I sat at my desk arguing with myself about what to write for this column. I usually gather information and think about issues long before I start writing. I pull the text together just a day or two before it’s published. Last Thursday I was muddling through vague ideas about the beauty of our valley and/or people this valley has produced when I received an email that my oldest and best friend, Don Dwyer, had died.
Older folks in Logan probably remember him as one of the people who brought change to our valley in the 1970s and 1980s. He was head of the USU range management department for 14 years. His ideas about teaching, land management, living a productive life and having fun were innovative and unique.
He had a special talent for identifying youngsters who had lost their way and helping them find where they fit. He turned many floundering students from bored drifters to enthusiastic workers for health of the land that supports us. Most every spring graduation, parents would thank professor Dwyer for mentoring he had given their son or daughter.
His people-first management style brought landholders, federal agency managers and scientists together. As people with different goals in life got to know him, he was able to establish cooperative research projects on public and private land throughout the state. Not only did I lose a friend with Don’s passing, but the land we use lost a champion. A memorial service was held in Las Cruces, New Mexico, this morning (July 17, 2019).
Don and I met 62 years ago at an annual Society for Range Management meeting in Montana. Each of us was working toward our masters degree — he at Fort Hays State and I at Texas A&M. We were both tee-totalers. Alcohol did not touch our lips. The night of the banquet, a commercial firm hosted a happy hour — beer and mixed drinks for everyone. Don and I sat alone while most everyone else guzzled free drinks.
Don’s major professor, a distinguished ecologist and devoted church goer, noticed us sitting alone. He came over and told us to get in there and interact with the leaders in our profession. We did not have to drink, but if we wanted to be effective in our profession, we had to understand and get along with people different from ourselves. We should not judge people by stupid things they do to themselves but how they treat other people and the land that supports them.
The next fall Don and his new bride, Marie, came to Texas A&M. The next few years both he and I earned our Ph.D. degrees there. Jenny introduced the newlyweds to okra, Tex-Mex food and other Texas stuff. They convinced us that Yankees were good people. The four of us became lifelong friends. On graduation we each found jobs teaching — he at Northern Arizona and I at USU. Eventually we each became heads of academic departments — he at New Mexico State, I at Texas Tech. During those years our young families were together several times every year to share experiences and introduce new children.
Jenny and I returned to Cache Valley in 1970. A year later Don became head of the range management department at USU. Under his leadership, the department became known as the best in the United States. His goal was not building the best department in his profession but helping people find their strengths. His door was always open. He listened to frustrated faculty members and spent time with students most people thought were lost causes. He was good at teaching ecology and range management, but his main strength was teaching youngsters they could make a difference.
Now, six decades after Don and I were told by that wise old teacher to go mix with people getting drunk on free booze, we who have seen a thing or two need to rethink the schooling Americans require for our children. What does education really mean when most everyone between the ages of 5 and 75 carries a gismo called a phone. If anyone wants to know something — anything — they simply ask the phone and a woman’s voice gives them an answer. Generally, that answer is accepted as fact if it does not contradict what the phone owner already believes. There is no quick, easy way to see if the cellphone user has been told truth or lies.
In many states, Utah included, legislators have emphasized STEM curricula based on the idea of “educating” students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. That is not education. It is training that helps prepare workers with skills to find employment and hold a job. Education helps people find a way to understand what is true and what is false. The high suicide rate among young people should make us re-think education’s role.
Don often said that listening to what a student said was the most important step in education. Education was equipping youngsters, and we old folks as well, with the ability to separate truth from fake truths. It requires a life-long process of learning. The best way to start is by doing our best. Don said, “By opening the bottle of your best wine first, you will always be drinking your best wine.”