We couldn’t fit the entirety of Ron’s heart-warming tribute to Dr. Weber in the Spring issue of Aquilegia, but you can read it all below. Mary Menz, managing editorA Tribute: William A. Weber William A. Weber (1918–2020), world renowned botanist and eminent Colorado naturalist, passed away on March 18. He was my mentor, colleague, and dear friend for almost 45 years. A complete account of our mutual history would occupy a sizeable volume. Here, I restrict myself to a few (mostly random) recollections.
I came to the University of Colorado in 1972 to do graduate work in physics. I chose Colorado because the physics department was rated highly, but also because I’d been told that the state had a remarkable flora. Botany had been of great interest to me since I was a small child, and during my senior year at the University of Washington I studied plant taxonomy with C. Leo Hitchcock, the lead author of the five volume Vascular Plants of the Pacific Northwest. And yes, I’d heard of the legendary Dr. William A. Weber.
Among my first tasks on arrival was a visit to the University Bookstore to buy textbooks, but I also bought Harrington’s Manual of the Plants of Colorado (1964) and, most importantly, Dr. Weber’s Rocky Mountain Flora, 4th edition (1972). During the next several years, I completely wore out several copies of the Flora in my quest for plant knowledge, but I never had the courage to introduce myself to the august author. This changed in the spring of 1976 when I happened to meet the botanist Leo Simone. Leo was on sabbatical from SUNY, Potsdam. He told me that he had tea with Dr. Weber on Tuesday afternoons and asked if I would like to join them. I agreed with great excitement, but also with some trepidation. So, I went to tea at the appointed
time—Dr. Weber was cordial, if a little gruff, and he showed no particular interest in me (which was not unexpected). Little did I realize the profound influence that this little meeting would exert on the following 44 years of my life.
Now that the ice was broken, I started bringing specimens to Dr. Weber. It was clear to me that I needed to show that I could be useful in order to be admitted to the inner sanctum. One of the first things that I brought him was the prairie coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia), a taxon that previously had not been reported from Boulder County. He dropped everything, loaded me into his car, and together we drove to the collection locality. On another occasion, I brought my Carex (sedge) collection to the herbarium. As soon as I laid the specimens on the counter, Dr. Weber declared angrily, “Do you expect me to sit here and identify your collections for you?”
“No,” I said. “I’ve already made the ID’s. With your permission, I’d like to check my determinations in the herbarium.” With that exchange, Dr. Weber sat down and reviewed all twenty-five specimens with me! The lesson was this: If a person showed that he or she had made an effort, Dr. Weber had unlimited time to help; otherwise, not so much. In 1973 Dr. Weber had published a treatise Guide to the Mosses of Colorado and I was very interested in learning something about bryophytes. One day I brought him a piece of a common moss (probably Brachythecium erythrorrhizon) hoping to start a conversation. “Don’t waste my time with this,” he said—end of discussion. I was disappointed. Mosses would have to wait…
At the beginning our relationship was clearly Mentor and Apprentice. Field work was a good example. Initially, I spent most of my time following him on my hands and knees as he pointed out plants that I should collect. He never helped me with the press, even when the wind was howling and paper was flying. This went on for a seemingly long time, but then I noticed a change. He began helping with the collections and with managing the press. Even though I would always be his student, I was gradually transitioning to colleague. At some point he looked at me and said very sternly “Do not call me Dr. Weber! Call me Bill!” He said this so forcefully that I never dared call him anything but “Bill” after that. Well, except for the occasional, affectionate, “Herr Professor Doktor Weber” or just “Dr. Bill.”
My real job as a physicist kept me busy on weekdays, so botanically I was a weekend warrior. Bill would stop by our apartment on Saturday mornings and we would walk to campus together often discussing the vegetation along the path. Part of the day was spent identifying plants, not just from Colorado, but from all around the world. Bill was meticulous about keeping up with the literature and as a result, we were constantly updating the floras and improving keys to make them more accurate and easier to use. Typically, the herbarium staff went to lunch together. Our retinue included students and whomever happened to be visiting the herbarium. Regular participants included John Rohner, Curator of Museography, Ed Licht, the “Spider Man”
(arachnologist), Miriam Colson (music teacher and expert on the genus Carex), and Jim Corbridge, Professor of Law and Chancellor University of Colorado Boulder. At the end of the day, we would typically leave the herbarium with a half dozen or more letters to be posted to various authorities. The environment was stimulating. There was so much to learn. It could be said that Bill was extremely anti-technology. As an example, Bill absolutely detested “smart phones.” He hated to see young people with their faces glued to the screen, seemingly completely unaware of their surroundings. In my experience, however, Bill was an intelligent user of new paradigms. He just made sure that he was the master and that technology was the slave, not the other way around. Bill mocked me when I first started using a primitive GPS unit to record the locations of our collections, but it wasn’t long before he was the first to ask “What does the GPS say?”
William A. Weber as a child in Bronx Park 1929/1930.
Used with permission by the Weber Family Archive.
A major challenge of herbarium work used to be generating specimen labels. It is hard to believe today, but labels were still being handwritten or produced on manual typewriters. A large herbarium could generate thousands of labels a year and this was a considerable drain on staff time. Over the years Bill had been seeking innovative solutions to this problem, even installing a small printing press at one time. By the time I arrived at the herbarium, Bill had purchased a state-of-the-art stand-alone word processor. This was a massive device that stood perhaps four feet high and was topped with a very noisy daisy-wheel printer. Of course, only the boss was allowed to touch the device. For some reason Bill had also purchased a small personal computer
(a toy, more or less) but it had been sitting idle in the herbarium. I won’t say much about the machine, other than it featured a “reset” button right next to the “enter” key and that it ran an ugly, primitive version of the BASIC programming language. Bill tasked me to do something useful with the little PC. My response was to write a simplistic word processing program designed to facilitate the entry and printing of label data. It was reasonably successful as
evidenced by the multitude of dot-matrix printed labels that can be found in the herbarium today.
It was also the program that the staff loved to hate, largely due, I think, to that “reset” button situated right next to the “enter” key. Concentrating on your work could be very difficult with that nasty little daisy-wheel printer constantly clacking away. I approached Bill, out of desperation, and suggested that we buy a capable computer and one of the new, silent, laser printers that had recently become available. He said, “Ron, we just can’t afford such an expenditure.” He was right—the proposed system would have cost nearly $10,000, a lot of money in those days. So, the subject was dropped.
However a few days later, Bill called and asked me to put together an order. Soon, we had a top-of-the-line IBM AT (6 MHZ clock, 16 MB memory, 40 MB hard drive). We also had Word Perfect, which was a real step up in word processing. Bill was skeptical at first, but he was quickly won over (much to my relief). Email became very important and letters were no longer posted. We entered the computer age and never looked back. Soon, that daisy-wheel printer wasa thing of the past (RIP). The first edition of the Colorado Flora: Western Slope (1987) was published from camera-ready copy produced on our laser printer. Bill was never interested in the details of computing. He needed the tools to help him accomplish great things. My job was to make sure that everything worked.
Perhaps Bill’s greatest legacy, as far as the general public is concerned, is found in his floras. The Rocky Mountain Flora (1953), originally published under the name Handbook of Plants of the Colorado Front Range, went through 5 editions. This was truly a beautiful creation, one that I had mostly memorized before I met the author. Bill never wished to write a comprehensive manual with full descriptions of the taxa; rather, he aimed for an inexpensive handbook that would fit into the day packs of interested amateurs. The coverage of the Rocky Mountain Flora was limited to the “front range” and surrounding regions. In the mid-1980’s Bill decided that he wanted to provide a comprehensive treatment for the entire state of Colorado. He could have written a state flora, but again, in the interests of smaller size and lower expense, he decided to produce 2 volumes. These became the Colorado Flora: Western Slope (1987) and the Colorado Flora: Eastern Slope (1990). Needless to say, this accomplishment required a monumental effort
on his part. Subsequently, there was a revised (2nd) edition (1996) and a 3rd edition (2001). By the time the 3rd edition appeared, Bill was 83 years old. He had written in the preface that “…this is my final effort.” In my capacity as junior author, I deleted that sentence. With Jim Corbridge, Bill published a Rocky Mountain Lichen Primer (1998). A moss primer was in the works, but not completed.
The 4th edition of the Colorado Flora (2012) deserves special comment. After I retired in 2009, Bill and I met daily for 2 years to review the manuscript, genus by genus, in order to bring the taxonomy up to date and to account for new discoveries and insights. We also added back the little stories that had been deleted over the years to save space. Several of our colleagues have commented that the floras were not only excellent technical volumes, but that they were also a good read. After the manuscripts were finished, Bill’s daughter, Linna, and I spent several months doing a thorough proof reading. Bill was very proud of this version and always said that it should be regarded as a new beginning, not just a 4th edition. He also said that “a flora is never
complete.” Much remains to be done by those who follow. Bill’s conversational style is worthy of mention. He had a very active and agile mind, and the subject of his discourse would often change radically without warning, sometimes mid-sentence. Even when he stayed on track, he left large holes that a listener would have to fill in in order to keep up. It was several years before I was able to follow him easily. The ability to speak fluent Weberese was sometimes very useful. For example in recent years, either he or I could often fill in a missing word or finish a phrase when the other was having a senior moment. I think that one reason Bill found computers so frustrating was that he never met a computer that could understand him. By the way, I never learned to read his handwriting, but that was OK. He couldn’t read it either.
At some point in the mid-1990’s, Bill told me that it was time I learned something about mosses. Bryophytes are subtle and difficult to master without expert help. I couldn’t have had a better mentor—Bill was especially patient with me. It took me such a long time to reliably recognize Ceratodon, a common weedy moss that can look like so many things. Mosses continued to be a major focus of our field activities for the remainder of our time together. By the time Bryophytes of Colorado was published in 2007, we could list over 500 species. This is to be compared to the 290 taxa that Bill reported in 1973. We never reached a point of diminishing returns. Almost every excursion yielded new records.
Through the years I was fortunate enough to spend literally thousands of hours doing field work with Bill in every county of the state. We frequently camped, with Bill sleeping in his vehicle and me lying out under the stars. In the mornings he would send out his little papillon, Suki, who would run to me, crawl in my sleeping bag, and lick my face. Bill liked to start early! We worked hard all day long and often into the evenings. In the field Bill was indefatigable, with boundless enthusiasm. To me he was a “kid in a candy store.” There was never a dull moment, but always something to be interested in or excited about. Paging through his books brings back many good memories. Alas, there is not enough space to give much of an accounting. For example, I remember a day in Baca County when we found almost a dozen new plants for Colorado—and we had almost gone home early because of bad weather. On another occasion, we were standing in High Creek Fen talking about the probability of finding boreal bryophytes in our mountains. I bent over to examine a small fruiting moss. I said, “Bill, you’re not going to believe what I’m holding,” as I handed him a specimen of Catoscopium nigritum. The little “golf club moss” is perhaps not uncommon in the arctic but so far, we know only this one Colorado location. In later times, when rigorous field work was no longer possible, we would often walk through Boulder neighborhoods looking at what was growing in the gardens. When you were with Bill, even a weed lot could be a miraculous place. I well remember his excitement when he discovered the nondescript Herniaria glabra (rupturewort) in a waste space near his apartment.
In a time of specialization, when a botanist can spend a career studying a single family or even genus, Bill was unique. He knew the whole flora, not just the vascular plants, but he was equally knowledgeable of the lichens and bryophytes. Through extensive travel, he also knew the floras of many areas of the world. Bill is widely recognized for his groundbreaking efforts to catalog the lichen and bryophyte floras of the Galápagos Islands.
As a renowned phytogeographer, Bill was always looking for floristic relations between Colorado and other regions. A particular connection with the flora of Middle Asia was first noted by Sir Joseph Hooker when he visited Colorado in 1877. Bill was intrigued and he made several forays to the Altai Mountains (1970’s and 1980’s) to explore the issue. For example, in our high wetlands we find the beautiful, rare grass Ptilagrostis porteri. Ptilagrostis is also known from the Altai and in fact, our taxon had once been reported as P. mongolica. Bill found P. mongolica in the Altai, but noted that it was a plant of dry tundra. Then, he found a wetland version that appeared identical to our species. He remained confident that he had discovered P. porteri in the
Altai. In 2003 he published a landmark analysis (J. Biogeography 30:648–685) in which he proposed that many similarities in the plants of the southern Rocky Mountains and Middle Asia result, not from random dispersal, but from the disruption of a once continuous flora through geologic and climatic processes.
Bill was not just a botanist, he was a man of eclectic tastes. He was a polyglot with a working knowledge of a half dozen languages in addition to botanical Latin. He was a voracious reader, an actor, an art collector, and a biographer. He was an accomplished birder (but that’s another story). He also enjoyed music and loved singing (tenor). T. D. A. Cockerell was an internationally famous naturalist who taught for many years at the University of Colorado (1904–1947). Other than the fact that a dormitory was named for him, he seems largely forgotten. Over the course of 50 years, Bill devoted considerable biographic effort to preserving Cockerell’s legacy. The Valley of the Second Sons (2004) was the last installment.
This is a great read that provides much insight into Cockerell’s life, but additionally, it is a fascinating account of what rural Colorado was like in the 1880’s. Bill also published King of Colorado Botany (1997), an account of the life of Charles C. Parry, an early Colorado botanist. Bill and I shared an interest in music. For years we went to concerts together. I remember one occasion when we were returning from the field listening to Mahler’s Second Symphony. We drove at 20 mph so that we could finish the music before we got back to Boulder. Bill was very fond of Gilbert and Sullivan and would often sing arias to anyone who would listen. The last musical event we attended was a performance of the Takács Quartet on March 8, just ten days
before his passing. Bill was uncharacteristically depressed because simple things were becoming so difficult, and mostly because he could no longer see to read. After the concert, however, he was effervescent especially due to a powerful performance of Beethoven’s wonderful Opus 131. Thank you, Takács!
The last 10 years marked a slow down in his active life. He still managed a strenuous trip to Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica with his daughter Heather in 2011 and as mentioned earlier, the 4th edition of the Colorado Floras was published in 2012. Now there was a walker, but he could still travel a mile on good days, and he would frequently walk down to the Credit Union where he loved talking to the customers. He entered the Bolder Boulder in 2018 and took a victory lap around Folsom stadium as the oldest contestant. 2018 also marked his 100th birthday. There was much celebration and partying; accolades came in from across the world. He had a great time and was very grateful to all the well wishers who participated. Throughout, his mind remained active and his goals were clear. His last article, on the genus Philonotis in Colorado, was posted to his website (williamaweber.com) several days after he died.
One day, I think Bill was about 85 at the time, we had wandered down into a steep ravine looking for a special bryophyte. The trip would have been difficult for the average person half his age, and I began to think that we had seriously over-extended ourselves. I was ahead. He was walking toward me, obviously extremely exhausted and unsteady. Then suddenly, he fell to the ground. Fearing the worst, I rushed to his side—and found him on his stomach, intently examining a moss that had caught his interest. I would like to leave the reader with this picture, not of a frail old man, but of a perennially youthful, vibrant Bill Weber, lying in a meadow loupe in hand, marveling at the mysteries of nature.
Goodbye, Bill. We miss you.
1Ron has been actively studying the native flora of Colorado since coming to the state in 1972. In 2002 he was awarded honorar life membership by the Colorado Native Plant Society. These days, Ron maintains a one acre native plant garden that is rapidly becoming more than he can handle. He still pursues his botanical interests, but is also a consultant in the field of microwave antenna measurements.