Video of the Slide Show from Sally's Memorial Service

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Great Mentor

In 1979, I entered Guilford High School as a sophomore transplant from Massachusetts. That fall, however, I had the opportunity to take a marine biology course taught by Dan Cinotti and a guest teacher, a marine biologist by the name of “Mrs. Richards.” What luck! After all, like many kids, I had always wanted to be a marine biologist – what a cool career that would be! As I soon found out, for “Mrs. Richards,” the classroom was not the place where her students learned about marine biology. Learning was best done hauling in a plankton net from the deck of Ammodytes, or traipsing through a salt marsh in rubber boots, or walking around barefoot on the shore of Hall’s Island, turning over rock after rock to observe nature the way it was really meant to be seen. With “Mrs. Richards” constantly challenging her class, it wasn’t long before I knew the difference between Fucus vesiculosus and Chondrus crispus, Ovalipes ocellatus and Carcinus maenas, and Pseudopleuronectes americanus and Paralichthys dentatus. Believe it or not, more than thirty years later, I can probably still rattle off the scientific names of 20 or 30 plants and animals that reside in Long Island Sound!

As that class came to an end, my relationship with “Mrs. Richards” did not. Somewhere during my junior year of high school, “Mrs. Richards” became just “Sally” and her husband, Dr. Richards, became just “Fred.” Sally had become my mentor…. nudging me to undertake research projects and getting me to think critically about the workings of the natural world. Under her guidance, I spent night after night in the lab downstairs tediously sorting through and measuring preserved Caprellid amphipods that she had helped me collect for my very first research project. I did this often while Sally and Fred entertained upstairs (as they were well known to do!). Sally encouraged me to work through my samples at any time, day or night, because, as we all know, the Richards’ home had an open door policy.

With that project behind me, Sally saw a new opportunity for me - The Falkner Island Tern Project. For four summers, Sally and Little Harbor Lab provided me with the opportunity to spend countless days and nights living without electricity (except a marine radio powered by an automobile battery), eating “hundreds” of cans of Spam, hash, corned beef, Dinty Moore beef stew, Veg-All (yes, that Veg-All….the can of square corn, square peas, square beans, and square carrots) and making do with a makeshift “head” fashioned out a toilet seat on a piece of plywood positioned over a pit. Sally was, after all, practical. By far, the best part was that we enjoyed all of these luxuries in the company of thousands of raucous terns that didn’t think twice about piercing the skin on the top your head with their beak or skillfully defecating on the only exposed area of sunburned skin on the back of your neck. Their aim was uncanny. That was Sally’s way of introducing me to real field biology! Many people get a chuckle out of stories that came out of the Falkner Island Tern Project, but it was this type of real learning experience that Sally and Fred offered eagerly those who showed an interest. I am glad I took them up on that offer because it set the stage for the rest of my career.

Sally and Fred continued to challenge me, they taught me to think critically, and they encouraged and fostered my love of science. With Sally’s help (a lot of it!) I published my first paper with her. I still remember getting her edits to my first draft. It must have been awful! I had never seen so much red ink on anything I had written previously! Eventually, through her encouragement (almost insistence), I left Connecticut and went off to grad school in Long Beach, CA and then, Philadelphia, PA. Because of her encouragement, I had opportunities that other scientists only dream about. I had the chance to study under the guidance of world-class scientists, work with a Pulitzer Prize winner, teach at Ivy League institutions, and even sip brandy with Ernst Mayr as he told the story of the Painted Lady, Lord Rothschild’s wealthy aristocratic mistress who blackmailed him, and ultimately forced him sell his extensive bird collection to the American Museum of Natural History in 1932. None of those experiences would have been possible without Sally’s encouragement. It is rare when one can look back on their life and be able to point to a single person who, above all others, shaped their future, guided their career, and helped make them who they are today. I am privileged to have had Sally as my mentor and my friend. Thank you, Sally.

Over the years I have often though about what I could do to repay Sally and Fred for their incredible generosity. Sally and Fred Richards were very special people who were the fabric of the Guilford community for many years and touched the lives of many, many people. With the the approval of their family, in their honor I will be establishing the Sally and Fred Richards Memorial Scholarship at Guilford High School. The scholarship will be granted to a graduating senior who shows exceptional commitment to the values that Sally and Fred held dearly, particularly, Science, Community, and Family. In this small way, I hope that the memory of what Sally and Fred meant to the town and people of Guilford will live on.

-Bill Schew