Remembering Dr. William J. Beecher – Part 2

Beecher working on maniken for exhibit low res
Joan Bledig, Collections Volunteer
July 27, 2015

Dr. William Beecher died on this day in 2002. In addition to being a Chicago native and ornithologist, Dr. Beecher held the position of Chicago Academy of Sciences director for 24 years! His legacy continues to live on at the Museum. The Beecher Lab, located in the Wilderness Walk, is named after him, and some of the students who studied under him as teenagers have returned to the Museum as volunteers! In this post, Collections volunteer Joan Bledig remembers her time with Dr. Beecher.

Dr. William J. Beecher was a dominant force in my life in the late 1950s-early 1960s. In an era when young women interested in science were considered weird, Dr. Beecher was there championing everyone’s right to study science and nature, girl or boy. He was my mentor in things scientific. And, unlike most adults of that era, he treated me and the other members of what he named his Junior Academy as equals, never talking down to us, never disregarding our questions or comments.

MF 1252 Beecher with scope2

Image from the motion film collection of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, William Beecher film collection.

I was interested in anthropology at the time I discovered the Academy, but Dr. Beecher widened my horizons to include an appreciation of many other natural sciences, including Geology. Because of my participation in the fossil hunting trips Dr. Beecher arranged to the Mazon Creek area about 70 miles south of Chicago, I developed a love of this fossil assemblage which I never lost, and resulted in my returning to volunteer once again 45 years later.

Dr. Beecher had developed a program at the Academy to assist high school students with their science fair projects. I decided to participate, wanting to do something concerning human evolution. Beecher said that was out of field for the museum, since the projects would be incorporated into future exhibits once the science fair competitions were over. He said, “You enjoyed participating in those fossil hunting field trips to Coal City and Braidwood. Why don’t you do something on the Mazon fossils?” He was very convincing, so I agreed to do a science fair project on how the Mazon area had appeared when it was a living forest of tree ferns and giant insects 306 million years ago. And what an experience that became!

Joan Bledig Science Fair 1961 project turned into coal forest at CAS scaled

The entire museum preparation staff, it seemed, helped me create a life-size tree trunk, some examples of ground plants, and the piece de résistance, Meganeura, a dragonfly with a two-foot wingspan. Dr. Beecher made arrangements with a noted expert at the Field Museum, George Langford, Sr., to assist with the research portion. When the science fair was over, parts of the project were eventually incorporated into a life-size, walkthrough coal forest in the back of the lobby of the building at 2001 N. Clark Street.

Dr. Beecher had a humorous side as well. Once he told us about one of his experiences while stationed on a remote Pacific island when he served in World War II. It was hotter than Hades; the native population didn’t speak English; and it was doubtful that they had much, if any, previous contact with modern civilization. He managed to get it across to one of the natives that he was thirsty. Suddenly, an islander appeared, offering him a bottle of Coca Cola! The islanders may not have had 20th century civilization, but they sure had Coca Cola. The punch line? Beecher said some future archaeologist would be beating his head against a wall wondering what the culture of “Coca Cola” was since its bottles were found everywhere on Earth.

With great regret I tendered my resignation from the Junior Academy when I finished high school in 1964. My father had recently passed away and I needed to find a full-time job in order to earn money to pay for college. It was a sad day, parting from the Academy and Dr. Beecher. However, I never left behind the marvelous influence he had on me. A great friend of Dr. Beecher, June Hanna, stated he said he chose not to marry because he felt he could be either a great ornithologist or a great father, but never both. Maybe he didn’t think he could be both, but I believe he did a great job being both to all the boys and girls he influenced during his tenure as Director of The Chicago Academy of Sciences.

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