio acknowledges the harmful effects that tourism can have on people and the environment.

“I’m really glad I got out of it when I did,” Pumilio said. “I was pushing my company pretty hard to do more social and environmental work in the places we were going and we were starting to get there a little bit, but it wasn’t enough for me.”

So he decided to go to graduate school and pursue a career that would have more of an impact on saving the planet.

Pumilio wants to continue to focus on sustainability at Colgate and make it progressively more effective. He wants to continue to get students engaged and educated on Colgate sustainability in order to create thoughtful individuals who care about the environment. With his hardworking attitude and excited mind full of potential opportunities, Pumilio will continue to excel and help make Colgate a better institution.

Contact Maggie Dunn at [email protected].