U professor dies after 30-year tenure

Patrick Hayes

As a professor in the Department of Ecology and curator of mammals at the Bell Museum, Elmer Birney, 60, always made sure he was available to help others and never turned away a person in need of his help or advice.
During his 30-year tenure at the University, he didn’t seek out power or fame but was a person who naturally cared about other people, said Scott Lanyon, Bell Museum of Natural History director.
Birney died Sunday at his home from a heart attack while caring for his cattle.
His love of and curiosity about animals dated back to his early years growing up on a farm in Kansas.
Always interested in living things, Birney wondered what it would be like to crossbreed varieties of livestock and poultry during his early years on the farm.
When he found out he could make a living studying plants and animals, he knew he had found his niche.
Birney earned a degree in biology at Fort Hays State University in Kansas in 1963 and a master’s in 1965.
He continued his graduate studies at the University of Kansas and earned a Ph.D. in Zoology in 1970. He then joined the University of Minnesota faculty.
Since 1972 he had taught a popular course in the study of mammals.
He started his job as curator of mammals for the Bell Museum in 1970, Lanyon said. At the museum he formed a collection of 16,000 specimens, not for himself but for the scientific community.
When the museum needed someone with the vision and ability to keep it going during a critical time, the museum turned to Birney.
“He helped make sure that the museum still exists today,” Lanyon said. He served as director from 1990 to 1992.
On top of all his other responsibilities, Birney agreed to head the graduate program in ecology in 1985.
“It’s hard enough to find a faculty member who will do it for two or three years,” Lanyon said. “Elmer did it for 15 years.”
For Birney, the job was more than just a title.
“He really spent a lot of his time and energy thinking how he could help graduate students and make sure they didn’t stumble in their graduate careers,” Lanyon said.
As the director he served as a mentor for his students and was always ready to help them.
Birney was also passionately involved in the American Society of Mammalogists. He was president of the organization from 1988 to 1990, and in 1999 the society awarded him the Hartley H.T. Jackson award for his outstanding service.
“He leaves a huge hole. … It will be very obvious for a long time that he’s no longer with us,” Lanyon said.
“Every day we’ll become more and more aware of what isn’t getting done, how we can no longer have someone to turn to,” he added.
Birney is survived by his wife, a son and daughter.