My Father’s Unusual Gift

Lowell L. Getz

            Fathers often make heavy sacrifices that their children have successful lives, typically expending much of the family resources to ensure their children obtain the best education possible.  However, the most determining thing my father did that gave me a satisfying and successful career, was to develop terminal cancer.

            I left the Army in September 1955 and began a Ph.D. program in zoology at the University of Michigan.  A number of major developments in biology had occurred during the two years I had been on active duty, none of which I was aware of.  The Zoology Department had a comprehensive twelve hour written Preliminary Examination that I was required to take and pass the next April in order to continue in the graduate program.  I was grossly unprepared for the exam.  I plunged into preparing for the exam, taking or auditing eleven courses and reading extensively during the fall and into the spring semester.  Still, I was ill prepared for the exam.

In early March 1956 my father, Carl, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given six months to live.  He was subjected to four weeks of X-ray treatments before going home.  I had no siblings and wanted to be there to help my mother cope with the situation for the first two weeks my father was home.  Because these two weeks overlapped those of the Preliminary Exam, I requested and was granted permission to delay taking the exam until the next fall.  This gave me an additional six months of preparation time.  My father’s cancer progressed as predicted and he died in mid August, at the age of 50.

Photograph of Carl and Lowell Getz

Carl C Getz, with the author on his wedding day, 5 July 1953.

The additional preparation time for the exam was invaluable.  Of the 70 students taking the exam, my score was the highest.  Because of my high score, the Zoology Department nominated me for a predoctoral fellowship, which I was awarded.  I could thus work full-time on my research, without having to serve as a teaching assistant for financial support.

I conducted an intensive field study of small mammals that would not have been possible without the fellowship.  During the study I accumulated data that resulted in a large number of publications.  I also became interested in introduced European slugs that occurred in my study area.  I worked with Dr. Henry van der Schalie, the malacologist at the University of Michigan, on an additional study of the ecology of the slugs.  After I finished my Ph.D. requirements in 1959, Dr. van der Schalie offered me a postdoctoral research position in his program.  This gave me expertise in another discipline, malacology, and allowed me time to publish papers from my doctoral research.  Additional papers resulted from the postdoctoral research.

In 1961, I applied for, and was offered, a faculty position at the University of Connecticut which called for someone whose primary training was in small mammal ecology, but who also had training in malacology.  It appeared the job description had been written specifically for me.  At Connecticut I carried out a federally funded research program that resulted in still more publications.  In 1969 I was offered a position as Professor of Zoology at the University of Illinois, the same department from which I had received my undergraduate degree.  To be able to return to my alma mater, something I had long hoped to be able to do, was the most satisfying achievement of my professional career.  I remained at the University of Illinois until I retired in 1997, serving as Department Head for 12 for years.

Thus, diagnosis of my father’s terminal cancer in March 1956 sent my career in a direction not otherwise imaginable.  Had I taken the Preliminary Examination in April and passed, which is doubtful, my score would not have been exceptionally high.  I would not have been nominated for a fellowship and would have had to conduct a laboratory research project.  I would not have studied slugs and gone to the University of Connecticut, or returned to the University of Illinois.  I may very well have had successful career, but doubtfully one as personally rewarding as was the one I have had.  We cannot change the past.  But, if it were possible to do so, I would change it all in an instant and take my chances, if only my father could have had the additional 27 years of life that I have had.

Copyright Lowell L. Getz 2009