The Center Piece

Famous ornithological artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes was largely unknown when he was commissioned to paint a large mural for the 1892 Columbian Exposition. After the exposition, the nine panels that made up the mural were lost for a century. Now they were being reassembled for a major exhibit in New York. The final panel, the Center Piece, that hung in the biological sciences library at Virginia Western University, was scheduled to be reunited with the others. That is, until it vanished again, stolen in a brazen heist that leaves university police chief Desdemona White with neither clues nor suspects. Enter New York art expert Remy Tremblay, who sets her on the right trail and upends her personal life. White’s colleague and friend, Professor elena Bertoni once again risks her life to secure essential evidence. Evidence not just of theft but also of massive fraud, greed, revenge–and murder.

January 19 — Yul Choi, Korean Environmentalist, Born (1949)

Asia is an important hub for environmentalism, according to Yul Choi, one of South Korea’s environmental leaders, because it contains 60% of the earth’s human population and contains many rapidly expanding economies.  As the saying goes, Choi has “walked the talk,” including going to prison on behalf of this idea.

Yul Choi (photo by Korea Green Foundation)

Yul Choi was born on January 19, 1949, in Daegu, South Korea.  He was a student activist in college, which led to a six-year prison term.  During his imprisonment, he read extensively about the environment, realizing that the lives of Koreas were compromised by rapid economic growth without adequate environmental constraints.  Upon release, he created the first environmental non-governmental organization in his country, the Korean Research Institute of Environmental Problems.  His environmental activism began “in earnest,” he claims, when he established the Korean Anti-Pollution Organization in 1982.

He has been particularly concerned about the effects of nuclear energy and the ensuing radioactive wastes on human health.  He formed another organization, the Korean Anti-Pollution Movement, in 1988, using it to tell the general public about nuclear waste.  This led to another arrest (this time only house arrest), but that did not stop the growing concern about nuclear waste.  In 1990, he led 20,000 Korean citizens in a protest that stopped the construction of a nuclear waste facility on Anmyeon Island, the home of several national parks and recreation areas little south of Seoul.

Choi was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1995 for his efforts in grassroots activism.  In characteristic fashion, he used the monetary award accompanying the prize to found the Korean Environmental Center, with the mission of “providing environmental education for children, diverse environmental information for Koreans citizens, and networking opportunities.”  This center morphed into the Korea Green Foundation.  Today that foundation has broadened its scope to represent all of Asia, serving as an educational and leadership portal for environmental activists across the region.

Choi’s activism resulted in another prison stay, this time for one year during 2013-2014.  He was leading efforts to stop the Four Rivers project, a huge modification of waterways and ecosystems in Korea.  Once again, he was true to his principles: “If being part of the environmental movement makes me guilty, then I gladly agree to my sentence. I leave my true judgment in the hands of the environment itself, which is the court of the future.”  I’m pretty sure the environment would vote to acquit.


Korea Green Foundation.  2018.  Korea Green Foundation Brochure.  Available at:

The Goldman Environmental Prize.  2013.  1995 Prize Recipient Yul Choi Sentenced to One Year in Prison.  Available at:

The Goldman Environmental Prize.  1995.  Yul Choi, 1995 Goldman Prize Recipient, Asia.  Available at:

Doughnuts for 300

            Class was about ready to start at 8:30 AM.  I was busy getting the technology set up in 232A Withers.  With a class of 295 students, technology is an absorbing necessity.  Log into the computer, load the Powerpoint, cue the music, lower the twin screens, sound-check the microphone, make the stupid lights work.  I heard a commotion and looked up.

            Down the aisle came a parade of my colleagues—department head, dean, a dozen or so faculty and staff, and my wife.  They each carried several boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.  Tom Gower, my department head, started talking.  Although this wasn’t my last class, it was my last course before I retired.  He thought a little party was in order.

            I was floored.  Speechless.  I didn’t hear much of what Tom said.  The students stood and applauded, for a long time.  I introduced my wife, Sharon, who students know well as she-who-must-be-obeyed.  My colleagues served doughnuts up and down the aisles—doughnuts for 300.  It was a wonderful event, mostly because it was totally unexpected, a surprise to a guy who doesn’t get surprised much.  I barely managed to hold it together.  My colleagues and wife left, and I got back to work. 

            Why doughnuts, you ask?  On my office wall hung a plaque containing a freeze-dried cake doughnut awarded to me as “The Departmental Doughnut” in 1994 by the graduate students at Virginia Tech.  It is a real doughnut, and it has survived for nearly a quarter century—graduate students studying the physiology of wild animals know how to preserve organic tissue.  As their department head, I encouraged graduate students to finish their degrees completely—that is, thesis or dissertation signed off and accepted by the Graduate School—by treating them all to doughnuts each time a student finished.  And for a completed dissertation, I bought jelly-filled doughnuts.  Our graduation rate skyrocketed for several years.  The plaque is one of my prized possessions.

            All those doughnuts got me thinking about other memorable events in my classrooms over the years.  Here are a few.

  1. Best student-athlete.  NC State swimmer Ryan Held took my class in Spring 2015.  After he and his teammates won the NCAA championship in the 400-yard freestyle relay, we recognized him in class with rousing applause.  Ryan recently graduated.  He is a great student, athlete and, most importantly, person.  Look in the dictionary under “great student-athlete,” and you’ll find Ryan’s picture.  He sat in the right rear of the classroom, a spot often picked by famous athletes, including first-round draft picks Carlos Rodon (pitcher for the White Sox) and Dennis Smith Jr. (point guard for the Dallas Mavericks).   Seems like studying natural resources is good for your pro career.
Ryan Held lets me hold his Olympic Gold Medal–it was heavy!
  • Coolest prop.  I always tell new teachers to use props in class.  Anything works—juggling balls, costumes, antiques.  But snakes are the best.  Snakes are great examples to show the different way people feel about nature.  Some like them, some hate them—and a full array of attitudes in between.  For my second class period, I have often asked a student to bring their pet snake in to make that point.  The bigger the snake, the better.  Until the semester when three male students brought a 12-foot reticulated python.  It took three of them to hold it.  We challenged each other, that python and I, nose to nose, eye to eye.  It flicked its forked tongue towards me playfully, as if to say, “Want a hug?”  I blinked first. 
Origami Passenger Pigeons hand on the Brickyard as part of hundreds folded by NC State students, staff and faculty on September 1, 2014
  • Favorite active-learning task.  A class of 300 doesn’t invite much class participation.  Groans at my bad jokes are about the limit.  But, September 1, 2014 was different.  That day was the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, when the last living pigeon, Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo.  To raise awareness for the conservation of biodiversity, a national group organized an attempt to fold 1 million origami Passenger Pigeons.  At NC State, we folded 1500, starting with 500 in my class.  We held a birthday party for Martha on the Brickyard where students folded hundreds more.  Teaching 250 students to do origami is a lot more challenging than teaching them the logistic model for population growth.
  • Worst reaction to an exam.  I was a teaching assistant in a large class at the University of Missouri during my Masters’ program.  We were giving a mid-term, and I was stationed near the back of the auditorium.  About halfway through the period, a student jumped up near me, shouted, “I give up,” and tossed his exam paper into the air.  The nine pages separated and floated over the heads of the other students like feathers on a breeze. He didn’t pass.
  • Most famous TA.  Nothing helps raise your teaching ratings like a good teaching assistant.  I hit the jackpot when Justin Robinson joined me as a teacher for two semesters.  Justin was a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which won the Grammy in 2010 for the best traditional folk album.  He can fiddle like nobody’s business.  When things got slow in class, I’d ask Justin to bring in an instrument—violin, guitar, whatever—and sing a song.  A favorite was “Butcher Bird,” comparing love gone wrong to the habits of the predatory Loggerhead Shrike, which impales its prey on a thorn before devouring it.  My analysis shows that Justin was good for +0.2 points on the teaching evaluation.
Xuan returns to the trail after cruising through a sheep pasture at Stonehenge
  • Most inspirational student.  My first summer teaching in London, we enrolled a student in a wheelchair.  Her name was Xuan Troung.  I thought she might present a problem—England, despite what it might advertise, isn’t as handicapped accessible as the U.S.  But Xuan was an inspiration, not a problem.  She figured it all out, and so did her classmates.  Her motorized chair took her many places, but a smaller manual chair served for field trips.  If we hit an obstacle, two classmates would grab the chair and in seconds she and we would be over it.  Nothing stopped her.  At Stonehenge, I lost her for awhile.  Then I saw her, in the middle of an adjacent pasture, cruising among the sheep.  Xuan has graduated and now works for an organization that helps handicapped students go on study abroad.
  • Best excuse.  I appreciate creativity in all its forms, but although students might think their excuse is original, I’ve probably heard it many times.  My car broke down, the printer ate my paper, my dog needed to go to the vet.  My two favorite excuses were unique.  A student called me the night before an exam.  He said, “I was in jail all weekend and didn’t have my notes, so I couldn’t study.  Can I take the exam late?”  My answer, of course, was no.  Many years later, a non-traditional student, a single mother with three children at home, emailed me.  “All my kids got the flu,” she said, “one right after the other.  Can I take the exam late?”  My answer, of course, was yes.
  • Best field trip.  Students always want to go on field trips, but with nearly 300 in class, that’s impossible.  Things are different on study abroad—that should be one big field trip.  And so it was when I co-taught a study abroad class in South Africa.  Poisonous snakes in the toilet, menacing elephants at the roadside, warthogs grazing on the lawn—all in a day’s work.  But the high point was a visit to Tshukudu Game Reserve.  Rescued cheetahs roam the grounds, like big pussy cats, eager for a scratch behind the ears.  We went hunting with them.  Priceless.

Why “Groundhog Day” is Like a Thousand-mile Walk Around Campus

            Faculty members, I once read, make their living comparing things that don’t need to be compared.  “Similarities and differences between ant colonies and socialist governments”.  “The creative principles of Andy Warhol as the basis for 20th Century land-use planning.”  “The wisdom of Jesse James as applied to retirement planning.”

            So let me tell you how Groundhog Day is like my thousand-mile walk across campus.  Not Groundhog Day the day—February 2—but Groundhog Day the movie.  Groundhog Day is one of the deepest, most important movies of all time.  It is also among the most humorous.  Not ha-ha funny necessarily,but deep-belly-chuckle funny.  Bill Murray did well in Stripes and Caddyshack, but he reached his zenith in 1993 with Groundhog Day.

             Let me refresh the plot.  A slacker weatherman (Murray) from Pittsburgh is dispatched with a cameraman and female producer to broadcast from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, for the annual weather prediction by that most famous prognosticator of all, groundhog Phil. An unexpected storm causes the crew to stay in Punxsutawney a second night.  When Murray awakens the next morning, to a 6 AM clock-radio blasting, “I Got You Babe,” it is February 2 again.  He is reliving the day he hates the most.

Wolf sculpture in the plaza by the Free Expression Tunnel

            And so it continues, day after day after day (Harold Ramis, the director and co-writer, claims he re-lived February 2 10,000 times). Murray evolves through the process in several stages.  First he delights in hedonistic pleasures—eating what he likes, and romancing a local cutie. Next he becomes fatalistic, realizing that regardless of his behavior, he can’t get out of his fate; he tries to end it all in a variety of unique ways, never successful.  Later he decides to earn the love of his producer by becoming a better man—learning to play the piano, speak French and carve chain-saw ice sculptures.  During this long process, he gets to know the people of Punxsutawney and to like them. Each day, he finds himself helping out in a myriad of ways, from catching a boy falling out of a tree to performing the Heimlich maneuver on a choking man.  And when he finally convinces his true love to accept him, they awaken to February 3.

            For our purpose here, the relevant bit is that he admits he’s been around for so long that he just sees a lot and knows a lot (for those who can’t abide the movie, just think about the Farmers Insurance commercials, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two”).

            Like Bill Murray walking around Punxsutawney, I’ve walked around the NC State campus for a long time.  About seventeen years.  First as dean, with a relatively small radius out from Biltmore and Jordan Halls. Then, as provost, with journeys almost every day that took me to the far reaches of campus.  And then, since 2009,as a faculty member, walking to class and back. More importantly, after returning to the faculty, I started walking at lunch to get some exercise.  Three miles at the least; when pushed by occasional walking buddy Dave Ranier, four or five.

            So, let’s estimate that since I returned to the faculty I’ve walked 3 miles on average per day, 3 days per week and 40 weeks a year (leaving out times when I had a meeting, was out of town or the weather stunk).  That’s about 360 miles per year.  Seven years of this, and the total distance is a shade over 2500 miles.  But let’s say 1000 miles, just to be conservative.

Banners fly at the ACC Women’s Softball Tournament

            Keep walking around the same place day after day and, just like Bill Murray in Punxsutawney, you see a thing or two.  The kind of things missed on a forced march from class to office or office to meeting, head down, legs pumping, brow furled and mind fixed on the task ahead. 

            I learned to observe from my friend Charlie Leffler, now retired from being Vice Chancellor for Business and Finance. Whenever we walked to a meeting together, he always made us take different routes, going and coming. That, Charlie said, let him keep an eye on campus.  He’d make notes about a sidewalk that needed repair, a door that didn’t close properly, a tree that needed trimming.  And he’d pick up trash that we encountered.  Gotta love it when the CFO is on litter-patrol.

            So, I encourage you to take a stroll around campus. Just a stroll.  Walk this way or that way, try a sidewalk or path you’ve never followed.  Look around, listen to the music playing around you, not in your headphones.  There’s a lot to see.  Some storm drains have fish forged onto them—what’s that about?  What about the patterns of yellow bricks on the sidewalk along Cates Drive?  Listen to the rhythm of metallic pings during batting practice at the baseball field.  Ponder how much chalk gets used annually to announce club meetings on our sidewalks. Count the different license plates on cars parked on Hillsborough.  I can tell you where the forsythia bushes bloom first on campus—wanna take a guess? 

            Those observations and many others were the stimuli for writing the stories that comprise this blog.  But, of course, I’ve taken ample liberties with those stimuli to tell the stories I wanted to tell.  You walk a thousand miles, you get some poetic license. 

A bottle-cap wolf on the Court of Carolina to promote recycling.

            I’ve walked a lot farther than a thousand miles in my university life.  I’ve spent nine years as a student, forty as an employee. Since I was seventeen, the only times I haven’t been on campus were an 16-month tour in the army and one year on sabbatical at a state agency in Wisconsin.  My guess is that I’ve walked at least 10,000 miles across a career at the University of Illinois, Missouri, Cornell, Virginia Tech, Penn State and NC State.

I’ve learned, lived and loved much from all the places I’ve walked, but never so much as at NC State.  If you are a veteran of NC State,I hope you feel the same way that I do. If you are anticipating rather than remembering NC State, I hope you’ll walk many pleasant miles across our campus and live for yourself some of the experiences I’ve related.  And if you are just a lover of universities, I hope my journey resembles your own.

In any case, keep walking and keep learning.  Otherwise, like in Groundhog Day, you might just wake up tomorrow back in today.  

August 3 — Arbor Day in Niger

August 3 is a special day in the West African nation of Niger.  It is Independence Day, when, in 1960, the country changed from being a French colony to a fully independent nation.  But it is also Arbor Day, the day of the year on which every Niger citizen is expected to plant a tree—to fight desertification.

The simultaneous celebration of independence and tree planting is no accident.  Niger is one of the poorest countries on earth, partly because of the invasion of desert into former crop and forestland.  Droughts have driven much desertification, but so have the practices of rural people.  Needing firewood, they often cut shrubs, trees and sprouts from stumps.  With each passing year, forests were farther away and desert was coming closer.  So, in 1975, the Niger government assigned Arbor Day—a day of national tree-planting—to the same day as their independence.  Trees, they reasoned, were an essential part of their future.  As the mayor of one community said, “We will not let the wind blow us away.”

The results have been spectacular, partly due to the work of Tony Rinaudo, an Australian agriculturist working for the non-profit group World Vision.  Rinaudo was working in Niger in 1983, depressed by the worsening conditions and the lack of progress to improve food supply.  As he looked across a mostly barren field, he detected an occasional sprout.  “In every direction there were no trees.  But then these shrubs caught my eye, and I suddenly realized that this wasn’t a shrub but a tree trying to regrow.”  He calls this the “underground forest,” stumps with living roots that are able to re-sprout and grow.  He and his colleagues created a program called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) that taught and encouraged farmers to protect these sprouts as future trees.  Since then, more than 200 million trees have returned on more than 12 million acres.

Aerial photographs from 1975 to today show an enormous expansion in the numbers and density of trees growing in Niger.  Chris Reij, from the World Resources Institute, who has worked in the region for decades, called this “probably the largest positive environmental transformation in the Sahel and perhaps in all of Africa.”  According to the FMNR website, along with the increase in trees and tree cover have come many benefits—ground-water levels are rising in wells; soil erosion is down and quality is up; more firewood is available, locally and sustainably; crop yields of grain are up by 500,000 tons; an acre of farm land produces $25 more income per year; and 2.5 million people are living a higher quality of life.




AnydayGuide.  Arbor Day in Niger.  Available at:  Accessed August 3, 2017.


DW Akademie.  2010.  Niger:  Fighting the battle against desertification.  Available at:  Accessed August 3, 2017.


FMNR.  The Spread of FMNR in Niger.  World Vision Australia, Food Security & Climate Change team.  Available at:  Accessed August 3, 2017.


Polgren, Lydia.  2007.  In Niger, Trees and Crops Turn Back the Desert.  New York Times, February 11, 2007.  Available at:  Access August 3, 2017.


World Vision.  The Aussie who helped transform African desert into 200 million trees.  Available at:  Accessed August 3, 2017.