Erin Golden / The Bulletin

PRINEVILLE — Walt Bolton was lying on a beach in Mexico, staring out at the water, when he decided it was time to dive again.

It was Christmastime 2000, and it had been more than 20 years since the Prineville resident had suited up in his scuba gear and slipped into the water to explore the life below. As it turned out, that first dive was all it took: Just two years later, he was scuba certified and teaching others, leading diving trips to Honduras and running his own shop, Central Oregon Diving, in Bend.

To some, the second career might have seemed surprising. For nearly three decades, Bolton, now 60, had been a fixture in Crook County High School’s English department. There, the exuberant, quick-witted son of a Prineville rancher introduced his students to the great works of literature, challenged them to explore the words of Shakespeare and Chaucer, and pushed them to study the thoughts of people worlds apart from their own backyards.

And within his high school classroom, Bolton challenged his students to record the stories of their own lives. For years, he gave the students in his folklore class the same assignment: to write about their lives, sparing nothing. And for years, he saved the papers, in which students searched for their own histories, interviewing family and friends and making sense of it all with words. Today, Bolton has an impressive collection of nearly every paper that his students turned in, stretching back to the 1970s — a collection so impressive that the University of Oregon has expressed interest in taking it for its archives.

It’s been an unexpected life for a small-town boy who once thought he’d never make it to college, let alone travel the world through literature and in person, as a curious thinker and an experienced diver. Leaving home changed everything, and when he returned to the place where timber mills, and then tires, were king, Bolton pledged to share what he’d learned with a new generation of students who might not otherwise allow themselves to dream big.

“He really went above and beyond,” said Shannon McCabe, a former student of Bolton’s who graduated from Crook County High School in 2000 and is now a real estate agent in Prineville. “He took us to the Shakespearean Festival in Ashland, to the University of Oregon to research papers for his class — he really showed us there was a lot more to the world than we were used to.”

A folk history

Bolton’s own story began in Washington, where he was born and lived until his family moved to Prineville when he was 3. There, the young boy with blue eyes and a love of learning entered the Crook County School District for the first time, as a first-grader in 1952.

Like many of his classmates, Bolton was the son of ranchers. School was sometimes interesting, but Bolton admits he wasn’t the best student. As a teenager working at the city pool in the early 1960s, though, Bolton found an activity that captured his imagination.

“I was 15 and I watched ‘Sea Hunt’ and realized that was what I wanted to do,” Bolton said. “There was one fellow here who had scuba gear, but there were no certification classes. There was a little dive shop in Bend, and I worked and saved my money and came over here and bought the equipment. Then, I went back to the pool in Prineville and taught myself to dive. I read everything I possibly could — I was a student.”

By his late teens, Bolton and a few friends were spending all the time they could diving local lakes, honing their skills. College, Bolton thought, just wasn’t in the cards. Then, the Vietnam War intervened.

To avoid being drafted, Bolton, who had once been told by a teacher that he’d never succeed at college, signed up for classes and eventually graduated with an English degree from the University of Oregon. In the end, however, he was drafted anyway and spent three years in the military.

It wasn’t the life he’d planned on, but, Bolton said, the combination of experiences forever changed the views of the boy from small-town Central Oregon. Neither he nor Prineville would ever be quite the same.

Diving in

It was during his time at the University of Oregon when Bolton first realized that the songs and stories passed on by his father, a traditional fiddler and singer, had given him a unique academic gift.

“I had a wonderful professor in college who taught a class called ‘The Literary Relations of Folklore,’” Bolton said. “I went into his office to do this reading, and after I finished, I pulled out this handwritten copy of a song my father had sung and asked if it was a folk song ... and right then, he put me in the class, and he really became my mentor.”

The professor encouraged Bolton to keep up his studies and to delve further into writing and literature of all kinds, from Renaissance classics to rustic folk music traditions. Bolton was hooked — on both the subject material and on sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm with others.

Teaching, he thought, might be just the thing. In 1973, Bolton returned to his hometown and to the school district he’d graduated from just a few years earlier. From the start, the rookie teacher’s classes were rigorous and thought-provoking, if a bit unconventional. Throughout his career, Bolton pushed students hard, outside the comfortable confines of small-town Oregon, according to former student McCabe.

“There were a lot of different types of literature that he talked about, and he was always so excited about it that it was hard for you not to be excited about it,” she said. “He expected a lot out of you, but it wasn’t hard to deliver because he was so accessible for help. It was one of those classes that was very different from what you’d had.”

In and out of the classroom, Bolton also urged his students to pursue their passions, whatever they might be. According to McCabe, Bolton had no time for students who weren’t willing to make an effort to find positivity in their lives and work.

“He was a popular teacher, but he has a very strong personality,” McCabe said, laughing. “So there were a lot of people who loved him or hated him, but even if you hated him, it was because of the head-butting you did with him, not because he wasn’t a good teacher. He’s a wealth of knowledge, and he doesn’t hesitate to share it with you without expecting anything in return — he challenged his students, sometimes in ways they weren’t prepared for.”

The tough love, said Bolton, came from his own youthful experience and the advice of his mentors — and strangers.

“I was bicycling in Death Valley one time, and there were a couple of older ladies I stopped to help with their car,” he said. “One of them said, ‘Young man, I want you to remember one thing: Life is not a dress rehearsal.’ And that’s good advice.”

Collecting the past

For 20 years, Bolton led a popular folklore class in which he asked students to find and record their own tales. In those classes, he said, students produced a wealth of material about the complex — and rapidly changing — story of their own community. And for 20 years, Bolton was meticulous with his students’ work, filing, refiling and cross-referencing the papers, audio tapes and other materials his classes turned in. Today, he has hundreds, maybe thousands of pages filed away in a room in his home created just for that purpose.

“If you did a paper in 1978, I can go and find it, just like that,” Bolton said. “If you had a certain person you interviewed and I had his or her name, I can go track it that way. It’s indexed five different ways.”

The collection, he said, is a sort of raw, historical time capsule that captures — sometimes in crude, bleak language — the thoughts, fears and dreams of decades of Prineville teenagers. They wrote about the first Gulf War, reacted to the Challenger explosion and tried to come to terms with the dark economic realities that came with the closure of the area’s mills. Individually, the documents tell many different and important stories, but according to Bolton, the real power of the collection can only be realized if all the pieces are kept together. As a result, he is very protective of the boxes of files stacked in his basement, which he plans to someday pass on to a historical archive.

“Unfortunately, I’ve given a couple of papers to students and said, ‘You may copy this, but bring it back to me,’ and they’ve stolen them,” Bolton said. “But they would have never kept them if I hadn’t. They would have thrown them away.”

Learning to dance

The energy Bolton has poured into the folklore collection is representative of what he brings to all other aspects of his life, according to his wife, Pat, who teaches first grade in Redmond. As a high school teacher, a businessman, a diver, a friend and a father, she said, her husband is impossible to slow down, impossible to push off track.

“He’s just one of the most enthusiastic, positive people I’ve ever met,” she said. “He is always looking for the best, positive side of every situation. I have no clue how he does it, but whatever he goes about doing, he makes it fun.”

When he retired from teaching in 2002, Bolton took his own advice and kept moving, using his teaching expertise to return to the hobby of his youth.

“My last day with the students was on a Thursday, the 13th of June,” he said. “And on the 14th of June, I was in Seattle, starting a diving instructor course. Two weeks later, I completed the examinations and on the Fourth of July, I had my first job as a scuba instructor in Roatan, Honduras.”

When Bolton returned home, he began teaching diving at the Powder House, a position he kept until he and two partners bought out the business’s diving portion and opened up their own shop, Central Oregon Diving, in the fall of 2005. Since then, Bolton has been teaching students of all ages — including some of those who once sat in his English classroom in Prineville — how to explore the world beneath the water.

And just as he did in the high school classroom, Bolton encourages students to open up, take on challenges and find happiness in all parts of the learning process.

“You have to remember that we’re asking our scuba students to do what their mothers always told them never to do: Never hold your breath or breathe underwater,” he said. “So it requires a tremendous amount of trust in the instructor and trust in the equipment, and some people are more comfortable giving up control than others.”

And though he’s nearing the age where most people retire altogether, Bolton said he plans to continue teaching and working in the dive shop because it feels like anything but work. And according to his wife, Bolton remains unstoppable in his quest to keep learning, teaching and enjoying everything he does.

“Everything he does, he does with passion,” she said. “He does a lot of bicycling, he’s run four marathons and he’s a great cook — he loves to prepare meals for large groups. He’ll have to slow down sometime, but that’s not who he is.”

So what’s the secret? It’s simple, Bolton said.

“I’ve always enjoyed whatever I’ve done, and it didn’t matter how steep the hillside was, or how hot the fire was, or how heavy the pack was — it was fun,” he said. “And I’ve worked right alongside people who were miserable and it was the same hillside, and the same fire, the same rocks, the same heat, and they weren’t having any fun. So I always just figured it was my choice. It doesn’t matter what you do — you just have to learn to dance in whatever it is.”