My time at University of Michigan’s biological station near Pellston, MI exposed me up close to the culture of academia. Billed as the opportunity for undergraduates to get to know professors one to one in a rustic setting, I found them to be often arrogant, disdainful of undergraduates and eager to turn graduate students into uncredited slaves. An important exception to this was Warren “Herb” Wagner, a name which brings thousands of his former UMich students around the world to a moment of gentle remembrance. Dr. Wagner taught the popular Woody Plants course and did what all great teachers did, get people excited. He died at 80, January 8, 2000 after only a week of absence from his research laboratory.
But this is not about Herb Wagner, it’s about his Maine mycologist equivalent, Sam Ristich. Since becoming involved with mushrooming in Maine and joining the Maine Mycological Association, I have heard quite a bit about Sam and how he single handedly formed the club and exported his considerable enthusiasm about fungi for many years. Always available for one-on-one and delightfully oblivious to fashion or other social conventions, he stayed active into his 90s, devoting his last 2-1/2 decades to educating Mainers about nature.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1915 to Serbian immigrants, Sam served as a navigator for the US Army Air Force’s Air Transport Command in WWII, starting his working life risking it to deliver planes to dangerous places like Greenland, Burma and the Sahara desert. A marker-filled map of the world chronicles his many achievements at www.samristich.com. After the war he earned his PhD in entomology at Cornell (1950). During 15 years of teaching at the New York Botanical Gardens he founded the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association (COMA) and the New Jersey Mycological Association. He and wife Ruth worked for civil rights and were active from 1955 to 1975 with the NAACP and the Unitarian Social Action Committee.
In the early 1980s Ruth inherited her family’s farm in North Yarmouth, Maine and so they came to our neck of the woods. Many of the current members of MMA remember Sam, his bubbly enthusiasm and trademark expressions; his whoops of excitement and “wonderment” of the natural world.
Sam died during dinner on February 11, 2008 at the age of 92. I was not lucky enough to have known Sam Ristich, but I can tell he was an important figure in Maine history. You can’t get very far into fungi without encountering his name or photographs. There are annual forays named after him and a memorial nature trail in North Yarmouth. He even discovered a new mushroom in 1983, Amanita ristichii. His service for the Northern New England Poison Control Center in identifying mushrooms probably saved many lives. But to me his greatest mark was as a teacher. Like Herb Wagner and Richard Feynman, his legacy will continue forever in the lives of those he inspired. In his own words from http://www.samristich.com/about.html
I loved it! [Teaching] I had the good fortune of being at the right place at the right time and having the motivation to really tap the potential. Somebody said that the greatest of talents is to discover it and develop it in others. And there’re some people who are motivators and know where to find it and how to mine it.
His daughter is working on a film about her father’s life. See a clip below:
Sam Ristich resources on the web used in this article:
- “Sam’s Corner”, http://www.mushroomthejournal.com/mma/SCCentral.html
- (obituary) http://nemfdata.org/samristich.htm