ON OCTOBER 14, 2011, the board of directors of the Explorers Club, the 107-year-old adventurers’ fraternity, gathered at an upscale establishment in St. Louis called the Racquet Club. One of the meeting’s purposes was to select the winner of the annual Explorers Medal, the club’s highest honor, which in the past had gone to legendary figures like Roald Amundsen and Sir Edmund Hillary. Before voting, the board’s 16 members would be given a list of finalists compiled by the Flag and Honors committee, an appointed group that bestows most of the awards and includes explorers like Don Walsh, who in 1960 teamed with Jacques Piccard to make the first and only submersible descent 35,789 down to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
By the time the board convened, one member already knew the names of the finalists: president Lorie Karnath, a 52-year-old German businesswoman who took the club’s helm in 2009. As president, Karnath sits on both the board and the Flag and Honors committee. The night before the meeting, she’d spoken with Flag and Honors vice president Constance Difede, asking for the finalists’ names. It was an unusual request—committee members vote in secret, and in the past only the VP had seen the list of finalists. But no rule was being broken, so Difede shared the names.
What followed was a shock: Karnath proposed that the board move into a closed session and, together with another director, accused the Flag and Honors committee of bias. She was followed by Fred McLaren, a 79-year-old club member and former Navy submarine commander who had mapped parts of the Siberian coast in 1970 and has long coveted the Explorers Medal.
McLaren argued his case with résumé in hand and, according to some officials, made it clear that he had knowledge about the committee’s deliberations—even going so far as to reference Walsh’s confidential reservations about McLaren’s bona fides. (The committee had recommended that the medal go to Philip Currie, a leading Canadian paleontologist.) McLaren also accused Walsh, who is the club’s honorary president—a title conferred on him in 2008 as a sort of lifetime achievement award—of using favoritism to bestow a lesser honor on a friend, a charge the board didn’t pursue.
“The Flag and Honors committee is like the Supreme Court,” says David Concannon, a scuba diver and former committee member. “It’s the group that makes sure the club remains true to its principles. If you’re going to give someone an award today, they better be up to the same standards as Robert Peary was a century ago. Fred showed up with his résumé, and with knowledge of the internal communications regarding his nomination, and proceeded to blast the committee.”
It was no secret that Karnath and McLaren were close. He often advised her about club business, and she occasionally referred to him as “my guardian angel.” Several board and committee members, including Concannon, suspected that Karnath had leaked committee e-mails to him, a charge that both McLaren and Karnath deny. According to the president, “I didn’t lobby for him at all. I played no part in him getting his medal. He wasn’t nominated by me.”
Still, whatever McLaren did, it worked. In a majority vote, the board eventually decided to award two Explorers Medals: one to Currie and another to McLaren. Both are scheduled to be handed out March 17 at the club’s annual dinner, a big-ticket event at the Waldorf Astoria hotel that coincides with the club’s annual presidential election. Asked about the unusual decision to award a joint medal—it’s happened just seven times before—Karnath says, “Our problem is not that we’re awarding a medal to someone who doesn’t deserve it. Our problem is we don’t have enough medals for people who deserve them.”
For some, the episode was a breaking point. A number of club officials had been upset with Karnath for a while, stewing over what they call a capricious management style that has alienated members and sponsors alike. Karnath’s critics—including Walsh, Concannon, and board member Josh Bernstein, a former host of shows on History and the Discovery Channel—decided that she’d gone too far, threatening the integrity of the institution. According to officials, Karnath later asked Difede to reveal how each member of the Flag and Honors committee had voted—a charge Karnath denies.