Dear Dr. Willey
I should have thanked you in person, wrapped my arms around you, and expressed my gratitude with the heartfelt fervor you so richly earned and deserved.
Forgive me…I was so young, then. Too young to understand the effect you would have on me. Too absorbed in the dramas of adolescence to comprehend what you did to me…how you transformed me. Too vacuous and fatuous to appreciate just how much you meant to me.
What I’ve come to know is this: you, of all my teachers, are the
only one I vividly remember. There were others, to be sure, who illuminated my heart and soul; I revere them all. Your name is the only one that I remember, though. Your teachings stood the test of time; your lessons resonate within me still.
We affectionately named you “Wolfman” in honor of your unruly white hair and scraggly beard. Perhaps you’ll smile knowing that I’ve since come to resemble you. My hair has grown long and gray. My mustache is white and bushy, too. I tend to walk the earth with a similar, absent-minded air. You made me so.
You gave me vision.
My pen is poised above my notebook. A slide of a multi-cellular invertebrate (a rotifer, I believe) fills the wall-sized screen in front of me. I wait to jot the species, genus, phylum…to note this creature’s place on the taxonomic scale. I wait. Silence. And then I hear:
“Isn’t it beautiful?”
And so it always was with you. Oh sure, you taught me invertebrate zoology and taxonomy. You taught me well. But you taught me so much more. So much more. You opened my eyes to the beauty and mystery of all life. You were a poet/philosopher first, a distinguished entomologist/professor second.
You left me pondering the soul of the ant -
a creation encased in a suit of armor, with a brain orders of magnitude more efficient than my own. And, as it is with any knight whose true face is hidden behind steel or keratin, you asked me to contemplate what dreams may shimmer behind the mask.
And to this day, I ponder.
You introduced me to the mysteries of the species of mite that feeds on pools of oil miles inside the earth…and the life forms found within the frigid Arctic ice.
You presented me with the mind-blowing postulate that, if all insects were to fall dead to the ground at once, they would form a layer one-foot thick over this verdant planet of ours.
You marveled at the innate genius of the playful octopods. You left me marveling, too.
Of all the creatures you loved so passionately, you loved dragonflies the most. We, your students, chuckled at the vision of a mad scientist lying on his belly in a flowered field, finger poised on the trigger of an ultra-high speed camera. You spent hours, weeks, months and years, trying to capture the flight of the dragonfly on film. Oh sure, we understood the ostensible rationale…that there were scientific and engineering benefits to be gleaned by understanding the mechanics of four-winged flight systems. But we knew better…
You had fallen in love with dragonflies.
You unveiled the breadth and majesty of life to me, and left me with the phrase and the grandeur of “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” to enchant and inspire me to this very day.
Oh, Doctor Willey! I loved you then. I love you FAR more now.
I have no idea where poet entomologists go when their time here on earth is done. I bet I’ll find you someday, though…
I’ll simply follow the dragonflies...