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Friends and colleagues remember Eldon Greij (part 1)

Eldon Greij
Eldon Greij birds in Ohio with his grandson in May 2019. Photo courtesy of the Greij family

On October 24, our magazine’s founder, Eldon Greij, passed away quietly at a Wisconsin hospital. He broke his hip in a fall a few weeks earlier and then had a series of complications that left him in declining health. He was 84 years old.

I’m still absorbing the shock of his loss because, as you may know, he continued to write our “Those Amazing Birds” column, which he had penned since the magazine began as Birder’s World in 1987. He finished his last column, about the world’s poisonous birds, in early September, and I fully expected to continue working with him into 2022, the magazine’s 36th year. So, it’s particularly sad not to be able to publish his work anymore.

I have known Eldon since I started working on the magazine 21 years ago. I worked the most with him in just the last few years when I have been the editor, and I was always impressed that his love for conveying information about birds and ornithology never waned. Before he founded the magazine, of course, he was a professor of biology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, for more than 20 years. Even after he left his full-time role at the college, he remained a teacher at heart, and that continued to be true even in his later years. In the “Amazing” column, he displayed a deep commitment toward writing clear and educational stories about topics that were often complex.

Eldon also often gave me ideas for the photos or illustrations that we would use with his columns. One installment, for example, was about the unique flight abilities of hummingbirds, and he said it would be great to have a photo that showed a particular movement of the birds’ wings. When I came across a photo that fit the bill, he was very pleased. (That column and photo are here.)

Eldon reflected on the magazine’s early days in his column for our March/April 2020 issue, which was our 200th issue

I appreciate the condolences we have received in recent days from readers. One was from subscriber Carol Roberts, who wrote to say: “It is with great sadness that I receive the news of Eldon Greij’s passing. As a subscriber from the beginning, I always appreciated his gentle guiding hand as editor and welcomed his regular contributions in ‘Those Amazing Birds.’ Birds really are amazing, and so was Eldon. I would like to extend my deepest sympathies to his family, friends, and to his extended family at BirdWatching.”

Service and memorials for Eldon Greij

You can find Eldon’s obituary on his daughter Laura’s Facebook page and on the Holland Sentinel website. A celebration of his life will be held on Friday at 11 a.m. at Christ Memorial Church Chapel, 595 Graafschap Road, in Holland, and it will be live-streamed on Laura’s Facebook page.

Memorial gifts may be sent to support the Nyabugando Senior Secondary Vocational School in western Uganda, which Eldon loved and supported. This can be done online at worldventure.com/6404-914 or by check to WorldVenture at 20 Inverness Place East, Englewood, CO 80112. An accompanying note stating this is a contribution to the Uganda- Nyabugando Secondary School special project (6404-914) in memory of Eldon Greij will ensure the memorial gift is properly allocated.

Remembrances

Eldon Greij in a promotional photo for Birder’s World.

I asked current and former contributors to the magazine and Eldon’s colleagues at the Hope College Biology Department for their reflections on their relationships with him and what he meant to them. I received so many heartfelt and wonderful replies that I don’t want to condense them. The rest of this article features comments from people who have been associated with BirdWatching, while part 2 features commemorations from Eldon’s friends and colleagues at Hope. Together, they paint a portrait of a remarkable life. Read on.

“Eldon was a visionary, a pioneer, and an inspiration to all who shared his passion for birds and birding,” said BirdWatching columnist Pete Dunne, author of multiple books and the founder of the World Series of Birding. “His genial good nature and eagerness to share made him one of birding’s most approachable figures.”

Kenn Kaufman, who writes our “ID Tips” column and is the author of many field guides and other books, said:

“I met Eldon in the mid-1980s when his new magazine was just in the planning stages. I admit I had some doubts about his chances for success, because he had little practical experience with publishing; but from the very first issue, my doubts were swept away by the strong content and beautiful design. I wrote a couple of articles for the magazine within its first couple of years, and in 1994 Eldon invited me to start writing a bird ID column, which has continued ever since.

“Eldon Greij had so many admirable qualities. He had strong opinions, but he was always keenly and genuinely interested in hearing other viewpoints. He was always thoughtful and considerate and courteous, a true gentleman in the best senses of the word. Of course, there was competition among various bird magazines, but his approach was always to make Birder’s World just as good as he possibly could, never to cut down the others. At a birding convention, I once shared a memorable dinner with Eldon and Elsa Thompson, who was then the publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest. Although they were in charge of competing publications, there was a mutual respect and friendship between them that was inspiring to see.

“Eldon touched so many lives in a positive way, through his personal contacts and his writing, and especially through the great magazine that he founded. He will be fondly remembered and sorely missed.”

Famed bird photographer Brian Small, whose photos illustrate “ID Tips,” shared that he got his start in photography in part due to Eldon:

“I never met Eldon in person, but he will always hold a special place in my life. He was the very first person to ever publish one of my images some 25-plus or so years ago. It was a Varied Thrush, and I think he paid me $75. I almost couldn’t believe I could attempt to make a living selling bird photographs, but he gave me the spark to start my career with that first photo sale. After seeing that image published, I wrote to him asking for advice. He was kind enough to write back and give me a detailed explanation of what an editor or photo editor may look for in images that are submitted to them. I took a lot of what he told me to heart, and it definitely helped me improve both my photography and the marketing of my images. I’m forever indebted to him.”

Tim Gallagher, a former editor at Living Bird and WildBird magazines, said:

“I was saddened to learn of Eldon Greij’s passing. I’d known him for a long time and always admired him. You could say we were rivals at first. I was on the startup team and was first Managing Editor of WildBird Magazine, which happened to debut at virtually the same time as Birder’s World, in 1987, so we were instantly direct competitors. But I knew the first time I ran into him at a birding festival we were destined to be friends, and I always enjoyed having conversations with him. He will be greatly missed.”

Eldon takes a break while birding in East Africa. Photo courtesy of the Greij family

Chuck Hagner, who served as our editor from 2001 to 2017 and is now the director of Bird City Wisconsin and the board chair of the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, reflected on the seminal decision to change the magazine’s name in 2011.

“When we changed the name of the magazine from Birder’s World to BirdWatching, many people thought it was a mistake and told me so. I heard it all: We were turning our back on birders. We were going to write only about backyard birds. We were dumbing down the magazine.

“Since we had no such plans, or at least I didn’t, I wasn’t overly concerned about such comments; I figured that readers would be able to see for themselves how little the content changed as subsequent issues came out. Plus, it was essential that we reach new readers.

“What did concern me was Eldon’s reaction. It would have been out of character for him to say so directly, but I’m sure he disliked the new name. He had explained to me on several occasions that bird watching, the activity, was only one part of the broader birder’s world that he had in mind when he created the magazine in 1987. His Birder’s World wrote regularly about bird ID and birding hotspots and rarity sightings, but it also ran articles about attracting and feeding birds, and it covered news, behavior, biology, migration, art, travel, books, photography, and so much more. Up to date, well connected, well read, both curious and informative, encouraging, educational, warm, suffused with awe at God’s creation, and always welcoming, Eldon’s magazine mirrored the birder’s world perfectly, lovingly. It was just like him.

“I will miss him terribly, as I’m sure everyone else who worked with him will, and especially today, when we know that North America has lost a third of its breeding birds in the last half century. Now more than ever, it’s imperative that we birdwatchers reach out of our normal circles to educate our friends and neighbors about the wonder and value and fragility of birds. The stakes are high; to fail would be to risk losing the varied and beautiful world that Eldon showed us. And we have lost so much already.”

Author and radio host Laura Erickson, who writes our “Attracting Birds” column, said:

“This is such sad news. Eldon created a genuinely great magazine, and long after most people would have retired, he kept making valuable contributions with his column. I felt truly honored when Chuck Hagner asked me to write my first article for Birder’s World because of the standards of excellence set by Eldon.

“Such a valuable life. My deepest condolences.”

Tim Laman, a top international wildlife photographer and videographer, who was named Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2016 by Britain’s Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine, was once a student of Eldon’s. Laman and Cornell University ornithologist Ed Scholes are perhaps best known for their work recording and photographing all 39 species of the birds-of-paradise over eight years. They published a book of their work in 2012.

Eldon wrote about the birds-of-paradise and Laman and Scholes’s work in his July/August 2013 column. And we published a photo by Laman of a Lesser Bird-of-Paradise on the cover of our November/December 2020 issue.

Laman shared these thoughts about Eldon:

“I was an undergraduate at Hope College, where Eldon taught, and I met him during my freshman year. His enthusiasm for birds and all things natural history was infectious. I signed up for his May field class and toured the various ecosystems of Michigan for three weeks. Spotting my first Pileated Woodpecker in Wilderness State Park and seeing nearly 100 species of birds in a day at Point Pelee over the border in Ontario during the peak of spring migration were memorable highlights of my early introduction to ornithology. After the class ended, I joined Eldon’s team studying the Common Gallinule in the marshes just north of Holland, learning how to locate nests among the cattails, and setting traps to capture adults for banding. It was my first real introduction to waders-in-the-muck fieldwork, and I loved it. He also encouraged my early efforts at bird photography.

“I went on to pursue field biology and wildlife photography as a career, and I often think back on those early experiences with Eldon and how much of an impact they had on me. I think we often don’t realize till years later, what some of the most important people and experiences were in our youth that affected our lives, but I came to realize that Eldon was one of those key influences for me. The course of my life would have been vastly very different had I never met him, and I will be eternally grateful that I did meet him and was able to be his student and have him as a mentor.

“We reconnected more recently, when my birds-of-paradise work was published, and he invited me to come back and speak at Hope College. That’s when the scheming began for a new set of adventures together, leading wildlife safaris for the Hope Alumni program to Tanzania’s incredible wildlife reserves. We made trips there in 2017 and 2019 and celebrated his 80th birthday in the field. I can assure you that although these were billed as general wildlife safaris, and we certainly didn’t ignore all the spectacular large mammals of East Africa, anyone who didn’t think they were interested in birds before the trips started had a different opinion by the end of the trip. Eldon’s enthusiasm, wonderful wry sense of humor, and passion for birds was contagious, and he was the most wonderful of traveling companions. He will be dearly missed, but his spirit will live on in all those he influenced over his long and productive life.”

Read part 2: Reflections from colleagues and former students at Hope College

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. You can reach him at [email protected].

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