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Jerry Flora provides link to legacy of Huxley, Fairhaven colleges

Former WWU President Charles "Jerry" Flora at his home in Everson Tuesday, April 13, 2010. Flora died Dec. 22, 2013 at the age of 85.
Former WWU President Charles "Jerry" Flora at his home in Everson Tuesday, April 13, 2010. Flora died Dec. 22, 2013 at the age of 85. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

This spring is feel-good time for Fairhaven College and for Huxley College of the Environment.

Both schools are sharing anniversaries: Fairhaven is marking 40 years since its first graduating class, and Huxley is celebrating 40 years since its students started attending class.

A living link to both colleges plans to attend their anniversary dinners May 14 - Charles "Jerry" Flora, former president of Western Washington University.

Flora lives on the flatlands south of Lynden, with a clear view of Mount Baker from his window. Now 81, his health doesn't let him scuba dive anymore, but he still travels and he's still full of good humor and lots of stories.

Named interim president in 1967, Flora, by his count, presided over Western for eight years, one month and three days. Those were years of baby boomer growth, political protests and general tumult and liveliness, both on campus and off.

But for a fluke, Flora never would have come to Western in the first place, back in 1957.

A graduate student at the University of Florida, he was surprised to be offered a job at Western. Surprised because he hadn't applied to Western. Apparently an application of his elsewhere somehow was relayed to Bellingham.

Flora didn't know much about Washington or Western, and wasn't much interested in learning. He was on his way to telegram "no thanks" to the offer when he saw a student he knew was from Washington.

Turns out the student had attended Western, and his description of Bellingham Bay, Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands proved mighty tempting to Flora, who was interested in marine biology. He took the job.

Flora doesn't take credit for founding Fairhaven. He says that credit goes to Harvey Bunke, his predecessor as president and an advocate of cluster colleges, and to then-professor Paul Woodring, who suggested a college focused on the liberal arts.

Flora does take credit for starting Huxley, along with fellow biology professor Gerald Kraft. He and Kraft had started the Institute for Freshwater Studies in the early 1960s to map and monitor Lake Whatcom. That effort lives on as the Institute for Watershed Studies.

With the idea of Fairhaven College progressing, Flora and Kraft discussed the notion of a college of environmental sciences. Remember, this was before Earth Day, before the EPA, and long before "green" went mainstream.

Time for another fortunate Flora fluke. In this case, a series of them.

Bunke had named Flora to a planning committee that OK'd a plan for Huxley and bumped it up to the Academic Council.

By the time it reached the council, Flora had been named academic dean and was the council's chairman. The council deadlocked on the plan. As chairman, Flora cast the deciding vote in favor.

Next up, the president's desk. But before the plan was ready for action, Bunke stepped down and Flora was named interim president. He OK'd the plan, then the board of trustees did likewise.

Today, some people consider Huxley the first environmental program of its kind in the country.

Early on, Flora feared that Huxley might stress "green" consciousness over tested truth.

"I wanted science, man," he recalled. "I wanted hard science."

These days, Flora is proud of the environmental college that he and Kraft rightfully share the credit for.

"It irritates me that I have to share it," Flora said, laughing.

DETAILS

- Fairhaven College: 650-6680 and wwu.edu/depts/fairhaven

- Huxley College of the Environment: 650-3520 and wwu.edu/huxley

- "Normal College Knowledge" is Jerry Flora's fascinating and often funny 1991 book about Western is out of print but sometimes available at bookstores.

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