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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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