Giants Among Us: Tribute to Gary Brusca

RCB & GJB 1970s

Dr. Gary Brusca (right) and brother Dr. Rick Brusca (left) on Trinidad Pier in Northern California, 1970s. Photos: unknown.

From Nature’s Law by Waren Stauls (aka Gary Brusca):

Life is too
short to let
destroy today,
but never forget that
tomorrow you may need
a memory –
and it will be there.

As an undergraduate student at Cal Poly (SLO) in the mid-1970s I was educated in the shadow of the giants before me, Gary and Richard Brusca. My advisor and zoology Professor Dave Montgomery never hesitated to mention the near-miraculous accomplishments of the mythical brothers that preceded us as undergraduate students before getting their PhDs: how they knew this, or studied for that, or memorized thousands of scientific names; feats us mortals would be lucky to even approximate. It was both intimidating and challenging but yet, here I am, 40 years later, a Professor of Biology and Director of Humboldt State University’s Marine Laboratory making a feeble attempt to do exactly the same thing with my students that I learned at Cal Poly.

But it was here at Humboldt, from 1967-1998, that Gary became the living legend he is is known for today. Walking the halls of the Trinidad marine lab and rummaging through the slides and specimen collection in the classrooms, I can see and feel the presence of his love for natural history, his thoughtful collections, the detail of his carefully inscribed labels, and the passion he had for teaching his students. For although he has been gone for 18 years, he is still very much alive here in the classrooms through the amazing textbooks he wrote with his brother Gary, including A Naturalist’s Seashore Guide, and their classic textbook, Invertebrates.

invertebrates brusca

Invertebrates: the classic and ultra-challenging textbook that covers 95% of the animal kingdom. Intimidating to both instructors and students alike.

And so I feel compelled to keep his great memory alive in the current generation of students. To remind them that once a giant among men walked these halls, explored these shores, and wrote poetry about life.  To instill his devotion to natural history in students, a tradition that is fading away but Humboldt State University is still known for, and to carry the legacies of Ed Ricketts and Joel Hedgpeth, which he upheld, moving forward. So I reproduce here obituaries and poems as a tribute to an amazing man. One that although I actually only met for a few hours, inspired me, along with Professor Montgomery and a host of mentors, into a lifetime of dedication to invertebrates and marine biology. His legacy lives on in me, in my students, and eventually (I hope) in theirs. Because knowledge derived from passion never dies, especially when inspired by the dedication of someone like Gary Brusca.

The following is reproduced from the SCAMIT (Southern California Association of Marine Invertebrate Taxonomists) newsletter from January, 2000 (Vol 18(9): 3-6.

Dr. Richard C. Brusca
Senior Research Scientist and Interim Director of Education Columbia University Biosphere 2 Center

January, 2000

With great sadness I report the death of my brother, Gary J. Brusca, who passed away on January 13, 2000. Gary received his BSc (1960) from California State Polytechnic University (San Luis Obispo) as one of Dave Montgomery’s advisees; his MSc (1961) from the University of the Pacific (Stockton), working under John Tucker and Joel Hedgpeth; and his PhD (1965) from the University of Southern California (Los Angeles), under the guidance of Russell Zimmer. From 1972 to 1974 he lived and worked as a fisheries biologist on the island of Mauritius, where his youngest son (James) was born. Gary is best known in the carcinology world for his research on hyperiid amphipods, and for two books we published together, A Naturalist’s Seashore Guide: Common Marine Life of the Northern California Coast and Adjacent Shores (Mad River Press, 1978), and Invertebrates (Sinauer Associates, 1990). His “Annotated Keys to the Hyperiidea of North American Coastal Waters” (Allan Hancock Foundation Tech. Rpts. 5:1-76, 1981) is a benchmark summary for the hyperiid (pelagic) amphipods of North America. Gary also authored a general text on embryology (General Patterns of Invertebrate Development., 1975, Mad River Press). However, for students of the California coast Gary may be best remembered for his excellence in the classroom and the field where he trained legions of marine biology students over the years at University of the Pacific (1964-1967) and Humboldt State University (1967-1998).

One of his greatest joys in life were early morning field trips with students, arriving at the coast just as the sun was rising and the fog was lifting on those cold gray northern California beaches.

From 1967 to 1990, Gary won countless awards in recognition of his teaching excellence, including the “Cal Poly Honored Alumnus in Science and Math” award. But more of interest to many was the fact that Gary was one of a small group of Pacific coast biologists who carried on the legacy of Ed Ricketts and Joel Hedgpeth. He was co-founder and publisher of The Stomatopod, an eclectic and irreverent biology journal in the tradition of the 60’s and early 70’s, that entertained and educated Pacific coast biologists for many years. Gary’s minimalistic poetry, collectively published under the pseudonym “Waren Stauls” (Nature’s Laws. Selected Poems of Waren Stauls) followed in the tradition of Joel Hedgpeth’s books published under the pseudonym Jerome Tichner (Poems in Contempt of Progress, Scattered Poems). Gary retired in 1999, moving to the Sacramento (CA) area, where his wife Julie, 5 children, and 2 grandchildren survive him. At the time of his death, he and I were working on a new general zoology text (Concepts in Zoology, for Saunders Publishing) and revisions of our Invertebrates text and California seashore guide.

Les Watling
Professor of Oceanography,
and Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation
School of Marine Sciences Darling Marine Center
University of Maine
[reprinted with the author’s permission from the CrustL list server]
January, 2000

The passing of Gary is especially sad for me. Gary was my first graduate advisor while he was at the University of the Pacific, bringing me into the marine sciences and crustacean studies when I was real young, having entered graduate school at 19. He set a strong tone of excellence in thought and enjoyment in research. The early morning field trips weren’t onerous with Gary, but that’s not to say they weren’t painful. He made them a lot of fun and true adventures. But what I remember most about him was the detail of his courses. I can say with some conviction that most of the invertebrate knowledge I have at my fingertips I acquired in Gary’s classes. Every course had long, detailed phylogenetic arguments at their core — not because we all had good answers or even techniques in those days for discussing phylogeny, but because you had to master the details to be able to argue anything. Gary knew the details and if your argument violated some feature of morphology, you were informed in short order. Perhaps the most valuable of all the classes, though, was the one on invertebrate embryology. There wasn’t a text to speak of, but there was, again, a teacher with the details. We were all convinced then that the big phylogenetic conundrums would be solved with embryological help. Little did we know how that field would change and the information it would ultimately give us.

I met him again just a few years ago. He didn’t seem to have changed all that much, so it was a big surprise to find out last year that he was ill. I’m sure his years at Humboldt produced many students with a strong appreciation for, as well as a thorough understanding, of the marine world.

In sum, I guess I feel that most importantly, Gary showed “how” to teach, not just “what” to teach.

Tim Stebbins
City of San Diego Marine Biology Laboratory
[reprinted with the author’s permission from the CrustL list server]
January, 2000

I would also like to express my deepest sorrow on the passing of Gary Brusca and offer a brief personal perspective on a remarkable individual. Gary was one of my graduate advisors at Humboldt State University, a mentor and a good friend. He was without exception one of the finest instructors and finest people I have had the privilege to know. Gary was a first-rate scientist, a first-rate instructor, and a first-rate writer and editor. It was Gary who first introduced me to the joys of crustaceans, and it was Gary that ingrained in me a respect for ‘natural history’ in the tradition of the great naturalists.

It is impossible here to truly capture who Gary was. Those of us who were fortunate to be his students can only express a sense of awe at his contributions to our education. As Les Watling has already pointed out, the detail of Gary’s courses was truly amazing. In fact, I think his graduate courses in invertebrate embryology and crustacean biology were two of the most challenging and rewarding classes I ever took. They certainly made you think, and discuss, and argue, and….You never saw so many worn out graduate students after a Gary Brusca 2- week take-home midterm. Gary had an ability to make you think beyond what you knew, or at least try to. Perhaps what stood out even more in terms of classroom experience was simply watching Gary teach undergraduate invertebrate zoology (what a learning experience it was to be his assistant). Although he was remarkable in the laboratory, his lectures were even more so. He had an eloquence about the way he spoke that made every lecture seem like a story, inspiring and never boring. I will never forget watching him ‘tell his stories’ with his eyes on the students, while at the same time drawing the most exquisite and detailed illustrations on the board. I was never able to figure out when (or if) he looked at his notes, and hours later I was still unable to duplicate his drawings. Perhaps Gary was a magician of sorts. Anyway, I still have those notes today.

Gary’s contributions were certainly not limited to the classroom. In fact, I always felt the field was his true laboratory and lecture hall. Some of my fondest memories are the two summers that I worked with Gary as part of a NSF Summer Institute in Marine Biology for advanced high school students. It was those countless field trips with all those inquisitive young minds in tow that really showed Gary at his best. He didn’t seem to mind that I had little idea how to drive, or double-shift, that rickety old bus along the frontage roads overlooking the Humboldt coast. It was an adventure, and we were heading to the tidepools where we (or usually the students) never failed to discover something new Finally, and as Rick mentioned in his announcement, Gary was perhaps most of all a Naturalist in the spirit of Ed Ricketts and Joel Hedgpeth. It seems it was this philosophy that influenced everything he taught. In fact, the last ‘course’ I took from Gary in the Spring of 1982 was a seminar on the life of Edward F. Ricketts, not the typical biology fare. Our texts, so to speak, were John Steinbeck’s ‘The Log from the Sea of Cortez,’ ‘Cannery Row,’ and ‘Sweet Thursday,’ and Joel Hedgpeth’s two volume ‘The Outer Shores’. What a fun and thought provoking experience that was!

As part of the seminar, Gary (a.k.a. Waren Stauls) penned the poem below in honor of Ed Ricketts. It seems appropriate to reproduce it here.

Cling too tight to a memory
     and it will fold upon itself,
Hiding all there is to see
as pages on a dusty shelf.

My memory of you is second hand,
yet we are bound by sea’s life blood
By being drawn where tide meets land,
revealed to us by ebb and flood.

Is that where true things rest forever
out of range of understanding?
Defying all of man’s endeavors
to glimpse beyond the surface trappings.

To walk at best along the edge
of some deep thing just out of sight,
Afraid to look beyond the ledge,
comprehension may not make it right.

Unplumbed depths that beckon for us,
we cannot fathom it from here, 
To step inside where one bright chorus
reveals it simple, crystal clear.

But then with all the truth unveiled
those absolutes become our bonds,
We are only free by what’s concealed
and cannot search for that which has been found.

And if within the deep thing one resides,
and all the interwoven threads unraveled,
It cannot be explained to those outside
who’s mystic paths to truth remain untraveled.

Were these the things you tried to say,
as creatures told them once to you?
To listen to the voice of death one day
that says, my friend it’s time for breaking through.

— Waren Stauls (Gary Brusca), 1982

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