Toast Offered by President Carol Christ
I am pleased to offer a
toast in honor of Steve Tilley on the occasion of his retirement.
Steve did his undergraduate work at Ohio State University
and his graduate work at the University of Michigan. He came
to Smith in 1970, immediately after completing his degree,
and he has served here with distinction for 41 years, holding
the title since 1989 of the Myra M. Sampson Professor of
Biological Sciences. He is currently chairing the department.
Steve has taught generations
of students, principally in the fields of ecology and evolutionary
biology; his cv lists over two dozen honors students, and
graduate students whose research he has supervised. He taught
Smith’s first courses in ecology, for which his
lectures, I am told, filled this Weinstein Auditorium.
I introduced Steve for his Engel Lecture, I used Isaiah Berlin’s
distinction between the fox and the hedgehog. Drawn from
a verse fragment by the Greek poet Archilochus, it illuminates
a useful distinction between intellectual temperaments. The
fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
Steve Tilley is definitely a hedgehog. He has devoted his
intellectual life to a species of lungless salamander, some
two and a half to four and a half inches in length, Desmognathus
ochrophaeus, the Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamander, and
its near relatives, the Desmognathus imitator and the Desmognathus
fuscus, and their distribution, evolution, and ecology in
the Appalachians. Although his vita shows one very early
foray to the turtle and one somewhat later to the newt, almost
all of his extensive publications concern the salamander.
Steve has been recognized for his work on it by a number
of appointments and distinctions. He has been a research
associate of the Department of Vertebrate Biology at the
Museum of Natural History, and a member of the summer faculty
both at the Mountain Lake Biological Station of the University
of Virginia and at the Highlands Biological Station of the
University of North Carolina. He has written the authoritative
field guide to reptiles and amphibians of the Smokies. He
is currently a member of the graduate faculty of the program
in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at the University
My description thus far of Steve’s research
may make it seem narrow, but Steve has made the dusky salamander,
in Isaiah Berlin’s works, reveal one big thing. In studying
the speciation of salamanders, he seeks to understand how
diversity gets generated. He has a deep conviction that to
understand a big phenomenon like bio-diversity, you must
understand it in detail. One of his colleagues, Rob Dorit,
has compared Steve to a pointillist painter, developing a
sense of the large composition of populations dot by dot.
Steve embraced molecular tools early in his work, using them
to augment his morphological studies. In his care for the
organism, he provides an important model for contemporary
Steve’s excellence as a population biologist comes,
in the words of one of his colleagues, from his curiosity
about the natural world and its denizens, and his continuing
enthusiasm not only for salamanders but for birds, beasts,
and wildflowers. He is cheerfully observant and full of lore.
He talks on occasion with nostalgic affection of field trips
taken during his years at OSU, particularly of jaunts down
into the hilly unglaciated portions of the state. He invites
others to join him in observing many rites of spring, trying
to get out to Ohio each year for a wildflower pilgrimage,
participating in the annual college bird walk, where he looks
in particular for the smaller and more elusive species—the
vireos and the warblers--, and leading trips to witness amphibian
migrations to reproduce in vernal pools.
In his life beyond
amphibians, Steve has been very active in the town of Ashfield,
serving on the school committee and the conservation commission.
Steve is also a musician, playing the trombone and the euphonium.
As an undergraduate, he played in the Ohio State University
marching band; indeed several years ago he went back to Columbus
for a band reunion and joined his fellow musicians on the
field. If in biology, Steve is a hedgehog, in music he’s
fox. He plays in a wide diversity of venues, from the orchestra
pit for operas and operettas to Memorial Day and Fourth of
July parades, to regular gigs in local bars and taverns.
Steve we wish you well in your
life as both a fox and a hedgehog in your retirement.