MARLBORO — From various branches of science to motorcycles, Bob Engel shared his musings in Marlboro College classrooms and in these pages.
“Our incessant quest for newer and better ‘stuff,’ doesn’t make us anywhere near as happy as do ‘experiences’ like travel,” he wrote in his Reformer column, “Countersteering,” about a year before his death. “Motorcycles are things, but they also provide experiences. As long as I can retrieve them, I will have glorious memories of my many mototrips: perfect, frequently empty roads, fun food, glowing landscapes, wildlife … the odd tornado. You know, the stuff of memories.”
Engel died Jan. 22 in his home in Marlboro “as he wished,” according to the college’s website. He served as a faculty member for 36 years, from 1975 until his retirement in 2011, then continued coming to campus to make guest appearances and host birding walks. He taught on topics such as general biology, tropical ecology, ornithology, marine ecology, comparative physiology, plant taxonomy and desert ecology. And he was known to speak without using notes.
Engel once said, “People who understand the history and aspirations of our own species and who can speak to and understand different cultures, will make the largest contributions as life scientists.”
College President Kevin Quigley called Engel “such a master teacher.”
“I learned more about birds from Bob in that 20 minutes than I had learned about birds in any other context or at any other time,” he said while recalling an introductory class to an ornithology course taught by Engel.
Jennifer Ramstetter, who teaches biology and environmental studies at Marlboro College, considers Engel her mentor. She attended the college as a student from 1977 to 1981 and went on many field trips with Engel.
Ramstetter taught alongside Engel from 1989 until he retired.
“It was very wonderful,” she told the Reformer. “He always stepped out of my way and had great faith that I would develop my own curriculum and my own teaching style.”
Ramstetter said she learned a lot from Engel “in how he inspired students, and just his vast knowledge of plants, animals and ecosystems.”
“We both really emphasized being out in the field with our students and learning about systems by being in them,” she said. “My office is next to the classroom we both taught in and whenever he was teaching class, I was always listening to his discussions and lectures.”
Ramstetter noted Engel’s involvement in the Southeastern Vermont Audubon Society, with which he would give talks at the Thompson House in Brattleboro, and his “great admiration” for his late wife Mallory Lake’s artwork. Ramsetter said she will always remember Engel’s “incredible love of the natural world, and the way he listened to his students and helped to guide them.”
“He was just a wonderful, articulate person,” said T. Wilson, who taught poetry and fiction at the college, and directed the school’s world studies program with Engel.
Wilson was dean when Engel first arrived. The two shared a bond that extended beyond their professional lives.
“He just loved the natural world and was very observant of it, and he helped anyone around him see things they wouldn’t see otherwise and think things they wouldn’t have thought otherwise,” Wilson said. “And we had a good time. He had a tremendous sense of humor. He was passionate, funny and irreverent.”
Wilson said Engel took all his students seriously and expected the same in return. But Wilson also recalled practical jokes happening on field trips: “You’d come back to your tent and it would be filled with pine cones.”
After the two professors retired, they would get together for dinners. And Engel led bird walks for the Hogback Conservation Association that Wilson would attend.
Kristin Grant said Engel served as a role model to her son Alex, who was 9 when they first met. Their friendship lasted 35 years.
Grant said Engel had survived a bone marrow transplant in 1983 and wanted “to connect in a human relationship due to a his new lease on life.”
“He was dedicated to spending time with Alex weekly for a couple years then bi-weekly and for sports,” Grant said. “He continued their connection over the years while they enjoyed many activities together and spent occasions with the family.”
Engel surprised Alex at his wedding in 2009, when he showed up in Arizona on his motorcycle. Grant said Alex is “grateful for this wonderful and enduring relationship, and attributes so much of his development” to Engel.
Engel was “always sensitive, caring, sharing, insightful, fun and a very cool guy,” Grant said. “He often liked to say he knew from the first day that he would be learning more from Alex than he could teach.”
The college established an award in Engel’s name in 2011 that goes to a student who demonstrates his “passion for the natural world and his keen powers of observation and inquiry as a natural historian.”
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at [email protected], at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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