Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Taking Care of Business - JR Richardson Style

Jim Richardson was my plant taxonomy professor while I was in graduate school. It was because of him that I took so many botany courses I should have declared a botany minor. I'm not sure what it was about JR (as we called him) but he made you want to learn everything there was to learn about the natural world.

Having received his PhD in plant taxonomy from the University of Kansas JR had more than his share of stories to tell. Like the time in graduate school when he was out in western Kansas some place where he found a particularly robust specimen of Cannabis sativa that he dutifully collected for the University of Kansas herbarium. As he was preparing the specimen for the collection a local country deputy sheriff came along to check out what JR was doing and while looking around found the pot plant. Asking JR the story he quickly explained that he was a grad student at the University of Kansas and that if the deputy would just call his major professor back in Manhattan the entire thing could be cleared up.

There was only one problem. When JR's major professor was called he denied any and all knowledge of JR -- acted like he had never heard of him - and let Jim simmer in a western Kansas jail overnight. Of course the next day his major professor drove out to western Kansas and bailed Jim out. The experience seemed to set the mood for how JR loved to jerk around this own students later on.

When we were were in graduate school there was an unwritten rule that all of his students were to check his office door on Friday afternoons for instructions on what was likely to happen later that night. JR used to hold attendance required no credit "seminars" at "Bo's N Mine" a popular downtown watering hole. If the sign on JRs door said "Takin Care of Business at Bo's" on Friday afternoon you know that your liver would be screaming for mercy in the morning.

Jim's favorite libation was rum and coke and he drank it copiously. In fact he would gauge the severity of his morning after hangover by how many rum and coke swizzel sticks he had in his pocket the next morning. To the best of our recollection the best he ever did was have 23 of them in his pocket the next morning.

Its because of those nights and all the fun we had with him that every time I hear this fantastic Bachman Turner Overdrive song "Takin Care of Business" I think about JR and wonder what sort of mischief his now 70 year old body is causing.

Anyone who remembers the hilarious movie "American Graffiti" remembers the hilarious scene where Richard Dryfus is required, as part of his initiation into a street gang, is required to hook up the axel of a police car to a piece of chain. Then the gang drives by the cops making the latter give chase. When they do the chain reaches the end of its limit and it pulls the rear axel off the car. This was all done in fun for a movie. JR did it for real as a kid in his southern Illinois hometown. When he told that story he became my instant hero.

Despite all of the craziness JR taught me (by the way my oldest daughter's name is Jennifer Rebecca - notice any similarity in her initials and his) he also taught me some of life's most important lessons.

I used to wax poetic about almost everything Aldo Leopold ever said about the environment and its protection. To me Leopold was god. However JR would regularly stop me short when I was waxing poetic and say, simply, "Leopold is full of shit. What do you think of that?" I din't think much of it and an argument would ensure and after the argument I saw where JR was trying to lead me.

Then there was the time I did the oral defense of my Master's Thesis. There were five official members of my committee. JR showed up for the defense solely to harass me. My research was on the nesting ecology of common grackles and mourning doves nesting near the reactor of a nuclear generating plant. During my 2 1/2 hour defense I was required to answer any question posed by any member of the commmittee including JR. About 2 hours into this grueling experience JR asked me, kindly, to explain "why is the dove the international bird of peace?"

I didn't have a clue but I wasn't going to let him know that. Instead I went off on some tangent talking about their soft cooing voice and peaceful feathers and with each word I dug my hole deeper. Finally after what seemed like a day JR yelled at me "STOP". I stopped. He looked at me and said "you don't know the answer do you?" I looked back and said "I don't have a clue what the answer is." JR snickered and said "That's all I wanted to know."

Major life lesson. If you dont know the answer dont be afraid to admit it. You will look smarter because you are being smarter by admitting it up front.

I haven't been in touch with JR in a number of years. The last I knew he was retired and living near Alamagordo New Mexico where he was living out his life fantasy of being some sort of a cowboy.

He probably doesn't remember those "Taking Care of Business" directives on his office wall long ago but I certainly do. And even after nearly 40 years have passed I'm glad I knew him, glad he taught me how to be a biologist, and how he taught me the real meaning of takin care of business even if its not in a song by BTO.

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