Researching ‘For the Birds’: Biologist John Mehner Dies at 84

April 18, 2006

PICTURE DESCRIPTIONHe is there, smiling in black and white beneath dark-rimmed spectacles. In more than one image he cups a small, winged friend while he talks to an audience or a student. In another, he is holding an owl specimen prepped for testing. Here he is again, this time helping a student piece together a tiny skeleton.

Mary Baldwin Professor Emeritus of Biology John F. Mehner passed away April 13 at age 84, but his passion for biology — specifically ornithology — is chronicled in photographs and remembered by all those who learned in his classroom, heard or read to his research, or joined him on a bird walk. A memorial service was held May 26 in Francis Auditorium on the Mary Baldwin campus. At Mehner’s request, there will be no funeral.

PICTURE DESCRIPTIONMehner joined the Mary Baldwin faculty in 1963, after a short tenure at Edinboro State College in Pennsylvania. A pioneer in environmental science and animal behavior, his name was already nationally associated with ecological studies of birds as a result of his research included in Rachael Carson’s landmark 1963 national bestseller about ecological degradation, Silent Spring. Mehner was one of the first ecologists in the country to study the effects of pesticides on bird populations — his work at that time was for his doctoral thesis at Michigan State University and focused on how DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) affected American Robins.

In Staunton, Mehner quickly became involved in the local community. Just three years after he started teaching at Mary Baldwin University, he founded the Augusta Bird Club to support the study of birds native to this region of the Shenandoah Valley and beyond. He served as president of the organization for several years, which this year celebrated its 40th anniversary. He was also a member of the board of directors of The Virginia Society of Ornithology and the Virginia Association for Biology Education, among other conservation organizations. As a visiting professor of zoology at University of Minnesota in 1967–68, Mehner received at least two National Science Foundation grants to fund research on the behavior patterns and ecology of the Evening Grosbeak and another grant to study the House Finch in Virginia.

PICTURE DESCRIPTIONAt Mary Baldwin, Mehner was affectionately known as the man who led bird walks, and he was often called upon, even after his retirement in 1986, to give guided walks for alumnae/i and community events. He accepted the invitations with zeal, always yearning to be with the birds. One of his most requested and beloved presentations was “Why Birds Do What They Do,” which he gave in class, at elderhostels, Reunions, and at a conference of the Association for Biology Laboratory Education in Las Vegas.

“He was very animated, and his enthusiasm on finding the right bird in its natural habitat was infectious,” said Crista Cabe, Mary Baldwin’s associate vice president for Communication, Marketing, and Public Affairs. Cabe led many bird walks with Mehner, and she recalled how he good-naturedly tricked students into misidentifying bird skins and how he required that they learn bird calls and use them in the field.

After teaching for several years in the science department’s cramped facilities, which were then at the corner of Frederick and New Streets, Mehner became instrumental in lobbying for a new science building. He was made chairman of the faculty planning committee for the construction of Pearce Science Center, which opened in 1970. He was largely involved in writing the grant proposal that secured funding for the building — traveling to several other institutions to glean ideas for the most modern and effective science facility for the college.

In the mid-1980s Mehner’s former students established an award for a senior biology student in his honor. In a letter to alumnae/i and former students to ask for contributions to the scholarship fund, Letia McDaniel Drewry ’78, Hollon Meaders Otte ’75 and Professor Emerita of Biology Bonnie Hohn characterized Mehner as a man “whose great patience and dedication led so many of us to realize that we were really biologists at heart.” They reminisced about “6 a.m. bird-watching at Mahler Farm ? a lost pair of binoculars,” and “fruit flies swarming through Pearce Science Center.”

PICTURE DESCRIPTIONHohn met Mehner at Minnesota Biological Station while she was pursuing her master’s degree. He convinced her to teach with him at Mary Baldwin, and she accepted a position in the biology department in 1966, when he served as chair of the department. “Other than my family, he was the most influential person in my life, and I’m sure many students would say the same,” Hohn said.
Visit our remembrances site to read other’s memories about Dr. Mehner.