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Friends and colleagues remember Eldon Greij (part 2)

Eldon Greij discusses a scientific poster with Hope College student Angela Stoyanovitch. Photo courtesy Hope College Biology Department

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 asked his friends and colleagues in the birding and ornithology community to share memories and reflections about Eldon, and I received so many that I’m publishing them as a two-part series. Part 1 features comments from people who knew Eldon mostly through Birder’s World/BirdWatching. In this part, his friends and colleagues from Hope College share their recollections.

Eldon served as a member of the Hope biology faculty from 1962 to 2003. In 1982, he was named the inaugural recipient of the college’s Edward and Elizabeth Hofma Endowed Professorship. He launched Birder’s World in 1987 and published the magazine for 11 years before selling it to a publishing company in Wisconsin. He stepped aside from teaching full-time at the college in 1988 but remained on the faculty and was later named an emeritus professor of biology. 

Eldon began teaching at Hope in 1962 after earning a Master’s in Zoology from North Dakota State University. He took a leave of absence from 1966-1969 to complete a Ph.D. in Animal Ecology at Iowa State University, and then returned to Hope. He served as chair of the Biology Department for seven academic years from July 1974 through June 1981.

He obtained several National Science Foundation Undergraduate Research Participation grants, which allowed for a major expansion of the department’s summer research program.

Eldon chats with colleagues at Hope. Photo courtesy Hope College Biology Department

Courses he taught included Human Ecology, Ecology, Ornithology, Field Studies in Biology, and General Biology. His research focus included a study of the biology of the Common Gallinule, for which he and his students spent many hours in the marshes around nearby Lake Macatawa.

Eldon was instrumental in constructing Hope’s vertebrate collections known as the Hope College Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. He did this over several decades through a variety of means which included: a) trading for unique specimens with the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Museum, North Dakota State University, and the Allegan State Game Area (Michigan Department of Natural Resources); b) preparing many local specimens himself and training many students how to make museum study skins, including some former students who went on to become notable ornithologists; c) working with taxidermist Jack Moermond, who donated over 100 museum-quality taxidermic mounts to Hope College as a result of his friendship with Eldon.

He remained active in the life of the college in retirement, leading “May Term” trips to Africa and Peru focused on birding and other wildlife for alumni and friends of the college. He also continued to write and lecture.

Survivors include his wife, Maxine; children, Steven (Cherilynn) Greij; Paul (Patricia) Greij; and Laura (Kirk ’90) Greij Slater; and seven grandchildren. Eldon was preceded in death by his parents, his brother Donald, and his grandson, Stevie. You can read his full obituary here.

Memories and reflections

Greg and Susan Fraley of the Hope biology department wrote:

“Eldon has been a wonderful friend to us in many ways since we met him over 15 years ago. Of course, his first impact was introducing us to the birding world. We had recently become interested in birding, and Eldon invited us to go camping with him and his Ornithology students to Point Pelee, Canada. He ran a tight ship in the campground, and everybody helped from way before dawn for breakfast before birding to well after supper.

“Lunchtime was a different story most days, however, because there was always one more bird to see or one more site to visit, so more than once we had to gently remind him that all of us had gone through our snacks hours ago and we really needed a sandwich! We all had fun playing games at night, and Eldon’s wicked sense of humor came out during one particularly raucous game of Cards Against Humanity. He was all business during the day while teaching the students (and us!), but we all appreciated that once the sun went down, Dr. Greij could be just one of the kids. We have regularly been in contact with students who took the Ornithology course, and they all tell us how amazing the whole course was, and what wonderful memories they have of playing games with Eldon at night during the Point Pelee trip.

“One of our fondest memories is when we went to Pt. Pelee with Eldon—not as a part of his Ornithology class, but just the three of us — and we noticed as we walked around the park and on the tram that folks kept pointing out and whispering, ‘that’s Eldon Greij!’ We felt like we were with a rock star! We wanted to have t-shirts made that stated, ‘We are with Eldon Greij!’ We were his posse that year!!!

“Since our first trip, birding has been a passion of ours and what we enjoy doing most together. Spring break? When everyone else goes to the beach, we go to the Everglades! Favorite Saturday activity when we lived in Michigan? The Muskegon water treatment facility!! Thanks to Eldon, we have had, and will continue to have, many adventures going after just one more bird.”

Virginia McDonough, an assistant professor of biology, recalled a special trip she was on with Eldon:

“Eldon was not a part of the academic year department while I was a young faculty member-he had already left for the greener pastures (bluer skies?) of Birder’s World. But clearly, Eldon made a huge, continuing contribution to the department with his May Term field classes (domestic and abroad). As far as my own remembrances, I had the honor to be invited by Eldon to be a co-leader for his May Term in Field Studies in Tanzania. His passion and knowledge were astounding and inspiring. We (students and profs) worked 12-14 hour days and were NEVER bored. And while Eldon may have had a preference for a particular group of animals (hint-hint: the group with feathers), he always delighted in our excitement with the mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and plants. That trip is one of the highlights of my life as a biologist, and I will never forget Eldon for inviting me to participate.

“As far as everyday life, Eldon was a gifted teacher and a kind and funny person. You always were glad to run into him in the hallway!”

Eldon Greij moves a container for water sampling on a marsh along the Macatawa River east of Holland, Michigan. The work was part of Eldon’s research on Common Gallinules. Photo courtesy of the Hope College Biology Department

Mary Kolean Koeppe, a 1977 Hope graduate, enjoyed birding and research trips with Eldon:

“I was one of his students who spent the summer, in waders, chasing down gallinules. That was summer of 1975 I believe. Dan Van Appledorn, Cindy Bucham, and Ginger Yeomans were three other students in our group. We paddled two old aluminum canoes and used the department station wagon – a Plymouth Valiant with push button transmission (a classic car!). We sure had a fun summer, and Dr. Greij was always joking around with us when we would come back from the marsh. His enthusiasm for ornithology was contagious. I also took his ornithology course and every Saturday morning we would go out birdwatching using one of the Hope College vans. If he saw a special bird (like a Snowy Owl one time), he would suddenly brake and swerve off the road so we could get out. He would never put the heat on because then our binoculars would fog up going in and out of the van. After four hours in a cold van in winter, we often would beg Dr. Greij for just a little bit of heat! He just told us to dress warmer.

“Then there was the field trip up north to see the prairie-chicken mating dance. Our class thought it would a really fun trip — but alas it was a day trip. Dr. Greij told us we had to get into the blinds before sunrise. That meant leaving in the school vans at 2 a.m. to get in the blinds by about 5:15 a.m.! A very quiet ride up there by a bunch of sleepy college students. We were not happy until we did get to the blinds, the prairie-chickens came out, and the dance began. It was amazing! Dr. Greij just could not contain his excitement and neither could we. As promised, after the dance ended and we got back into the van (probably about 9 am), Dr. Greij took us all to a local diner that served huge, freshly made cinnamon rolls.

 “Over the years after graduation, I would drop by the department to visit. Dr. Greij was always happy to see me, asking what I was up to, and we would have a nice chat. It’s so sad for me knowing he is not with us anymore. The department lost a great person and scientist.”

Tom Bultman, who was a student at Hope in the 1970s and is now a biology professor at the college, recalled Eldon’s camaraderie and his favorite tacos:

“One memory I have since coming back to Hope is the lunches we would have at Don Juan’s over in Zeeland. It is a Mexican place where Eldon loved the carne asada tacos. They knew him as a regular and would not even need to ask what he wanted, because it was always the same. It was a nice way for me to talk to someone connected with the department, but not a current faculty member. I always appreciated his words of advice and encouragement.”

Chris Barney, the T. Elliott Weier Professor of Biology at Hope, recalled that Eldon shared a trait that many birders possess: the ability to drive fast, and perhaps recklessly, when pursuing birds:

“One time I took Eldon up on an invitation to accompany him and some other people on a spring trip to Point Pelee National Park in Canada. This park juts south into Lake Erie and is stopping point for many birds traveling north in the spring. I learned that birders seemed to be more interested in the number of different birds they could see than in watching any particular bird. But mostly, I learned that Eldon was willing to put everyone in the car at risk if he saw a bird of interest while driving. He would slam on the brakes, heedless of any cars that might be behind him, skid to a stop, and jump out of the car with a directive for us all to exit to see the bird. It was ‘thrilling’ but led me to decline further invitations for birding trips.

“Eldon worked tirelessly to promote the undergraduate summer research program in biology and to build a community of learners in that program. Every summer until he took a leave of absence to start Birder’s World he organized a fish fry at Tunnel Park for the department faculty, staff, and research students. He also provided almost all the fish. I think this was a way for him to clear out his freezer of fish so there would be room for his next year’s worth of catches. We always had a mystery fish, which was usually pretty bad. The worst by far was lamprey.

“My mother enjoyed watching birds at her feeders at her farm in Ohio. I thus signed her up for an inaugural subscription to Birder’s World, which she really enjoyed. I then arranged for her to meet Eldon and take a tour of the Birder’s World publication office when she visited one summer. Eldon charmed her, as he did so many people. Thereafter, she told everyone she knew who had an interest in birds that she had met and was friends with the editor of Birder’s World.”

Thanks to everyone who shared their memories. Rest in peace, Eldon.

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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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