A Tribute to Levins – by Harold Heatwole


I did not submit a paper or a testimonial because, when I received the invitation, I was planning to be in Australia doing research at the time of the Festschrift.  Research can be postponed, however, and there is only one opportunity to celebrate the 85th birthday of a friend of more than half a century.  Consequently, I changed my plans.  At the meeting I belatedly offered to give a testimonial, but all the time had already been filled.  Consequently, I am writing a tribute for distribution to participants in the Festschrift.  It was written from memory, and as such is subject to the foibles of recall after decades have passed.  If there are errors of detail, perhaps either Dick or Mary Lou can correct them.

Most of the testimonials have emphasized Dick’s academic acumen, his mentorship, and his social concerns.  I decided to take a more personal approach and provide anecdotes to reveal the warmth and courage of a personal friend.

I had difficulty in deciding which reminiscences to include.  I considered mentioning the time that it took three of us to drive my beetle VW home from an evening of visiting bars in Old San Juan (with me steering and operating the clutch, Dick grinding gears, and Tom as the designated singer), but I thought that might not be appropriate.  Then I considered mentioning the memorable party at Eunice Boardman’s marine supply store on Beef Island, British Virgin Islands, where the entertainment of the evening was divided between my playing an harmonica and Dick dancing (while frantically waving for me to stop), and Eunice’s dog having puppies.  Again, I thought that might be considered trivial.

Finally I decided to talk about our adventures stemming from a field project on island biogeography in which Mary Lou (Pressick) Coulston, another attendee of the Festschrift, also features.  Mary Lou and I have known Dick longer than most of the other people at the Festschrift.  We go back to Dick’s days at the University of Puerto Rico in the early 1960s.  Mary Lou was his first graduate student and Dick and I collaborated in research.

Dick had a farm at the western end of Puerto Rico and did his writing there several days each week; the rest of the week he came to Rio Piedras and gave his lectures at the university.  During the latter time, he lived at my home and became an important friend to my small children, who now in their mid-fifties still often speak of Dick in fond terms.  On occasions when arriving on a Sunday evening he would announce that he was “putting them under a threat”, which meant that at some undesignated time before he left on Wednesday evening, he would tickle them.  My youngest son Miguel still remembers the apprehensive uncertainty as to when that would occur as “delicious terror”.  At breakfast, Dick operated the toaster and the children’s appeal for “more toast Dick Levins” became bywords still occasionally used, even in the absence of Dick, in memory of those happy days.

When Dick and Rosario went to Cuba to help set up a genetics institute there, my wife Audry and I kept their children, Lori (Aurora) and Ricardo, in our home until their parents’ return.  That, and my other association with Dick, led to the FBI fruitlessly following me, an apolitical person, for years afterward.

Dick and I had a joint research project that consisted of a faunal survey of the islands and cays (keys) of the Puerto Rican/Virgin Island archipelago to test emerging theories of island biogeography.  That association led to a greater knowledge of, and expertise in, analytical techniques for me, and a greater appreciation for natural history for Dick—as he put it “to love ants for themselves”.

Despite an NSF grant, our funds were limited and sometimes we would have a fisherman drop us off on an uninhabited island with a promise to pick us up some days later (we paid half the fare when dropped off, and the rest when picked up).  Later we had a small boat and five-horsepower outboard motor, which meant that on more than one occasion we had to be towed back to Puerto Rico.  Finally, we graduated to a 13-foot Boston Whaler and a decent motor.  One summer we gave a course in island biogeography.  It consisted of two professors (Dick and myself), one teaching assistant (Mary Lou), a boat driver/research assistant (Faustino MacKenzie), and one student (talk about staff to student ratios!).  During the day we conducted our surveys as part of the practical part of the course, and in the evening we gave lectures, using the sand of the beach as a “blackboard”, and a stick as “chalk”.  MacKenzie was the waiter who took our orders as to the kind of fish we wanted for dinner and grabbed his spear gun to comply.  One of the achievements of our research was the discovery of an undescribed species of lizard from Desecheo Island, which I officially named Sphaerodactylus levinsi.

On one occasion, we were going to survey some of the small islands in the British Virgin Islands.  I had gone to the larger island of Tortola ahead of Dick and from thence to a tiny island, Sandy Cay.  It was so small you could walk around the entire perimeter in just a few minutes and it was only about two feet above high-tide level.  I took my wife, Audry, and my two small children, Eric and Miguel, with me to have a few days of restful solitude on an uninhabited island.  The plan was for the kids to look for shells and play on the beach while Audry and I collected specimens of whatever terrestrial wildlife might be found on this minute speck of land.

A fisherman dropped us off on Sandy Cay and was going to pick us up another day when Dick arrived to continue to survey other, larger islands.  In those days, the technology had not yet developed for advanced warning of tropical storms.  Our idyllic holiday was interrupted by threatening, dark purple clouds and the mild seabreeze freshening into an ominous wind.  Having no radio, we didn’t know what was looming but we were sure we were in for serious trouble.  We knew that a severe storm could swamp our tiny island, so we took what precautions we could.  We put a large plastic bag in each of two duffel bags, and a blanket in each and decided that if the storm became severe, we could at least put a child in each duffel bag and hang the bags from the limb of a tree in hope the tree would remain upright in the event of a washover.  We wedged the teddy bear (Pooh Bear) of my oldest son Eric into the crotch of the tree, and waited for the worst.  As night fell, the wind worsened and we despaired.  Later Audry said “I think I hear someone shouting”.  I hadn’t heard it and thought it was just a trick of the wind, but then we saw the flicker of a flashlight, grabbed the children, and raced toward it, entirely forgetting about Pooh Bear.  Dick had arrived in Tortola and when the weather took a turn for the worse and the forecast was for an imminent storm, he tried to hire a fisherman to go to Sandy Cay to rescue us.  No one wanted to do it, but Dick persisted and finally found someone who was willing to take the risk.  Dick never revealed what inducement he had to offer to achieve that.  He accompanied the fisherman to make sure the mission was actually carried out.

We loaded the kids into the peak of the boat to keep them as protected as possible, but every time a wave would wash over they would shout and laugh, not appreciating the danger they were in.  The ride to Tortola was rough and as we approached the shore we could see a tiny light. Unbelievable, but true to the finest tradition of seafaring novels, the fisherman’s wife had a light in the window to help guide him back!

During the Festschrift I was thinking that except for the courage and altruism of Dick Levins, my whole family and I may have perished on Sandy Cay and I would not have been present at the celebration of his 85th birthday.  On the other hand, the personal risk he took to accompany the rescue was great, and had the boat been lost in the attempt, the Festschrift would never have taken place and the world would have lost a scholar of towering intellect, a very human man of warmth and sincerity, and a visionary of a better world.  Happy Birthday, Dick!

Epilogue: Later, I returned to Sandy Cay to retrieve Pooh Bear; his haven in the tree didn’t save him, and he was lost in the storm.  Audry made Eric another one, but it just wasn’t the same.

Harold Heatwole
Professor of Biology
North Carolina State University
31 May 2015