My goal of being a biologist or naturalist started with a bang and ended with a thud. I didn’t realize that to be an –ist of nature required one to take botany. I loved all kinds of critters from birds to fish and anything that lived in the space between. By everything, I mean everything that moved—winged, two legs, four legs, hundreds of legs, on the belly, finned or otherwise. The key to my interest was movement, therefore, things that were rooted to the ground held less than no interest for me; uh, botany, the study of inanimate things with leaves.
All was well for the first two quarters. General biology—good, human anatomy—good, physiology—very good, embryology—awesome, then botany—very bad. I knew that I wasn’t going to enjoy it, but I thought it would be a piece of cake. As a boy scout, I had learned to identify all of the trees in North Georgia. I could distinguish between poison ivy and Virginia creeper with a mere glance. I knew how to get water from a grapevine. What I didn’t know was there were annuals and perennials. I didn’t know a phylum from a genus and had no interest in doing so.
My botany professor was named Lucian Rachford. Professor Rachford was the typical absent-minded professor. He had a shock of mousy brown hair that was constantly falling across his forehead and over his eyes. His head was far too large for his diminutive body and huge horn rimmed glasses as thick as bottle bottoms covered his large eyes that saw everything within 360 degrees. He wore a dirty white lab coat with pens of various colors stuffed in the pen pocket over his left chest. He spoke with a distinct lisp and when he was excited, he stuttered. Many of my classmates often made fun of him, but I actually felt sorry for him.
The first week of class, we were told to choose a project that would carry the bulk of our quarter grade. I have never been creative when it comes to an assignment of that type, my creativity is in freethinking, but that was not going to work with Professor Rachford. Try as I could I couldn’t think of a worthy project. I was doing poorly on the regular tests, not being able to distinguish a pistil from a pistol. As the quarter rocked on, it became clear to me that I was headed for my first failure. My project was less than inspired. I was growing penicillium fungus for my project (bread mold) and just not cutting it. My final exam was catastrophic; I made less than 50%. A failure would mean loss of my scholarship and no more studies there.
I finished my exam, turned in my project and waited for grades to be posted. When grades were posted in the student center, next to my name was printed; no grade, see professor.
Reluctantly I went to professor Rachford’s office. He greeted me with a grim frown. He didn’t even invite me to sit. He said, “In all my years of teaching, I have never seen such a poor excuse for a project and I don’t believe that you even attempted to learn my material. I am furious,” at which point he started to stutter, “that you took up a space that could have gone to a real student. You wasted my time and I am just sorry that F is the lowest grade I can give you, because you certainly didn’t even earn that. Get out of my sight.”
I left, disheartened knowing my college career was over.
Throughout the quarter, Professor Rachford had constantly raved about a Gingko tree that grew outside his classroom. It was a special gift to him, given by a botanical society. While I hadn’t learned about botany, I had learned all there was to know about Gingko trees.
Someone must have hated Professor Rachford, because the day after graduation, that someone had skinned the bark off the tree about eight inches above the ground. They had struck the limbs with a sharp instrument and each limb was hanging by a thread of bark. I saw Professor Rachford actually weeping over his cherished pet tree. It made me very sad.
Later that day I went to the campus store, got some twine, paraffin and tore some rags into strips. In the evening, I melted the paraffin, dipped the rag strips in it, and sealed the area where the bark had been skinned. I tied the limbs up and sealed them with paraffin and rags. My roommate and a couple of other classmates knew what I had done, but beyond that, I didn’t think anyone else was aware and I didn’t care. I didn’t attempt to fix the tree to be recognized.
The next day we were to leave for summer vacation. I knew that I would have to meet with the Dean before going home so about 10:00 am I went to his office to get the bad news. His secretary told me that I would have to wait, that he was in conference.
An eternity passed and then Dean Eddy called me in. I was surprised when I realized that Professor Rachford was sitting there. Dean Eddy asked me to take a seat. He told me that Professor Rachford and he had been in conference most of the morning. Professor Rachford had found out what I had done for his Gingko tree. Dean Eddy told me that it was strictly against school policy to change grades after they were entered on the books but they were going to make an exception. My botany grade was being changed from an F to a C. While I didn’t know a thing about botany, I did know something about plant husbandry and it was worth a C grade.
I went home for the summer with a song in my heart knowing I had been spared the wrath of my Dad and would be returning on scholarship in the fall.