A Remembrance of Bill Niering



William Niering at New York Botanical Gardens with a Saguaro cactus on a botany department field trip, 1985.

By R. Scott Warren, Professor of Botany
Connecticut College Memorial Service, September 24, 1999

When I arrived at Connecticut College as a brand new faculty member, William A. Niering was a full professor, Director of the Arboretum, and had already been teaching here for 17 years. He had a national reputation in plant ecology for work in ecosystems as diverse as Pacific atolls, the Sonoran Desert, the forests and fields of New England and - of course - wetlands of all sorts.

Bill's dedication and excellence in ecology were matched in the field of conservation, where he was held in high regard by both friend and foe across Connecticut and around the country. At legal hearings the "dark-side" lawyers would frequently begin their questioning of Bill by asking "Dr. Niering, who do you represent in this case?" (to the everlasting frustration of lawyers on all sides), he would invariably answer "I don't represent anyone - I represent the environment." Bill believed that a key obligation of the human condition was to be a good steward to our planet, caring for the natural world with respect, dignity and a great deal of humility.

It also was very clear that Bill was a dedicated and unusually gifted teacher:

  • The excitement of his General Biology lectures were legend and he loved freshman labs.
  • His intro Human Ecology (ES110 for today's students) was jammed every year.
  • The dedication of those in his upper-division Ecology course was humbling.
  • Undergraduates lined up for a chance to do independent work under Dr. Niering
  • And they clamored to get into Plant Taxonomy, despite a lack of lab space and microscopes.

And he drove a '58 Chevy convertible that seemed to be held together only by rust. I was impressed!

Bill was then - as he was to his dying day - a very busy fellow! He could have been a pretty intimidating senior colleague for an untenured assistant professor, but turned out to be very much the opposite - he took the time and care

  • to be my best teaching mentor
  • to give this new physiology colleague what amounted to a high-end post-doc in plant ecology, while he
    physically lead me into the wonders of wetlands in general and tidal marshes in particular!

After you spend a few field seasons with the same person, driving up and down the length of Connecticut, visiting salt marshes, paddling tide creeks, and slogging to field sites you have had a lot of time to talk; you get to know them pretty well…

…..and I soon learned that in science, conservation, and education Bill was a man of action. He was not content just to "do" ecology- he believed with a passion that ecologists had an obligation to use their knowledge - to save, preserve, and restore natural systems - not just study and teach about them!

Professionally, Bill practiced what he preached:

  • Around the country he spoke to and wrote for the non scientist on a broad range of environmental concerns
  • Legal hearings on environmental threats were never too late in the evening or too far away
  • And as an academic he and Dick Goodwin were 20 years ahead of the curve when in 1968 they developed the Human Ecology major and the introductory HE course (now Environmental Science) - teaching and inspiring generations of our students

And as a private individual he also lived his life as he taught:

  • From his battles against the culture of the American lawn
  • To raising his own chickens
  • To his long struggle to make recycling a regular part of the Connecticut College culture
  • The backs of used envelopes were fine for notes and memos
  • He re-used his tea bags
  • And was always picking up trash that less thoughtful souls dropped on campus

In these and so many other ways Bill Niering taught us that one can be part of the contemporary world but still live gently and treat the planet with dignity and reverence.

Another early lesson for me was Bill as a faculty citizen. Somehow Bill escaped the cynicism virus that so widely infects college faculties. He was always willing to give administrators and faculty colleagues the benefit of the doubt. [Occasionally, I must confess, to my utter amazement!] "They may be wrong," he would argue, "but they are not bad people and they can be taught; we can get them to see the light. We just have to try another way!"

How did this William A. Niering of the early 1970s stand up over the last 25-30 years? Well. . .

  • He kept trying to get colleagues and administrators to see the light on lots of different issues - but even when they didn't, he NEVER held a grudge!
  • His courses have been pretty much over-enrolled for the past three decades
  • Students still lined up to do independent work under Dr. Niering
  • He continued to publish his research at a prodigious rate
  • The demand for his expertise and prestige on questions of environmental protection, mitigation, and restoration could have easily supported a multi-person consulting firm had he chosen that route

INSTEAD….

  • He found time to serve the College as acting president
  • And to serve as founding editor-in-chief of a new journal Restoration Ecology, which in four years he guided from just "a good idea" to the most prestigious venue in its field
  • He was critical in starting the Center for Conservation Biology and Environmental Science that now bears his and Dick Goodwin's names
  • He still loved classical music and afternoon tea with crumpets!
  • And he still drove a convertible - now a bright orange VW bug!

By any standards I'd use, Bill didn't lose a step from 1970 to 1999, in fact he probably gained a couple of laps on the rest of us!

This wonderful, gentle, and most honorable of men loved his family, the fragile natural world upon which we all depend so absolutely, Connecticut College, and the tradition of liberal education. We have all been privileged and honored to have had Bill as teacher, mentor, colleague, friend, and finally, a committed member of our Connecticut College community.

Thank you, Dr. Niering!