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Retiring MU biologist expects to stay busy

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Tom Pauley wants to turn over every rock in West Virginia.

The 72-year-old biologist has flipped thousands upon thousands of stones, from Huntington to Harpers Ferry, looking for salamanders, lizards, turtles and frogs. Along the way, he became the Mountain State's undisputed authority on amphibians and reptiles.

One would think, after half a century of backbreaking field research, that Pauley might spend his retirement sipping lemonade and reclining in a hammock. Instead, the longtime Marshall University professor plans to spend his time doing what he's always done -- looking for critters and writing about them.

"I'm excited about my retirement," said Pauley. "I've been asked to write six books, all of them about amphibians and reptiles, and I figure they're going to keep me pretty busy."

Pauley has had a love affair with biology since 1956, when, as a 10th-grader at DuPont High School, he took his first biology course.

"I had a teacher named Maxine Thacker," he recalled. "She introduced me to biology, and bells went off. I give her credit for sparking my interest."

Pauley majored in biology at Morris Harvey College, where the subjects "just came naturally" to him. "I loved every biology course I took," he said.

While a graduate student at Marshall, Pauley took an ornithology course, and from it became an avid birder.

"I took that course in the early 1960s," he recalled. "I also took a job as a [summertime] naturalist at Holly River State Park. There I met Bill Wylie, the state naturalist, who was a masterful birder. I had a great time running around with him, looking and listening for birds."

Ironically, one of those outings with Wylie converted Pauley from an ornithologist to a herpetologist.

"One night Bill and I were at a pond. I heard a noise and asked him what it was. He said it was a green frog. I thought, 'Wow, that's fascinating. And then when I came back to school that fall I took a course in vertebrate natural history from Prof. N.B. Green, and from it I fell absolutely in love with herpetology. That course changed my life."

Pauley said it seemed natural for him to focus on salamanders, mainly because West Virginia has zillions of creeks, ponds and small wetlands. His reputation as the state's go-to salamander authority got cemented in 1976, when the U.S. Forest Service asked him to survey the Monongahela National Forest and determine the range and distribution of the endangered Cheat Mountain salamander.

Since his graduation from Morris Harvey, Pauley had been teaching, first in public schools and then at Salem College and the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown. In 1987, Marshall offered him the job that defined his career. At Marshall, he published reams of scientific papers and helped steer a small army of students toward biology careers.

"I've mentored 95 graduate students," he said. "Twenty-some of them are working now as Ph.D.s. In fact, the woman who is replacing me on the Marshall faculty was once one of my students.

"I hope my legacy was that I was a pretty good teacher, and that I influenced my students the way Maxine Thacker and Dr. Green influenced me. I've been blessed and fortunate to have the quality of students I've had at Marshall. It's been a good place to work."

Pauley said he doesn't really know how many papers he authored and co-authored.

"There's been a bunch of them," he said. "And I have several more I'm working on. But what I'm most excited about now are the six books I've been asked to write."

The books include an amphibian-reptile atlas for West Virginia as well as guidebooks to the amphibians and reptiles of West Virginia's state parks, its national forests and its national park areas.

"Also, West Virginia University is doing a series of books on the natural history of the central Appalachians," Pauley said. "I'm doing the volume on amphibians and reptiles."

A couple of the books are nearly complete.

"I've been working on [the atlas] forever," he said. "The manuscript for the state park book is finished, and my wife is editing it. We may be able to get it out this year."

After turning over untold thousands of stones, Pauley has six big ones left to flip.

"I just hope the Lord lets me live long enough to get all this writing done," he said. "I think God put me on this earth for a reason -- to study amphibians and reptiles. I've done a lot of study over these 45 to 50 years. I want to leave that knowledge behind for other people to use. If I can't do that, I haven't fulfilled my mission."

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.

 


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