Emeritus Spotlight: Steve West

(Dear readers: This story is slightly longer than your typical blog post, so we beg your indulgence and recommend you find a comfortable seat, and possibly a fresh cup of coffee.) 

Ask Steve West to point out his hometown on a map, and you’d better have a full United States atlas handy. He grew up in a military family, and though he was born in San Jose and later lived in Sacramento while his father fought in the Korean War, his family crisscrossed the country depending on the Air Force base where his dad was stationed. What West can pinpoint, though, is what he learned and picked up at just about every town along the way.

Steve West

Steve West, left, with some of his cousins during his undergraduate days at Berkeley.

One of the family’s earliest stops, while West was still in elementary school, was Mineral Wells, Texas. It was the 1950s, and West remembers a special trip they used to take once a month. They’d pack him and his younger sister into the car for the 70-mile drive into Fort Worth, where they’d stop for cheese sandwiches at the Woolworths counter. After lunch, his parents would drop him off to spend half the day exploring the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

“They’d just turn me loose,” he says. “I’d muck around in that museum until sometime in early afternoon, and then they’d come back and pick me up and go home.”

His mom grew weary of sweeping dust from under the door every morning, and the Wests eventually moved on from Texas. But a seed had been planted, and wherever the family moved after that—from Texas to Illinois, New York to Georgia, Alaska to Alabama—West found sanctuary in museums and the wild areas around military bases, where he’d hunt for lizards, snakes, toads, frogs and scores of other critters. He was developing a lifelong love of wildlife and science, and the giddy excitement of wondering what’s hiding under the next rock.

Through his undergraduate and graduate days, and from the moment he first joined the College of Forest Resources as a professor of wildlife science in 1979, he never lost an ounce of that childhood curiosity. In his field research courses, you could always find him up to his knees in a pond hunting for frogs at night, trapping small mammals and bats, turning over leaves and logs or freezing his knuckles searching for salamanders in a mountain stream. He did it all with a twinkle in his glasses and a devious grin—a good-natured challenge to his students that if he could do it, so could they. Science, after all, is a whole lot of fun.

West

West wades into a pond in search of frogs at the Olympic Natural Resources Center on the first night of a weekend ESRM 351 field trip.

He’s now officially retired, but you’ll see that same glint in his eye anytime he’s talking about a local beer festival or prepping a wine tasting for a school event; if he’s brimming with optimism about Husky sports, or telling stories from his glory days in the field. Get him to reminisce about close calls (“In my 34 years here, I never killed a student, so that’s a plus”), or gags involving rattlesnakes, tall fishing tales and other hijinks with Professor Emeritus Jim Agee, with whom he co-taught Wildlife Research Techniques (ESRM 351) for many years.

What you’ll learn, above all, is that he’s been through enough scrapes and adventures to fill several entertaining volumes. And while we don’t have the time or space to capture the whole Steve West story, we did catch him on one of his weekly visits to campus—when he pops in to water his plants or catch a seminar—to pull out a few of his formative moments and favorite memories.

Northern Exposure
In 1959, after a “sentence of three years” in Warner-Robbins, Ga.—where West picked up little league baseball and spent summers swatting away torrents of ferocious gnats—the family was all packed up for an exciting transfer to Germany. But the assignment fell through at the last minute, and they were abruptly rerouted to Fairbanks, Alaska, only a year after it had become a state.

West was in middle school at the time, and he remembers there was not a lot to do but fish and play baseball, which was fine with him. “Alaska was a raw place,” he says. “We were there before everyone caught all the local fish, so the challenge was getting the lure out of the water before you caught something.”

He had similar success on the mound, as his team won the Alaska state championship in the run-up to the Little League World Series. West had pitched the winning game, and when they moved on to the regional, they beat Nevada but lost to Washington. Despite the disappointment, though, West was undefeated as a pitcher!

The High (School) West
There’s a Forrest Gump serendipity to much of West’s childhood, and the family’s next move —trading the frosty wilderness of Alaska for the steamy summers of Montgomery, Ala.—dropped them into the Deep South at the boiling point of the civil rights movement.

West

In college, West once experimented with a full beard (not pictured here, sadly), which grew in red even though his hair was blond. The look was so different that when he went home one holiday to visit his parents, his mom walked right past him at the airport.

West was just starting 10th grade at Sidney Lanier High School, home of “The Poets.” (Their crosstown rivals were the Robert E. Lee Generals, so victories for the Poets naturally gave truth to the adage, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”) “For the first two years, you had to go to a different part of town to see a black person,” says West. “It was totally segregated.”

During his junior year, however, the first two black students arrived at his school of about 3,000 kids. The tension in town was relentless, he says, and the famous 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery passed a few blocks from his house. One of West’s neighbors, as well—and also a classmate and track teammate—was Richmond Flowers Jr.

Flowers’ father was attorney general of Alabama and an outspoken opponent of racial segregation (Governor George Wallace once even had him thrown in jail for refusing to keep a school legally segregated). West says the younger Flowers might not have survived his dad’s politics if he hadn’t been a premier athlete and star of the football team; he would go on to play football for the University of Tennessee, and then professionally for Dallas. There’s even a book out about the senior Flowers, Bitter Harvest, which has a forward written by former President Jimmy Carter.

Flower Power
After his days as a Poet, West headed back to California to attend college at Berkeley. His father had maintained residency in California, so even though he arrived during the first year the UC system charged in-state tuition, he still got quite a bargain at $113 a quarter.

He started his freshman year in 1966. San Francisco was alive with “Flower Power,” an age of social upheaval and revolution, and West sported the requisite long hair and beard (made all the more feral by his hair being blond and his beard red). “Coming from Montgomery,” he says, “it was the most stark social change you could imagine. It was fabulous being there, but socially I was maybe 30 years behind the times. I spent the first two years of college catching up on many things other than academics.”

West

West in the mid-1970s (he says he still has this shirt).

On the school side, the first class that really caught his attention was animal ecology in the fall of his junior year. After the class was over, he went in and asked his professor, Dr. Oscar Paris, if there was another similar class he could take as a follow-up. Paris narrowed his eyes at West and asked, “You’re not another [expletive] med student, are you?” When West assured him of his ecological intentions, Paris suggested he try a two-quarter graduate-level course, “Analytical Field Ecology.” It would be field-intensive and limited to eight students, and acceptance into the course would be highly competitive.

As West showed up at the informational meeting, he quickly realized he was surrounded by 35 to 40 graduate students, including a couple who were teaching assistants for his own classes. Just as he was feeling pretty hopeless, in walked this imposing figure, about 6’2” with spectacles. It was Frank Pitelka, chair of the zoology department. Professor Pitelka gave a quick rundown of the course, then started walking around the room, orally interviewing each student—for all others to hear—about his or her qualifications and interest in the course. West could feel the growing inadequacy of his resume, and he assumed he’d get hugely embarrassed when his turn came. Yet when Pitelka got to West and heard his name, he cast a knowing glance over at Professor Paris, who nodded in recognition. Pitelka moved on without any further interrogation.

The class ended up getting filled with eight graduate students—and West. “I was running in place for six months to catch up,” he says. Between the field exercises, hypothesis testing, collecting data, writing up and analyzing, it was full-time work. But he was sold on wildlife research. “I learned more in those two classes than I did in everything else the four years I was there,” he says.

An Offer He Couldn’t Refuse

Feeling galvanized about his future, West decided to go to grad school. He wasn’t initially interested in teaching, so he envisioned getting a master’s and perhaps looking for a position with an agency or research program. He applied to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and though they lost his application for months, they ultimately offered him a spot in their program.

This was no ordinary offer, either. They were willing to pay him $12,000 a year, which in the 1970s was a lot of money for a graduate student, ultimately to earn a Ph.D. in wildlife management and then come work in the Institute of Northern Forestry, run by the U.S. Forest Service, as an animal ecologist, dealing with the population ecology of small mammals. They were literally going to create a position for him as a wildlife biologist and pay all the costs associated with his doctoral research. Then when he was done, he’d come back on their staff full-time.

West

West, pictured here on a bird walk at ONRC, traces many of the lessons he later taught his own classes to Professor Pitelka at Berkeley.

That was too tempting to refuse, so he called up Professor Pitelka to see if he could do his doctoral work back at Berkeley. He even got exempted from the teaching requirement since he was heading in a different career direction to work for the Forest Service, and the primary focus of the Ph.D. program was to train professors and academics. “I used to give my officemates all sorts of grief,” he says. “I was making so much more than they were, and they had to teach all these courses.”

With few distractions, West completed his dissertation—on the relationship between small mammals and natural forests—in only three years, including his field work. It was the spring of 1977, he had handed in his dissertation to Pitelka and was waiting to hear from his future employers in Fairbanks. He was due to start work in July.

That’s when President Carter ordered a federal hiring freeze, and suddenly West’s job was stuck in limbo for at least a year. So he skulked back into Pitelka’s office. “I go back in and Frank starts laughing before I say anything,” says West. But Pitelka rescued him by saying he’d set his dissertation aside for a while—meaning West could remain at Berkeley as a graduate student until his job came through, with one major change from before: He’d have to start earning his keep as a teaching assistant.

After that, he taught every quarter. And when President Carter extended the hiring freeze another year, West got so much experience teaching he became a teaching associate. Yet when the hiring freeze got extended a third year, West couldn’t stand the purgatory any longer. He contacted the Institute of Northern Forestry and was released from his obligations there.

Right about that time, a position opened up at the University of Washington in the College of Forest Resources. Thanks to the teaching experience he had never intended to develop, West ended up landing the academic job he had never planned to get. He joined the faculty in 1979 initially as a research assistant professor, not tenure track, but eventually found his way onto the permanent wildlife faculty after the program’s founder—Dick Taber, who had been the last graduate student Aldo Leopold accepted —left for a position in Montana.

The Last Word
We’ve left out dozens of other breadcrumbs in West’s story, but we’d be woefully remiss if he didn’t mention the story of how he met his wife. Back at Berkeley, one of West’s TAs in a plant ecology class had been a graduate student named Pam Yorks. West remembers being particularly proud of one of his class projects, for which he earned an A, but he never got his paper back.

West

West with his wife Pam and daughter Tracey at the Salmon BBQ this past October (naturally, he is manning the beer table).

Years later, not long after West had accepted his position at UW, he ran into Yorks on the steps by a side entrance to Anderson Hall. “That was a big surprise to find her here,” he says. She had graduated with her Ph.D. in Botany from Berkeley and was teaching at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. After that, she and West would occasionally cross paths on campus when she was coming up for seminars—and she eventually returned that paper to him, confessing that she had held onto it to share with future students as an exemplary project!

Yorks later joined UW as a graduate student, earned a master’s in information science and became head librarian for the Physics/Astronomy library  (along the way, she even did a stint in the forestry library in the basement of Bloedel Hall). They got married, had their daughter Tracey, and settled into Seattle for the long haul.

Now, after logging 30-plus years together on campus, they both retired this fall. They certainly haven’t mothballed their purple and gold, though, and you have a good chance of running into them at most major Husky sporting events, from women’s volleyball to basketball and football.

If you do run into West and want to toast his career and retirement, you could do worse than clink glasses with one of his favorite cocktails, The Last Word, which he says is the unofficial drink of Seattle. It’s a gin-based drink from the days of Prohibition that has experienced a bit of a cult revival locally. The drink itself has a lime-green color and a tart, intense herbal boldness (in large part from the Chartreuse). Some love it; others give up after a few sips. For West, though, it’s an assertive tribute to the senses, and it has just the kick to get some of his best stories flowing!

Photos from younger years © Steve West; all other photos © Karl Wirsing/SEFS.

Steve West

Emeritus Spotlight: Dave Manuwal

“I’ve known what I wanted to do for an awfully long time, probably more than 60 years,” says Professor Emeritus Dave Manuwal of the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). Growing up in South Bend, Ind., he remembers when his parents bought a cottage on a lake in southern Michigan. One of their neighbors had a bird bath, and he loved watching all the colorful visitors—cardinals, orioles, blue jays—come there to splash and drink. “I watched them and thought, ‘Wow, these are cool animals!’”

Dave ManuwalManuwal quickly realized he had a real knack for ornithology. If he heard a bird song once, he could remember it, and by the time he finished high school, he says he knew virtually all the birds you could find in Indiana. But he can trace it all back to those first trips to Michigan. “I was 9, 10 years old,” he says. “I never really wavered since then.”

Now, after 41 years as part of the SEFS community, Manuwal is officially retired and no longer teaches, but you’ll find his indelible fingerprints all over this school and the history of the wildlife program. We caught up with him the other day to learn more about his lifetime of teaching and studying birds and forest ecology.

Career Beginnings
Manuwal went to the same high school one class below SEFS Professor Bruce Bare, and they both stayed in Indiana and attended Purdue University. Bare decided to study forest production, and Manuwal earned a degree in wildlife conservation in 1966 (years later, as it happened, they would have offices next to each other at the University of Washington).

Before graduating, Manuwal had landed a job as an undergraduate research assistant in Manitoba, Canada. Another researcher there—a graduate student at the University of Montana—told him that if he was interested in studying wildlife after Purdue, he really ought to contact Professor Richard (Dick) Taber.

Dick Taber

This past August, Manuwal spent several hours catching up with Dick Taber, now 92, under a huge ponderosa pine tree in the Lubrecht Forest, where Taber initiated several studies back in the 1950s and ‘60s. “The Richard D. Taber Outstanding Wildlife Conservation Student Award,” which Manuwal created, is given each spring to an exemplary SEFS wildlife student.

So he did. Manuwal wrote Professor Taber and expressed his interest in continuing his ornithological studies in Montana. Taber accepted him as a graduate student in 1966, and off he headed to Missoula to earn a Master’s in Wildlife Management.

Two years later, word of mouth once again steered Manuwal farther west. By that time, he had developed an interest in studying marine birds, and two members of his master’s committee suggested he consider contacting Professor Thomas Howell at the University of California at Los Angeles. So he wrote Howell, expressed his interest and ended up getting accepted there as a doctoral student in zoology.

When he completed his Ph.D. work in 1972, Manuwal didn’t have long to savor the peace. One of the last jobs he had applied to that summer was for an assistant professor of wildlife science with the College of Forest Resources (now SEFS). He was offered the position but was hesitant at first because he still wasn’t sure he wanted to teach. As an undergrad at Purdue, in fact, he says he was “deathly afraid of standing in front of people.” That pretty much held until he started graduate school and was appointed as a graduate teaching assistant. “All of a sudden I realized, ‘I know this stuff,’ and then I wasn’t afraid to talk about it.”

But did he want to make a career doing it? He’d find out awfully fast, because when he accepted the position he learned he’d be teaching his first class within a few weeks of arriving on campus. “It was pretty scary,” he says, and he still vividly remembers that first lecture in September 1972.The course was WS 401, a “Wildlife Biology” class for wildlife science and fisheries majors—and Manuwal was almost starting from scratch. “This was long before the advent of the personal computer,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in journals and libraries, and it took me almost seven hours of research to create those lectures.”

Dave Manuwal

Manuwal organized the first SEFS field trip to Yellowstone National Park back in 1994. “I felt our students needed a broader wildlife experience than what they could get in western Washington,” he says. The annual weeklong trip continues today, now led by professors John Marzluff, Monika Moskal and Aaron Wirsing.

As the 65 or so students filed into Winkenwerder 201 on the first day, Manuwal sat inconspicuously in the second row and listened to some of the chatter speculating about the new wildlife professor. Nobody had seen him yet, and of course he didn’t have an online profile to search. “I was 29 years old and looked pretty much like the majority of the male students,” says Manuwal. “When the bell rang, I got up and walked to the podium. One of the students who had sat next to me rolled his eyes as if to say, ‘Oh no!’”

Alaskan Adventures
The next summer, from June to August 1973, Manuwal was invited to take part in the Noatak Expedition in Alaska’s Brooks Range. The federal government knew very little about the new Noatak National Preserve, and Manuwal was part of an 11-man crew to catalog wildlife in the Noatak River Basin. They traveled by float planes into incredibly isolated and unexplored wilderness areas, where they encountered wolves, grizzlies, caribou, many species of tundra birds, and hordes of mosquitoes on calm days. They worked long hours with nearly constant daylight, and even got caught in a snowstorm in August. “That’s the way it is in the Arctic!”

A few years later, Manuwal secured funding to return to Alaska to study seabird colonies and island vegetation in the remote Barren Islands from 1976-1979. There were five people in the research crew, including Manuwal’s wife Naomi, who earned a bachelor’s in biology from California State University at Northridge, and later a master’s in forest ecology from the College of Forest Resources. Their team focused on the biology of Fork-tailed Storm Petrels, Rhinoceros Auklets and Parakeet Auklets (hence the “auklet” in Manuwal’s email address). They were trying to obtain basic information on the ecology and population sizes of birds nesting there in case of an oil spill—and their data proved helpful in understanding the effects of the Exxon Valdez spill, which reached as far as the Barren Islands.

Dave Manuwal

In the late 1970s, Manuwal got to take part in several seabird studies in Alaska, British Columbia and Washington, including on Smith Island (pictured here). “Being in these seabird colonies is a unique environment,” he says. “There’s a tremendous about of activity, birds are coming and going all the time—lots of noise, especially in a big gull or tern colony.”

A Gaggle of Grad Students
At the College of Forest Resources, Manuwal was now a colleague of his former advisor and mentor, Dick Taber, who had recently come over to start the wildlife program. “One day, I heard a commotion in Dick’s office,” he says. “I looked over there in time to see him rush out with a very agitated look on his face. That was the first and only time I saw him like that. Later, he came back and told me that one of the associate deans had accepted, on our behalf, 13 new graduate students.”

Despite a new policy of the wildlife faculty accepting their own graduate students, the acceptance letters had already been mailed; there was no going back. So at one point in the next year, Manuwal had 11 graduate students, and Taber had around 15. It was a pretty hectic time trying to find research support for all of those extra students, he says, but amazingly all of them made it successfully through the program. “That’s the phenomenal part of it. Kind of funny in retrospect, but it wasn’t funny at the time!”

The shock of that story may linger, but Manuwal would never trade the relationships he developed with his graduate students—bonds that have endured long past the last paper or degree. “Perhaps the highlight of my time at UW was interacting with my graduate students,” he says. “Helping them with their research, visiting them in the study areas, offering advice at important times.”

In total, he had 51 graduate students during his time with SEFS. Forty-nine of them completed degrees, and all but two of them entered the wildlife ecology/conservation field (one became a medical doctor, the other a computer specialist).

With so much invested in his students, he knew retiring wouldn’t be easy. Yet after four decades of teaching scores of courses, from wildlife research techniques to field ornithology to wildlife biology and conservation, Manuwal stood in front of his last class in the fall of 2012.

Dave Manuwal

In August 2008, the year he officially retired, Manuwal invited all of his former grad students to a reunion in Ocean Shores, Wash. Not all of them could make it, but some came from as far away as Virginia, North Carolina, Alaska, California and Hawaii. “That was a great time,” he says.

“That last lecture was hard,” he says, “and I didn’t realize how much I’d miss teaching. The day-to-day interactions with students, helping them understand some concepts we discussed in class, people coming in and talking to you about their career choices, what courses to take. I just miss all that—it’s hard to leave.”

Next Chapters
As an Emeritus Professor of Wildlife Science, though, Manuwal hasn’t exactly kicked up his feet just yet. His first move after retirement was to head back into the field as an affiliate professor with the University of Montana. It had been 40 years since he first collected data as a graduate student in the Lubrecht Experimental Forest, about 30 miles northeast of Missoula. His research had concerned songbirds associated with riparian vegetation along three streams where he had originally done surveys in 1967 and ’68, and then in 1980. This time, he wanted to see how bird populations might have changed, and also do a second study on the pattern of territory establishment along those streams.

So, just as he had done 40 years earlier, he borrowed a little trailer and placed it near his study areas. He had a black Labrador with him back then, and he brought a black Labrador with him this time. He also had his whole family participate in the study at various times, and they’re all authors on a manuscript he has in review right now. “That was a blast to go back there and do it again,” he says. “It was a good way to go out.”

Dave Manuwal

Manuwal with a class in the Skagit Valley.

But not all the way out. Back in Seattle, Manuwal has a new research project under way, but this time not involving wildlife. He’s been preparing a tribute to military veterans who became professional wildlife ecology and conservation professionals, whether in academia, government agencies or with nonprofits. He’s read more than 2,000 obituaries and talked to several veterans in person and by email, and he’s identified about 190 veterans so far. Manuwal placed an advertisement in several outlets to gather more information, and if you happen to know of anyone who might fit this description, he would love to hear from you.

Research, clearly, is in his genes, and he still exudes the same infectious energy and curiosity that has defined his career as a scientist and educator. Just ask his students, like SEFS undergrad Tara Wilson, who was in Manuwal’s final ESRM 350 class a year ago: “You could just tell he’s passionate about what he does, and that he’s excited to get us passionate.”

That seems like a fitting tribute—and a pleasant irony—for someone who was once terrified of  standing in front of an audience, yet ended up inspiring hundreds of students to share his love for birds, research and all things wild.

Photos © Dave Manuwal.