Dick Vockeroth passed away today. Dick was a dipterist at the Canadian National Collection in Ottawa, and was also a great mentor and colleague to me and my students. He’d been in poor health the past few years, but he continued to cast a long shadow in the Diptera Unit at CNC.
I was at an Entomological Society of America conference this week reminiscing with a few current and recent students about my first ESA meeting in 1987, the meeting where I first met Dick. We had driven down to Boston from Guelph for the meeting and we ran into Dick, who was on the sidewalk outside our hotel and just then starting to look for a place to stay. I would quickly learn that this was fairly typical. It was my first year as a PhD student, and my first year studying flies. I spent a lot of time at that meeting talking to Dick (well, listening, mostly) and met some of the other greats of North American Dipterology during those few days. I learned a lot about flies that week in Boston.
I spent some more time with Dick again the next summer, at the International Congress of Entomology in Vancouver. It was the first day of the meeting and a few of us headed off through the forest on the University of BC campus to go collecting on Wreck Beach down along the shore. I spent most of the day watching Dick collect, learning even more about cryptic little flies in cryptic little places, absorbing tips and advice as fast as he could dispense them. And I discovered how difficult it is to aspirate little flightless dance flies from beach sand. It was a brilliant and memorable day.
A few years later, when I got my job at McGill and started training my own cohort of new students, Dick, retired by then, was still a fantastic mentor to my students and to me. He would phone me out of the blue when he’d had a particularly productive day collecting rare little chloropids from the insides of bus shelters, just in case I was interested (I always was). And when I brought students to the CNC he’d drop everything (except whatever snack or lukewarm cup of coffee he happened to be eating or drinking) to guide Stéphanie through the Diptera cabinets, helping her with acalyptrate identifications, or to dash off handwritten keys to species of syrphid flies for Fred, or alert Jade or Scott to some strange and unknown muscid or dolichopodid. The conversations were always long, and frequently winding, but always filled with the encyclopedic knowledge that resided in Dick’s incredible memory. We still use some of those hand-written keys in the lab today.
I spent a few more days over the years collecting with Dick out in the field, and spent a lot of great times with him afterward at conferences and on visits to the CNC in Ottawa. He regularly showed me or sent me surprising specimens that he had collected from otherwise uninteresting places. And he saved extra copies of Anthony Trollope novels for me, to drop on my desk when I’d visit Ottawa. And he was directly responsible for some of the sketchiest, greasiest restaurant meals I’ve ever experienced. Dick had a gift for finding strange but cheap places to eat.
I think it’s a function of the way science works that we interact across the generations. History doesn’t just matter; it unites us. Academic grandfathers and great-grandfathers sit down with new students and tell them the stories of the field. Information moves up and down through history, at conversations across tables in bars and across the breakfast table in scary little restaurants. One of the reasons I immediately felt I belonged in entomology was that some of the legends of the field — Dick Vockeroth, Monty Wood, Curt Sabrosky, George Steyskal, Bill Wirth, and others — treated us new students as colleagues, not inferiors (this was not the case in some of my previous experiences as a M.Sc. student in parasitology!) We learned a lot from them all, and they were genuinely interested to hear about what we were doing. Over the years, we’ve lost some of those senior colleagues from the community, and we’ve all moved up through the generations. Some of those “new” grad students from my 1987 cohort now bring our own students to the same conferences. Some of our former grad students now have their own academic offspring, making us academic grandfathers, which is kind of a terrifying thought. Time rolls on, and there are still so many fantastic and intriguing and unanswered questions about the diversity of flies for all those generations gathered at the conference sessions, and around the tables at the bar after the talks end.
We’ll be busy for a while yet.
Dick, I gotta go.