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.
When 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 of Massachusetts.
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 research.
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.