News Columns & Blogs

Seal guts, protests and 'smoke floating' - stories from Jerry Flora

Former Western Washington University President Jerry Flora helped start Huxley College of the Environment and what is now the Institute for Watershed Studies. Flora died Dec. 22, 2013 at the age of 85.
Former Western Washington University President Jerry Flora helped start Huxley College of the Environment and what is now the Institute for Watershed Studies. Flora died Dec. 22, 2013 at the age of 85. COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

I first enrolled at what was then called Western Washington State College in 1969, well into the nation's protest years. Western had its share of marches and rallies but remained free of the major rampages that trashed other universities and resulted in injuries and even deaths, notably at Kent State University in 1970.

I remember thinking back then that Western President Jerry Flora was pretty cool for letting students vent their political rage while keeping a tactful lid on matters.

Flora died at his Everson home on Dec. 22, 2013. He was 85.

He began teaching at Western in 1957 and was president from 1967 to 1975. He held other administrative posts and did some work overseas, and resumed teaching biology at Western in 1983, retiring eight years later.

His formal legacy at Western Washington University includes the creation of Huxley College of the Environment, what is now the Shannon Point Marine Center, and what is now the Institute for Watershed Studies.

After hearing about Flora's death, I pulled out my copy of his 1991 book, "Normal College Knowledge," in search of insights and anecdotes.

Flora once described the book's organization as higgledy-piggledy. It is wide-ranging but is almost always interesting and is often amusing. The book amounts to a 100-question, multiple-choice quiz about Western, with answers ranging from a few paragraphs to several pages.

In it, Flora recounts an early sit-in at Western, when students occupied the Placement Center in Edens Hall to protest the Vietnam War. Flora had heard about a recent sit-in at Harvard University so he called Harvard's president for guidance.

Flora recalled two main pieces of advice. One, to follow his heart, because there's no easy solution in such situations. And two, "remember the dissenters are our children and we love them."

It's easy to be fair and even-keeled when things are going smoothly. The truer test is how one behaves under pressure. Flora passed the test.

In another sit-in, students occupied Old Main to protest what they considered shabby treatment for the College of Ethnic Studies. They said the college should have been given several new faculty members but got none.

Flora met with the students and brought in another administrator to explain Western's faculty-allocation formula. To Flora's surprise, the numbers proved Ethnic Studies was indeed entitled to two new teachers. He quickly OK'd the positions, knowing he could be criticized for seemingly caving in to the students.

Flora's book is aptly subtitled "A Sometimes Humorous, Sometimes Sad But Always Loving Inside View of Western." His personality shines through the pages. He's quick to credit others for accomplishments, he acknowledges his mistakes and he pays homage to old friends.

Possibly the only college president was who milking a cow in his off hours, he's a refreshing reminder that people who aren't stuck on themselves often make the best leaders.

An educator at heart, Flora wasn't smitten with the paperwork and budgets that come with being president. He also wasn't in awe of faculty members as a group, calling them knowledgeable within their disciplines but "as dumb as anybody else" on other matters.

"On balance I wish I had stayed in the classroom working with young people," Flora wrote ahead of time for his own obituary.

Here are a few examples of his flair for teaching, from the book:

- While gathering specimens for mammology classes in 1959, he gained possession of a 1,000-pound sea lion that a local fisherman had inadvertently netted. Flora organized his students to dissect the animal on a concrete pad near Old Main and, for a study of mammal digestive systems, had them stretch the seal's gut out straight. It reached some 300 feet, much longer than they expected.

- In the late 1950s a woman student who was paralyzed from the waist down asked for permission to drop Flora's marine biology class after she learned the course required field trips to the beach.

Flora asked her to wait, then helped design an oak chair with a seat belt and a removable tray in front. He had other students use long poles to lift the woman in the chair down to the water's edge so she could identify sea creatures attached to rocks put on her tray.

- While on a field trip in Hawaii, he taught students the pleasure of "smoke floating" - lying back in the warm water while smoking a good cigar and, with ears submerged, singing classic Christian hymns.

- On another field trip, he and his students crawled inside the large but empty pipe used to move water from the Nooksack River to Lake Whatcom. Once inside, they all sang "Old MacDonald Had a Farm."

Flora's legacy continues to reverberate.