Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2006


Kim-Toy Reynolds Huh ´77

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In Memoriam

In Memoriam
Paul Fell, the the Katherine Blunt Professor of Zoology, works with CC students out on the water.

Remembering Paul Fell, the Katherine Blunt Professor of Zoology.

By Daniel Clem ´98

The thing that astonished me about Paul Fell was the sheer volume of information stored in his head and the ease with which he drew upon it during his lectures or in his labs. He seemed to rely on notes only as a standby, whether he was describing quadruped locomotion or the countercurrent heat exchange mechanisms of tunas. And somehow his blackboard illustrations were always identical to those on the handouts, as though even his fingers had a perfect memory. Those drawings seemed also to match his teaching style: straightforward, clear, unadorned and utterly without ego.

I took Dr. Fell´s vertebrate biology course as a sophomore. The class humbled me and not only because Fell´s exams were notoriously tough. On the first day of lab in “vertebrate” (as we called it), I thought I was in for an easy semester because there we were, about to spend seven weeks dissecting the spiny dogfish shark, and I was already a shark expert after a childhood obsessively poring over every shark book I could find. It would be a breeze, this class. Or so I thought. I cruised through that first day well enough, raising my hand about 30 times and answering Dr. Fell´s questions like a classic know-it-all, more interested in teaching than learning. As the weeks went on, though, I realized that I knew virtually nothing about the intricacies of the shark´s nervous and circulatory systems and certainly had never memorized all of those branching pathways, as the lab practical would require.

I think I got a 65 on that first lab exam, a blow to my ego only slightly softened by the 10-point boost offered, mercifully, by the grading curve. Others seemed similarly leveled by the difficulty of “vertebrate.” I could tell that the smell of formalin, the grueling exams, and the exhaustion we all felt after three-hour labs offered a more ominous picture of life (or graduate study) in science or medicine than those offered by “E.R.” or National Geographic documentaries.

Throughout that course and others, I never saw Dr. Fell lose his patience with anyone or lower his expectations of how much we could learn. Whether he was putting up with a know-it-all whose ego and career plans seemed to depend on the validation of a test score, or gently accepting an art student´s explanation for why she would not euthanize any frogs for our studies of amphibian embryonic development, Dr. Fell always seemed to have his gentle eyes on the prize: that we would all leave Connecticut College with a greater understanding of the natural world, and that our lives — whether as zoologists, writers, painters, dancers, lawyers, entrepreneurs or teachers — would be richer for it.

My last experience with Dr. Fell was during my senior independent study with him. As a junior studying abroad in Australia, I´d mailed him a drawing I´d done of a fish, wondering if he thought I might be able to do some kind of illustration project with him the next year. He wrote back a brief note, saying my drawing was very nice and that we could definitely figure something out. So, the next fall, I spent about 10 hours a week working on illustrations of fish species native to the waters of Connecticut: bluefish, windowpane flounder, mummichogs, silversides and bluegills. At the end of the semester, after I´d spent many hours staring at preserved fish and putting hundreds of thousands of dots onto Bristol board, Dr. Fell thumbed through my drawings for a few minutes, presumably assessing their accuracy by comparing them to the vivid memories of a thousand live specimens and every photo and drawing he´d ever seen. With a smile, he simply said, “Very good,” and that was that.

A few years later, while living in the South Pacific as a Peace Corps volunteer, I rediscovered the meditative benefit of drawing fish, though this time my subjects were pelagic species of the tropics — skipjack tuna, wahoo and blue marlin. One night, after eight months of living in Tonga´s Ha´apai Islands and working for the Ministry of Fisheries, I had a small visitor. Six-year-old Samiuela was one of several brothers who would come over every night to listen to music and keep me company. That particular night, Samiuela suddenly picked up a pen and drew a bold blue line across a new illustration of a Moorish idol, a pretty reef fish. Months of immersion and willful adaptation had softened my view of the Tongan culture´s use of corporal punishment, and I was not yet fluent enough to explain to Samiuela how his misbehavior made me feel or why it was really disrespectful to mess with my drawings. So I simply picked him up, carried him to my front door by his underarms, and chucked him outside. He´d been giggling while I was carrying him (the local children liked it when I´d launch them into the sea from atop my shoulders), but after he landed with a thud on his butt he started to cry. As he walked back to his house I felt ashamed — the moment was an epiphany in terms of re-evaluating the wisdom of becoming Tongan in order to have a happy or productive two years in Polynesia — and I never bullied or mistreated any of my little brothers again.

And I thought of Dr. Fell. As I sat on my front steps, I realized how my lazy reaction to Samiuela contrasted with the eternally patient, kind professor. From then on, whenever I was wandering the reef flat with the boys, looking for eels and snails, I´d try to mimic Fell´s quiet enthusiasm for the innumerable wonders of the marine life skittering, burrowing and swimming around our feet. I´d show them some strange, wonderful feature of a crab´s claw and try to do it as Fell would have: with explanations clear and colorful and loaded with detail, and my own ego put aside.

The indelible image of Dr. Fell in my mind´s eye now, eight years since I last saw him and a few months since learning that he´d passed away, is actually a photo that a friend of mine took while in the Virgin Islands for the tropical biology field course offered every other year at CC. In the photo — which I saw just once but now seems permanently lodged in my memory — Dr. Fell is sitting alone on the edge of a skinny, sun-whitened dock over the turquoise of the Caribbean, his long legs dangling. He´s staring happily down into the water.

Dan Clem ´98 is a freelance writer and field biologist, who lives in Boston.

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