Dempsey first ‘distinguished emeritus’
On the morning of May 21, a Wednesday, Wes Dempsey walked arm in arm with his wife, Phyllis, into the courtyard of Chico State’s Physical Sciences building.
His presence was magnetic. The 50 or so College of Natural Sciences professors and faculty who had been waiting for the Dempseys’ arrival turned away from their conversations about retirement and summer vacations to direct their attention toward the couple.
Pairs of people took turns greeting and congratulating Dempsey as conversation turned to his achievements, his personality and his deserving of the college’s inaugural Distinguished Emeritus Award.
“The College of Natural Sciences wanted to develop a way to recognize retired faculty,” said Leslie Schibsted, the college’s director of advancement. “We recognize that when people retire they still continue to serve the college and give back to the community.”
The award is the first of its kind on campus—Schibsted said the college is “piloting” the program for the university.
A biology professor from 1954 until 1992, Dempsey stayed connected to the university and community through his work on the campus Arboretum Committee. He’s led more than 1,000 nature tours of the campus and Bidwell Park. As a member of and field-trip coordinator for the California Native Plant Society, he coordinates several group hikes each year in Upper Bidwell Park featuring educational information about local plant life and how the Native Americans used various food and plant resources.
Since retiring he’s held the title of professor emeritus.
In his introduction of Dempsey, University President Paul Zingg referenced a Chico News & Review article that named Dempsey a “local hero” in 2004. Zingg marveled at Dempsey’s last quotation, which summarized best why he truly “set the bar” for the college’s inaugural Distinguished Emeritus Award.
“I’m a teacher,” Dempsey said.
While Dempsey’s friends and colleagues mingled in the courtyard, he stepped aside for an interview.
During a stroll through campus along the creek, Dempsey’s natural ability to educate shone forth.
Barely three steps into our stroll, the 82-year-old motioned he wanted to stop. He spotted Mahonia aquifolium, commonly known as the Oregon grape. Indians crushed and dried the roots of this plant to use the powder as an eye ointment when treating infection, he explained.
A few more steps and he gazed up a valley oak tree. Its acorns provided half the caloric intake for the Indians who settled in the North Valley, he said.
Along the south side of Big Chico Creek, Gen. John Bidwell planted valley oaks. Along the north side he planted chestnut trees.
“Whenever one of these died, I would come out and count the rings,” Dempsey said, patting a chestnut near the creek outside Holt Hall. “They all date back to 1870, so this is a 138-year-old tree.”
In 1954, Dempsey was hired as the second professor in the Agriculture Department. He later moved to the Department of Biological Sciences.
In his 38 years at the university, Dempsey taught 33 different courses, which is more than “any one human could possibly know,” he said, as we returned to the Physical Sciences Building. “I remember lecturing while I was flipping the page in the textbook to read the next page so I would know what to say next.”
He came to Chico State after receiving a Ph.D. in plant genetics from UC Davis. He grew up on the East Coast, where his father was a professor of horticulture at the University of Massachusetts.
“We weren’t in Amherst,” Dempsey said. “I grew up surrounded by plants on a field station where I’d play in the greenhouses.”
He taught at Eagle Lake Field Station in Lassen County from 1979 to 1991, in addition to the regular courses and labs he taught in the biological sciences. Highlights of his career include an NSF Science Faculty Fellowship in Genetics and visiting professorships at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, from 1980 to 1981 and at the University of Western Australia in Perth in 1987.
Dempsey and his wife have raised four sons. Dave is a professor teaching meteorology at San Francisco State. Tom has retired from Microsoft, while Paul continues to work for the corporation as a software engineer. The Dempseys’ youngest son, Jim, works as a habitat restoration scientist for California State Parks.
The man has been an inspiration to thousands of students as well as to his many colleagues, said Ailsie McEnteggart, chair of Biological Sciences.
“Wes’ continuing involvement in many conservation projects in the community as well as in campus life through his popular arboretum tours and plantings of native species is an amazing commitment,” she said. “I can think of no one more deserving of this honor and am delighted at this recognition of his life’s work.”