Eastern Mennonite University

Summer 2008

Clair Mellinger's Lesson: Take Students Outdoors

Clair Mellinger of EMU
Clair Mellinger

If biology professor emeritus Clair Mellinger ’64 had his 37-year career at EMU to do over again, he would do this differently: “I would take everyone on more field trips.”

When Mellinger was an undergraduate, professor D. Ralph Hostetter "used to make us get up at dawn on Saturdays to birdwatch. He wanted us to have an uninterrupted stretch of time for his morning lab, and Saturday worked best,” says Mellinger, who retired from teaching in the summer of 2007.

Mellinger says Hostetter's trips left him with cherished memories. "In geology, I recall especially the Canaan Valley (W.Va.) field trip and the overnight trip to Jones Wharf in Maryland. We took many shorter trips to local habitats in ecology and ornithology."

As a professor, Mellinger's own ornithology field trips were also once a week - on Tuesday or Thursday, but rarely earlier than 8 a.m. Yet “the earlier you start, the more birds you see,” he says. Former students tell him such outings are what they remember best.

Mellinger was a protégé of Hostetter, from whom he took one of EMU’s first ecology courses in the early 1960s. Professors Daniel Sutor and Hostetter used Mellinger as a lab instructor in 1965, the year after he graduated with a bachelor of science degree. After that, Mellinger went off to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to pursue a doctoral degree in plant ecology.

While wrapping up his doctorate, Mellinger was asked to return to EMU as an assistant professor. It was 1970 and Hostetter was winding down his teaching career, shifting attention to his natural history museum. Mellinger took over the ornithology, botany, and ecology courses and introduced an environmental biology course.

“Most of the pre-med and other biology majors wound up taking at least one of my courses. I like to think this helped them understand that there was interesting God-created life outside of the human race,” Mellinger says.

Mellinger doesn’t mind being known as “the birdman,” given that he spends much of his free time banding and studying Northern Saw-whet Owls in northwest Virginia. "But I would consider myself to be an ecologist or a naturalist, even though this implies more of an understanding of plants, animals, soils, weather, climate and so forth than I have. However, I am still learning. We all need to learn more to enable us to sustain the quality of life we have in this biosphere.”

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