ROBERT PATRICK RUSSELL, JR.
November 2, 1945 – June 30, 2019
On the evening of June 30, Bob Russell was in his car a block or so from his house. His heart stopped, the car coasted to the curb, paramedics were called. They could not revive him...
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Bob grew up in Chicago and vicinity, mostly in the suburb of Wilmette, where he started birding. He partly credited this interest to “an ancient third grade nun teacher that had an incredible library of bird books,” which he could read after homework was done. (At least one of these books talked about Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.) Bob continued: “So back when I was in sixth grade, my mother, sensing that I was suffering from misidentifying a stunned Brown Creeper on the sidewalk in Chicago as a runt Whimbrel, called the Evanston Public Library and asked if there was some organization that could help a struggling birder,” and his life-long association with the Evanston Bird Club began. “I found myself on the tip of Wilmette pier almost daily, watching movements of waterfowl while my fellow eighth grade students collided away their afternoons and brains playing football.”
I first met him in high school while struggling with a biology class project on birds. As I remember: “I stood at the end of my driveway and looked down the alley. As arranged by my parents, he was coming this way on his bike from four houses down to help me out. We had never actually met, but I'd seen him around since his parents and mine were friends. Though they all called him Rob, he introduced himself as Bob, it was April 29, 1962, and we were on our way to Gillson Park.” Had we not met 58 years ago, it’s unlikely I’d ever take up birding.
He graduated (with a degree in English) from Saint John’s University in 1967 – as I did a year later. During those college years was a 1965 trip to the Black Hills in something called a Hillman Minx (when it had trouble starting, a tap on the starter with a geology hammer got us underway), and a 1966 birding road trip to Big Bend and down the Rio Grande to the Texas coast and back (in only nine days). In order to graduate, Bob completed
The Birds of Stearns County for one of his biology courses – typed, double- spaced, unbound, and unpublished. For years, he would talk about sneaking photocopies of the book onto library shelves.
After college, he met Joel Greenberg on an Evanston Bird Club field trip in September 1967. (Joel became another lifelong friend who went on decades later to write a book on Passenger Pigeons: published, well-reviewed, and even in libraries. And Joel well recalls that his “first birding trip west was to California in 1969 with Kim Eckert and Bob in Bob’s Volkswagen Beetle. I inhabited the backseat for the duration.”)
I still have the letter from Bob about that field trip (one of several curious and unique letters of his I’ve saved), in which he also meets a 22-year-old named Linda. It’s actually written as a play entitled “A Drama in Many Acts,” and in one scene it reads: “Russell sees his opportunity and plays it well. It is obvious that Russell will go birding much more this fall.” As Bob suggests Joel go one way to look for his sought-after Sharp-shinned Hawk (he saw none), he and Linda are finally alone and head the other way (and actually see a Sharp-shinned). “Joel missed that final hurdle that would allow him to enter the realm of Roger Tory Peterson and the American Way.”
(Bob didn’t see Linda much after that. As a life-long bachelor, he always claimed that if he sensed a woman was getting too serious about him, he’d suddenly change the subject and say, “You know, I always wanted to live in Delaware.” If she agreed, pretending she also wanted to live in a place you seldom think about, then that would end the relationship.)
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Not much was added to Bob’s resume in the first five years following graduation (in that daunting era of the draft and Vietnam), but those idiosyncratic letters kept coming. One included random thoughts about graduation which began: “It is a strange feeling like eating your first anchovy pizza.” Another says, “We are by nature wanderers,” and then wanders and rambles on at length from there. Still another was a parody of a men’s magazine entitled “True Birder.” Many other passages from these letters struck me, far too many to include here, but even out of context a few of them show what a memorable character he was...
I feel very bawdy but not in a sensual way but I feel like swallowing the lake or eating a cabbage.
Love is the only answer or mass extermination.
I am looking forward to a typical Russell-Eckert trip. Anyhow don’t plan anything until about an hour before we leave so we just might see something. Winding roads and strip mines.
Can one possibly get out of the army with a sore toe. (He did get out – but with flat feet instead.)
To the worst bird publication of the year: “Bird Finding in Nova Scotia,” written in one night, and selling for the appalling sum of $1.00. To the sucker of the year: Bob Russell, who bought the Nova Scotia book. (Among the “True Birder” awards.)
Oh well, think about things. (A simple phrase from a November 1968 letter that has haunted me ever since.)
In 1973, Bob somehow became Warden of Cape Clear Bird Observatory in Ireland and had something solid for his resume. Here, too, were many memorable experiences, including a boat trip with 30-foot waves: “It was really a hell of a place to end it all – but not as good as a car on a spring road in Stearns County. So I play my harmonica but couldn’t remember the Titanic’s last song so Dixie sufficed.”
His experience at Cape Clear also inspired these random thoughts from his letters:
The people here are our kind of people – hopelessly lazy and really enjoying life.
Prairies are the neatest and one really had to scrape for them in British Isles but old T. Hardy’s heath did quite well.
May go up to Duluth. Nothing changes. Nothing. Mark Twain wanted to make love to a river. I want an ocean.
We’re all going birding together, Joel Greenberg, and et al. Good old al.
Give him another 2 points for hanging in their. Nice spelling, ed. (Al and Ed must have been related.)
My next book: “The Shamrock Withered Yellow,” an expose of Ireland’s conservation. Sometime.
I’ll go down to the sea again, down to the smelting hordes, with my binos strong and my Peterson I’ll hear the siren song, and lie on a beach, always out of reach but worth the searching for.
* * *
Bob went on to earn a Master’s Degree in 1975 at the University of Arizona in Physical Geography – after a close call as he inexplicably nearly enrolled at Thunderbird College in Phoenix to study international business! More letters from that year:
It did my ego good to be accepted there – it did more good to leave the place. Thunderbird College, hell. They called it Camp T-Bird.
Almost done with book. (No matter its title or subject – it always seemed he was almost done with one book or another.)
Keep the faith and get Minnesota to quit advertising those blue lakes. A little sand is good for a fellow. (He was living in Arizona desert country.)
Excuse the large writing but one can of Buckhorn Beer can do strange things.
The idiotic ABA has all these tenderfeet running around with tape recordings of everything from trogons to Guy Emerson’s last words.
Mike Gruidl (a friend from St. John’s) called me up – wants me to be a candy salesman in South Dakota. Destroy your little kiddies’ teeth before they can pronounce French. Love this world – it is still absurd. (I was teaching French and English in Sioux Falls at the time.)
After his Master’s, brief positions with Gulf Islands National Seashore and Everglades National Park followed. Shortly thereafter, a birding trip to Mexico brought these musings in 1978 (the Watab is a lake at St. John’s): “I mean what more is there to say when you’re walking along the road in Vera Cruz hills and the landscape looks like the country west of the Watab, and there in the top of a dead tree is a toucan, just sitting there. All I want is a tall ship and a sail to sail her by, out to the prairies again where a wind is as a wind should be. Onward we’ll go and then we’ll be home. Ah for a bratwurst and Cold Spring, for a blond and Holstein. Ah ah ah.”
A nine-year position in Washington, D.C. with the Department of Defense Mapping Agency, of all things, began in 1980. To get the kind of position he was looking for, he gave me some odd advice if I was interviewed as a reference: “Give me a Polish connection – try doing it with a straight face. It is very necessary that you do this lest I get a top secret clearance and have to work on missile systems. If they don’t give me clearance then I’ll go to the hydro department and make maps for sailboats, more my speed. A good Polish connection will keep them running around for some time.”
He was still birding, of course: “Too expensive to pursue state lists except in Delaware where I haven’t been yet.” (You know, I always wanted to live in Delaware.) And if things with the military didn’t work out, he had a name picked out for his birding tour company: “I’ll be ready to open up Galloping Gallinule tours.”
After leaving D.C., Bob did some post-graduate work as a restoration ecologist in 1990-92 at the University of Wisconsin, and this included some work with the state DNR for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. (Don’t ask.) He spent the next six years, 1992-98, as a wildlife biologist on the infamous Army Corps of Engineers levees in New Orleans (this was pre-Hurricane Katrina), and then settled into a career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – first as a biologist for two years in New Jersey (where he worked to protect the renowned Hackensack-Meadowlands wetlands), and finally in Minneapolis from 2001 until his retirement in 2015.
His other projects and interests included: forming what he called his “international" company which produced annotated wildlife-finding maps of Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, and Yellowstone national parks ("I once sold one to a woman from Nova Scotia, hence international!”); member of the Saint John’s Outdoor University Advisory Council, 2001-14, providing stewardship of the 2,944-acre campus Arboretum; one of the most active contributors to the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas; member of the MOU Records Committee, 2014-19; and, as Phil Chu at St. John’s put it, “he was still the dean of our small group of Stearns County birdwatchers.”
Many also knew Bob as an optimistic and tireless seeker of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and spent many days over the years in this pursuit, perhaps first inspired long ago by his third-grade teacher and her library of bird books. (I wonder if Ivory-billeds were still extant when he was in third grade. And did he ever go back and try to sneak The Birds of Stearns County into her library?)
* * *
Oh well, think about things.
In remembering him after he died, many expressed his dedication to conservation, the research and projects he was involved with, his passion for birds, and more. Even though we were close friends for more than 50 years, I have to admit I didn’t know all the details about those aspects of his life. But I do know, if you only focused on them, you’re missing the point of who Bob Russell truly was...
As we mused about our futures after college, he suggested a life of crime (he thought we were clever enough to be good at it). We’d be dressed up for church on Sunday and sneak out to go birding instead: he called it "gentleman birding." He once bought a used mail truck with only one seat on the right for the driver and a sawed-off stool for a passenger. We’d circle a town endlessly looking for a place to eat dinner; he was always looking for “the perfect hangout,” and when we found it he’d tip the waitress with one-dollar coins and two-dollar bills. He could carry on a conversation with anyone about anything, making stuff up if he didn’t know something (he’d be undefeated at the game of Trivial Pursuit if there were no rules). While under observation at the hospital, he joked in a text to a friend: "Emergency transplant needed. My choice - mule or llama heart. Pretty nurses, soccer match, interesting doc, long nap. Not the worst way to spend a Sunday." That text’s time stamp was 5:42 p.m., June 30, 2019.
It was Bob who had kept my initial interest in birding alive back in the '60s and introduced me to the subtle wonders along the back roads of Stearns County when I first came to Minnesota in 1964. (I suppose anything of wonder in that county had to be subtle.) I remember especially two trips with him (and with the late Ed Hibbard – biology professor and another unique character). One, an aimless wandering north of St. Cloud in search of prairie-chickens; I suspect Bob and Ed already knew the birds were long gone from there, but no matter – we went anyway. The other, my first experience with the prairie: birding into the Dakotas in Ed's old Studebaker with a 1950 road map as our only guide.
There would be many more travels of this nature with Bob. He always had a better memory than I for everything we did, everywhere we went, and now he's no longer around to remind me of all that I'll eventually forget, that I already have forgotten. But at least I can remember how I learned from him that there can be more important things than birds on a bird trip: a reason to wander and explore, to appreciate the unplanned more than the predictable, to not take too much too seriously. To even enjoy a birding trip with no birds, and not necessarily mind getting stuck or lost miles from nowhere, just as we used to in Stearns County.
I came to realize that he’d always believe that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers (and Eskimo Curlews, for that matter) still existed. That we'll never know the source of that proverbial double-knock sound we once heard in Louisiana. And that maybe – just maybe – we actually heard a Bachman's Warbler sing as we stood on a bridge high over that Arkansas swamp some 50 years ago.
At St. John’s, besides The Birds of Stearns County, Bob also wrote the poem “Ivanhoe” for an English class. It’s actually pretty bad. But it’s about an independent free spirit who – to use a phrase from a 1967 letter – missed that final hurdle that would allow him to enter the realm of Roger Tory Peterson and the American Way. It ends with this: The call went out to stop this man / To save the U.S.A. / But no one’s seen a trace of him / Perhaps he’s on his way.
Bob is survived by his sisters, Virginia Russell and Stephanie Russell, his partner Diane Schroepfer, and his cats Zora and Snowy. He also left behind an endless array of bird books, journals, and checklists – plus duck decoys and model trains – that spilled well beyond the shelves at his house and onto the floor. (He always claimed he had a system: “Top priority on the floor.”)
* * *
...They could not revive him. For a long time I never knew where he was headed on June 30 – turns out he was just on his way home after a simple dinner at some forgettable restaurant.
But I still like to think it was something more than that. Possibly a road trip to Delaware...or off again to tilt at ivory-colored windmills in some Southern swamp...perhaps on his way somewhere with Ivanhoe. That’s the way it should have been, the way he’d always been. You were never quite sure where he – his mind and his spirit – was headed.
–Kim Eckert, 5 February 2020
Road trip from Illinois to California: Bob Russell (right) with Joel Greenberg,
August 1969 (photo by KRE)