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Smith Professors and Prairie Dogs

A few words about B. Elizabeth (Betty) Horner, Marshall Schalk and about PD James the Prairie Dog. Given by artist Dorcas Eason MacClintock ’54, creator of the Prairie Dog sculpture, at the dedication of the sculpture on May 6. View a photo gallery of the event.

It was 1950 when I came to Smith College at the urging of a class of ’49 graduate with whom I worked at the AMNH, I had not really thought about college…or if I had, considered being at the AMNH more interesting. But Smith women are persistent and I agreed to visit the college with my friend, if only to see what her enthusiasm was all about.

That Saturday was to influence the rest of my life. There, on the south steps of Burton Hall, stood a tall, thin, lab-coated assistant professor of zoology who was clearly delighted to see her former student. Thus I was introduced to Miss [Elizabeth] Horner, the very person we honor this afternoon.

That fall, as a freshman, I joined Miss Horner on field study of small mammals at Arcadia Sanctuary, a project I soon found more interesting and fun than History II and other required courses. My freshman grade average plummeted. But this project sparked my interest in writing, as it led to publication of  a series of short articles illustrated with line drawings that appeared in Mass Audubon’s magazine.

That same year I was to gain a notoriety that spread beyond the Smith campus—as the freshman who locked a professor in a room. The mice, chipmunks, and shrews we live trapped at Arcadia were brought back to Burton basement to be marked by ear notching before being returned for release. For this procedure we used a very small “animal behavior” room, a sound-proof inner sanctum entered through two larger storage rooms where chemicals and Bacteriology’s glassware were stored—each with a locked door. As we wrestled one morning with traps, Betty kept exhorting, “ hurry, you will be late to your class…” I set off for Seelye at a run, keys in my pocket, both doors locking behind me.

I never found out what went through Miss Horner’s mind that morning she missed her lecture. But her predicament was discovered in time by a colleague in search of a petri dish.

Sophomore year was Miss Horner’s Zoology 22 Comparative Anatomy, a legendary full-year course with lectures and three-hour labs devoted to dissecting vertebrates from shark to fetal pig.

There were field trips in her blue Plymouth—to Whately Glen for salamanders, to Dummerston Corners, Vt., for a grange supper of bear, raccoon, and venison, and nightly coffee sessions at the diner in Florence.

Such was the influence of Miss Horner’s teaching that she and I have remained in close touch all these years, although I am well aware of being just one of many students to claim her as mentor. The roster includes advisees who majored in English, history, and art, and students she came to know as faculty resident at 11 Henshaw, among them a head of student government.


Above Miss Horner’s desk in Burton Hall hung a small painted tile, a treasure acquired during a summer abroad, It read:
                                                          Cambiano il professori
                                                          Ma la musica e la stasa

Not really so, Professors do come and go but the music does not in fact stay the same.  And one who knew this well was Marshall Schalk, for whom this room is named. I took enough courses in geology that I was “used” by that department as a runner. Geologists then spurned continental drift, the theory to them was anathema. But down slope at Burton Hall, where Miss Bache-Wiig in Botany (the department on the north side of Burton Hall’s big staircase) gave a course in Plant Geography, and Mr. Driver taught his course in Zoological Concepts, faculty found abundant evidence to support Wegener’s concept.

Geology II was a year course—Physical Geology (Mr. Collins, first semester) dovetailed with Historical Geology (Mr. Schalk, second semester). Knowing that after class or lab I was usually headed back to Burton Hall, Bob Collins or Marshall Schalk would call after me, “tell those people in biology there’s no such thing as continental drift!” So much for plate tectonics, now widely accepted by all.

Marshall Schalk, gentle soul that he was, bore an intense disliking for the college Registrar. In the Green Room of Seelye basement he perpetrated Lydia Gluck—an imaginary student for whom he created course schedule, provided records, and sent in grades, which one or another of his students carried over to College Hall. Lydia Gluck got by the Registrar for an entire year, much to Marshall Schalk’s delight.

After his year at Point Barrow, Marshall came to visit us in Berkeley Calif., complete with that immense beard he had grown and was so reluctant to shed after returning to Northampton.

PD James, the model for the bronze Prairie Dog, came into my life after being captured by an animal control officer who had no idea what he had. My interest in squirrels encompasses their family, so I was easily induced to take this small rodent in, at least temporarily. Within a few days he captured our hearts. Although a male, he was named for the writer PD James (who is of course a woman). 

PD had the run of our house, interacting with two cats, a collie and a Newfoundland. His “burrow” was in my upstairs workroom—there he had his snug den, his hay, and other food. His coterie, which in nature would include a prairie dog’s kin, was the entire upstairs, which he would aggressively defend from intruders—anyone other than his immediate family, us—in true prairie dog manner. Downstairs PD challenged any who visited. Standing tall, forepaws raised and head thrown back and yip-barking. That sounded the alert. If the intruder approached his warning chuckles were ominous.

PD was a much loved part of our menagerie for eight of his at least 10 years, and he is missed to this day.


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