Professor Emeritus William “Bill” Derr, who taught biological sciences on campus for nearly 40 years, passed away August 11. He was 81.
Born June 27, 1939, he grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, which instilled a lifelong love for science and the natural world. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, and his master’s and PhD from the University of Wisconsin, developing a particular expertise in plant and wood anatomy.
Derr arrived in Chico with his family in a Volkswagen Beetle on a hot summer day in 1964 and would go on to be one of the longest-serving faculty on campus, said Professor Emeritus Robert McNairn, who counts himself among many of Derr’s former colleagues who were not just fellow faculty but friends.
For many years, Derr taught the introductory course in biology for science and engineering majors, and was popular and well-respected by his students. He specialized in plant morphology and plant anatomy, and delighted in connecting in-depth with students in those upper-division classes. With his passion and expertise, he influenced an appreciable number of students to pursue advanced study.
George Ellmore (Biological Sciences, ’73; MA, Botany, ’75), now the vice chair of biology at Tufts University, fondly remembers taking classes with Derr in the early ’70s and credits him with setting him on his botanical career path. Derr was legendary in the classroom for his consistent standards that made studying both worthwhile and rewarding, Ellmore said, noting he gave clear exams, would devote a class session going over each answer and its logic, and was “that rare professor” who attended his own three-hour lab sessions for his courses.
“I recall how inspiring he was, how some students even decades into [his] career evaluated him as ‘totally the best teacher ever,’” Ellmore said. “He remains part of the foundation linking plant biology training at CSU, Chico to students earning advanced degrees in the UC system and influential careers in academia, agriculture, and environmental improvement throughout California and the United States.”
Tim Devine (MA, Botany, ’85) said Derr’s enthusiasm, encouragement, and expertise toward his thesis were invaluable in helping him complete his research, and he was especially helpful when it came time for him to prepare slides for microscopic examination. Not only did Derr mentor Devine in the graduate program but he eventually hired him as the department’s greenhouse technician, cultivating a lasting friendship.
“Dr. Derr was important to me for all those reasons, but mostly I remember how fun it was just to talk with him about plants,” he said. “Dr. Derr came to my graduation, and when he met my parents for the first time, he explained to them that he was there to ‘give me away.’ He will be greatly missed.”
Professor Emeritus Rob Schlising and Derr became friends during the year their graduate studies overlapped at the University of Wisconsin.
“We were surprised and pleased years later when we were both hired as botanists by Chico State University. During breaks and any non-busy office hours through the years we animatedly discussed our students’ progress and problems, topics in botany, and also our favorite spectator sport—opera,” Schlising said.
Derr served as chair of the biology department from 1986–94, and also contributed greatly to the University by serving on and chairing committees evaluating and formulating general education curricula, as well as other committees at the department, college, and University levels. He retired in 2005.
Outside of work, friends and colleagues like Ailsie McEnteggart remember him as a skilled craftsman using wood to make beautiful furniture, and he did most of the work on the house he built in Stilson Canyon some years ago. He was also a talented gardener.
He is survived by his daughter Meilani Gore, son Edward, granddaughter Rhiannon and grandson Colin; and sister Joan Navales.
The University flag will be lowered Wednesday, October 28, in his honor. We will share service details when we learn of them.