Knox Alumni Remember Bill Geer

February 25, 2012

On two prior occasions, in 2000 and in 2009, Knox alumni submitted reminiscences of their experiences working in the "Fly Lab" with Bill Geer, Clara A. Abbott Professor Emeritus of Biology, who died February 24. Geer taught at Knox from 1963 to 2000.

Stephen McKechnie
Bill's passing has brought extreme sadness to my heart. I have lost my most respected colleague and friend -- a man who changed my research and teaching career, in immeasurable positive ways, over a 15 year period beginning in 1981.

Compelled by my discovery in the scientific literature of a unique and pioneering experimental approach of using genetics to understand metabolism, I spent a year of sabbatical leave from Monash University, Melbourne, working in Bill's laboratory. Important milestones in one's life are sometimes remembered by the detail of a trigger event. I will never forget the moment I arrived at Knox College after driving with my family from St. Louis airport and entering the science school by the back door adjacent to Bill's laboratory, to find and meet him for the first time at his favourite research bench sorting and scoring Drosophila flies. That evening my wife and two young boys were immediately welcomed by Bill and Judy into the Geer family home, and we were rapidly and actively integrated into the Galesburg community where we all spent the most memorable year of our lives.

Over and above Bill's international scientific contributions to understanding metabolism, inpirational to me was the way he consistently applied for and gained significant research funding from top, highly competitive bodies such as NIH and NSF. This was particularly impressive since it occurred in a college environment where high levels of research infrastructure are not normally available. All biochemical laboratories have a crushed ice machine. Bill and his students routinely fetched ice from across campus -- from the Knox cafeteria!

Bill displayed unique skill in his approach to teaching, and to research teaching in particular. Honours students were guided into relevant literature, followed by dicussion of ideas and experimental approaches, and they were then launched into their very own research projects. These efforts often culminated in the student having senior authorship on a paper published in an internationally recognised scientific journal. Bill aimed for the top, and he took his students with him. I returned to Australia in 1982 with a new attitude on how to engage and nurture my own students. My laboratory and teaching career blossomed as a consequence.

I recall Bill's academic generosity. After returning home, and for about a year following a brief telephone and email exchange with Bill when a few research ideas were ‘tossed around', I was surprised to find a draft manuscript arrive that reported a large data set from Bill and his students, and that included me as a co-author.

Our collaboration extended for about 10 years and involved many exchange visits across the Pacific. During this time our family friendship became stronger and stronger. My wife Shirley and I would be with you today if we were pre-committed to attend my nephew's wedding in Sydney tomorrow.

In recent years I have sadly missed being able to pick up the phone and share my work and family issues with you, Bill. Now we reflect on our happy times together only with Judy.

I need to finish by emphasising the enormous influence that Bill had on my life and career. Bill, you will continue in our hearts and minds forever.

Ann Kapoun, 1988
A big thank you to Dr. Geer who introduced me to research and helped pave the way towards my career path.

Tom Perille, 1976
Dr. Geer has been one of the most influential people in my life. He is an excellent teacher and mentor. Through his efforts I learned critical thinking skills and research methods. I use these skills every day in my medical practice. I directly attribute my interest and leadership in evidence based medical practice and quality improvement to Dr. Geer. Congratulations on your honorary degree and thank you for your tireless efforts on behalf of all Knox biology students and fly lab researchers in particular.

Sandra Kamiak, 1974
Dr. Billy Geer was an absolute inspiration in my life. He was a teacher of profound capability. He encouraged us to stretch to our highest potential and he empowered us with the faith and trust that we were quite capable individuals. It was an honor to have him as a professor and to have participated in the flylab research. I still cherish those memories at Knox. He was the the highest point of my Knox career. Please have him read this and know that I send my heartfelt thanks and congratulations to him and his family on receiving his award. Unfortunately I will not be at the graduation. Thank you so much. My medical career, while clinical, has always carried a search for the deepest Truth in seeking to help people heal.

Richard Dates, 1967
I can remember working in the fruit fly lab so vividly! Bill was very patient with me because I was sometimes a bit of a klutz. I also remember helping him lug the liquid scintillation counter up the stairs in the old science building and having dinner at Bill's house. Strangely, I also remember going into the attic storage room in that creaky old science building filled with stuffed birds, antique scientific equipment and bottled specimens--it was like something out of an old black and white science fiction film.

I have continued to be involved with science and education since I graduated and I've steered some high school students towards Knox and one is entering this fall. Since I graduated I have attended and worked at a number of schools, but Knox remains the finest school I have been associated with and Bill among the finest of its professors.

Paul Horel
Unfortunately I am not a former student of yours, but while "surfing" through the Knox website I came across the article about your retirement and stumbled on the fact that you are a native of Coin, Iowa. I too, am a native of Coin (actually its "suburb" Blanchard). My father was Harold Horel (deceased 1990) and mother Dorothy (deceased 1984). My grandfather was Art Horel and my other grandfather was Carl Clement who ran the drug store for many years.

I am sure if you lived in Coin, you probably spent some time looking at the comic books he carried and had a cherry coke or two at the fountain. My parents lived on a farm about five miles from Coin where I attended a rural school until going to Coin for 6th grade. In 1960 Coin joined CS [College Springs], Braddyville, Shambaugh and Blanchard to form South Page where I graduated in 1965. I enjoyed your retrospective on your athletic career at Coin. Of course the names and places were quite familiar to me. [Editor's note: Coin is southeast of Council Bluffs, Nebraska.]

The reason I was on the Knox website is that my oldest daughter will be enrolling there this fall. She is an accomplished musician (violin) and talented actress. She will be majoring in music but will be doing a lot in the theater department as well. We visited campus in November and loved the feel we got from Knox. The people were so friendly. It was important to us that she be somewhere where her parents felt comfortable and secure and where she could pursue both her love of music and the theater. Kira was adopted at age 5 from Korea and my Dad just loved her. He really got a kick out of her musical talents since he was such a good musician himself. Unfortunately my mother passed away several years before she came.

Anyway, just thought I'd say hello. Perhaps we'll run into each other when we come to Knox over the next four years to see Kira. Congratulations and best wishes in your retirement.

Sue Pax, 1975
On my third or fourth day in the Fly Lab I used Solution A for Solution B or Solution B for Solution A or something like that. It brought me down (not for all the little tiny lives lost for nothing, but because I had made a mistake). When I came back into the lab after recomposing myself, Dr. Geer had bought me a couple of roses - there they were amongst the glassware. Do they still make them like Dr. Geer? I hope so.

Joy Frestedt, Ph.D., 1980
The older I get, the more I come to realize that life is filled with precious few moments and persons who really shape and mold my future. Billy Geer was one of these persons and my time at Knox held many of those moments. Dr. Geer had the amazing ability to be available when I had questions and to ask tough questions when I didn't expect it. He had the mentoring ability to give out challenges that seemed more like fun than work.

I remember long hours in the electron microscopy room looking at the morphological impact of various male sterile mutations in fruit flies. I loved the work and the science and the art. Little did I realize that the publication several years after I graduated would have such an impact. My work in the fly lab and that singular publication fanned a flame for research that has sculpted my life's work.

To Billy Geer, I offer my gratitude and my time as I work to model this gifted mentoring to others. I count myself among the luckiest students to have worked with such a master as Bill Geer.

Marcus C. Chibucos, 1995
Bill Geer introduced me to the real science of biology, and his influence has stayed with me to this day as I work toward the completion of my Ph.D.

As an educator he has few peers, having mastered the ability to teach by intertwining scientific fact with his own personal experience and plenty of humor. I really looked forward to attending his molecular genetics lectures because I knew I was in for a limited-edition lecture every time. Being a T.A. under his guidance was a wonderful experience, too.

Professionally as well as personally, Dr. Geer is one of the best role models I have ever had the fortune of knowing. As I become an educator, I will try my best to honor role models like him by passing on what they taught me.

Anita Durairaj, 1997
I just wanted to say thank you to Dr. Geer for the opportunity to work in his research lab. Although I only worked with him for a short while, it was an invaluable experience. I will always remember how kind he was. I wish him all the best.

Spyridon Manias, 1995
Dr. Bill Geer is the person who literally "shaped" me because I had the fortune to be close to him early not only in my academic career but also early in my life. And his direction and advice had a decisive impact in my way of thinking and path, not only in my business field but also in my life in general. I was very happy to see my name mentioned in the list of students who were lucky enough to work under the direction of Dr. Bill Geer.

Pieter W.H. Heinstra
Although I'm not involved in the sciences anymore, I still wish to show and describe here my deepest admiration to Bill Geer. Back in 1987, just after my PhD-thesis at the Utrecht University (The Netherlands), I chose the Knox College Biology Dept. and Bill's work on the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster in relation to its adaption to alcohol, as the working area to perform my post-doc period. I never ever regretted this step: Bill proved to be a second father to me, while his staff and students too were always present to support me in any aspect, both scientifically as personally.

Bill and I had a very productive period and we published together with several of his students, in several highly ranked biological and biochemical magazines. Three of several other major talents of Bill are etched in my mind: his vert witty character and his utmost talent of "management-by-showing". Bill, you remain my major example still after all those years. Warm regards, to Judy as well.

Jennifer Carey, 1998
Dr. Geer is directly responsible for where I am today. As a spring term senior I was unsure what my future held beyond graduation. However, after serving as a teaching assistant for the human genetics class I surrendered all volition to teaching. His influence in my life stretches beyond the opportunity he provided me with. Dr. Geer's compassion, aptitude and subtle sense of humor in the classroom were an inspiration to all of us. He made me realize, through the outstanding example that he set, that educators can influence and touch individuals' lives in an unparalleled manner. Thank you for touching my life Dr. Geer. You are the epitome of the word mentor.

Sara Ludwig, 1997
Dr. Geer, you are one of the best professors I have ever had and a terrific adviser as well. I just want to congratulate you and wish you the best! Thanks for helping to make my Knox experience so terrific!

Timothy H. Pohlman, M.D., 1973
I remain grateful to Bill Geer for starting me on a career in biomedical research that continues to this day. My lab at the University of Washington has been continuously funded by the NIH for the past 15 years. More importantly, however, is that I still derive immense satisfaction from scientific investigation, which is something I realized as possible during my senior year at Knox working with Bill in his Fly Lab. The level of excitement from discovery was always present in Bill's lab.

Also, I have tried to emulate Bill's logical approach to scientific questions as well as the intellectual discipline he possessed. I could never fool Bill with any half-baked ideas, and this taught me to take a rigorous, well-thought out approach to my own work through medical school, surgical residency, and academic appointment at the University of Washington. Arguably the best years of my life were spent at Knox, and my best year at Knox was my senior year with Bill Geer.

Wendy Clark, 1985
Several months ago I received a completely unexpected package in the mail - my old fly lab notebook and a history of the lab written by Dr. Geer. What a wonderful surprise! As I leafed through my notebook's pages I was struck by the fact that therein were the beginnings of some lifelong good habits that have served me well in my career. Gently and patiently, Dr. Geer taught us the importance of taking good, systematic notes on EVERYTHING - even the things that didn't quite work out right. Those habits that he helped instill have proved invaluable in the work I have gone on to do.

Dr. Geer also gave me some confidence in myself: asking me to take more responsibility on a small project, helping me find a summer internship in a colleague's lab - these things helped give me the courage to continue my education and pursue a career in biology (though of a very different sort!). THANK YOU, Dr. Geer, for your kindness, instruction and support during my brief time in your sphere.

Stephanie A. Hasan, 1998
You're the best, Dr. Geer! Thank you for being a wonderful example of patience, compassion, subtle humor, brilliance! I had my first teaching experience when I was an assistant in your human genetics class--scary! You were so confident in all of us, though, we knew we had nothing to fear. Thank you! Stephanie A. Hasan

Sally Burns Torgeson, 1967
I can't believe Dr. Geer is retiring! With his work ethic I thought he would go on teaching and cajoling forever. Although I left the bio medical field after a year of Master courses, Dr. Geer's influence on work habits and "do it right the first time" attitude has pushed me along a path I never thought I could travel. Nor will I ever look at a fruit fly in quite the same way again. I wish him the best of luck and joyful retirement.

Moshe Rosenberg, 1999
I can only imagine how profound Dr. Geer's career has been on scores of students based on his incredible effect on mine. Dr. Geer's understanding and dedication to help a student overcome any obstacle was exemplary; his modus operandi leaning more toward the careful prompting and nudging rather than coercing and dictating. He allowed his students to make their own decisions and mistakes, and thereby helped us to grow and truly learn. Thank you for helping me achieve all I have, Dr. Geer. Good luck and all the best.

Michael Leonardo, 1987
While I did not have many classes with Dr. Geer (nor was he my advisor) during my time at Knox, he had a profound impact on the development of my professional personality. One of the most important things Dr. Geer taught me was his willingness to listen to students when we needed to discuss any issues in or outside of class. I truly appreciated him take time out of his day for our chats, even when I returned for campus visits over the years. It helped me understand that there was more to being a good professor than just teaching the material well.

His example of interacting with the students has helped me to become a better professor. I only hope that when I retire, my students will view me in a similar light as I and the other Knox alumni who have been touched by Dr. Geer view him.

Rachel Rider, 1996
As my advisor Dr Geer was an integral person in my college career. His guidance and friendliness were so important to my achieving my goals. Unbeknownst to him, he was the one that steered me towards Ecology, my passion. Dr Geer's door was always open and he was always happy to sit and just chat about anything. I miss having an instructor as knowledgeable as he is, most of all, I miss a professor who hugs his students! Be proud of all you have accomplished Dr Geer, you have touched many more lives than you know.

Ken Kidd, 1975
"Not only was the fly lab an academic highlight for me but it was a social pearl. How much more fun could you have than getting out of the lab early on Wednesday to go to Green Oaks for a volleyball against Dr. Schramm's crew!"

Anand Andy Mattai, 1999
"Dr Geer exemplified the word sympathy. He combined a gentle personality with extraordinary intelligence that led his guiding many future doctors. I often remember him telling me that his greatest contribution to the world was somewhat indirect. The feeling of knowing one has contributed and inspired the career of hundreds of physicians is amazing. I will be one of many doctors who attribute my success to the teaching and compassion of Dr. Geer."