La Verne’s sustainable stalwart
Bob Neher promotes environmental consciousness for 50 years and counting.
by Lauren Creiman
photography by Scott Mirimanian
He is the man responsible for the development of the pre-med program at the University of La Verne. He has served on the La Verne City Council, stepped in as interim provost and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and has celebrated a 53-year storied teaching career at La Verne. He is a father, husband, scientist, minister, environmentalist, and the man whom former La Verne mayor Jon Blickenstaff referred to as a “La Verne City Treasure.”
“He” is Dr. Robert Neher, ULV professor of biology. Bob chalks up many of his involvements to circumstances of chance or temporary necessity. It is through these experiences, however, that Bob has helped shape not only the University of La Verne but also the city that surrounds it, while discovering himself along the way.
Bob was literally born into an Illinois academic setting. His father was president of Mount Morris College where his parents were also supervisors in the men’s dormitory. It was there that Bob was delivered on Halloween night 1930 by a doctor rushing from a party still dressed as the devil. The stage was set for Bob’s foray into the world of biology, which was neither desired nor planned. “It was the path of least resistance,” he says. “Biology came naturally to me. I was good at it because I was always immersed in it; therefore, it seemed like the simplest choice. I made my decision based on what seemed like me.” That path of least resistance led to a biology bachelor’s degree from Manchester College, with a stop along the way at Bethany Theological Seminary in Oak Brook, Ill. Bob’s lineage is from a long line of ministers, and, as he did with his education, he made the decision to become ordained because he “ought to give it a try.” He earned his master’s degree in religious education from Bethany in 1957, after which he decided to pursue his doctorate degree in botany at Indiana University.
Decorated with degrees, Bob was not entirely satisfied with his Indiana life. In 1958, a phone call from a distant city offered him a promising opportunity. “I received a call asking me to come to La Verne College and develop the pre-med program, and I took it. This was my chance to make a name for myself in a place where I wouldn’t be forever tied to and compared to my father. I really wanted that chance, so [my wife, son and I] packed up and headed across the country.”
A college in transition
Bob found the 1958 La Verne College campus to be “a lot smaller. There was a sense of community that we like to think we still have today. But it was different then. Each administrator taught at least one class, so there was no real separation between faculty and administration. Everyone was involved; it was a different kind of decision-making.” In his early La Verne days, Bob worked what he said felt like 24 hours a day, acquiring equipment, recruiting quality faculty and serving as the as-needed handyman. “Back then, if you needed something, you just did it yourself,” he says. “We wanted to put a second floor in a closet, so we just did it. When the old gymnasium needed new lights, a student and I just put them in. I even acted as electrician for awhile and rewired Miller Hall. The University wouldn’t even dream of letting students and faculty do that these days.” Despite the long days away from his family and the pressure of creating a new academic program, he says he enjoyed his work and is pleased with the program direction through the years. However, in the typical fashion of a seasoned professor who has dedicated his life to serving others, Bob modestly redirects much of the credit to his colleagues. “I was challenged here; I saw the opportunity to grow something that was good. I am proud of every faculty member that we have and that has stayed and made a commitment to this program. All are outstanding in their own ways. I helped bring them here, and I consider that a great accomplishment—they’re irreplaceable, and I couldn’t get along without them. These are top of the line people who are getting grants, instituting new programs, doing great research and getting us top-notch equipment. I brought them here, but they have continued to do great work. The success of this department depends on its faculty, and we’ve done a pretty good job.”
Jerome Garcia, associate professor of biology and Bob’s former student, recalls him as an instrumental part of his La Verne education. “Bob was able to reach me as a student because he not only taught us the relevance and applicability of the basic concepts of biology but also utilized a kinesthetic teaching style. I will never forget my environmental biology course with Bob. Many of the things we are talking about today as hot environmental topics are things I learned from Bob in 1996.” Now, as his colleague, Jerome is able to absorb even more of Bob’s knowledge and techniques and implement them into his own teaching, in hopes of continuing to forward his memorable education. Says the biology department chair, “My lectures are geared around the relevance and applicability to the student’s everyday life. I have been fortunate to have top-notch professors like Bob, and I have borrowed many of their techniques.”
Although spoken of as a patron saint by his colleagues and students, Bob admits there is a side to him that “has encouraged the making of some stupid decisions.” In hindsight, some are comical. During a trip to the desert with his sons in tow, Bob found in an old mine a 25-pound box of dynamite. They put the sticks in their truck and four-wheeled it to their camp site. There, he snapped the dynamite in half and proceeded to burn it. “I didn’t know that old dynamite crystallizes and can explode from being handled wrong. I also didn’t realize that this dynamite was corroded, and that the nitroglycerin gathered in a large pool under the fire,” he laughs. “Dynamite can be burned in a fire as a means of disposal, which is what we were trying to do. I thought I knew what I was doing, because I’d done it once before with one stick of dynamite on my father-in-law’s farm a few years before. Well, it turns out that I didn’t, and the nitroglycerin made the fire blow up. It sent sticks and stones all over the place, and we were lucky we didn’t get hurt.” He chuckles at the memory. This is the Bob Neher his students know: fun, interactive and sometimes fascinatingly impulsive, which add up to make Bob a great educator.
After more than half a century at La Verne, Bob is the sturdy pillar around which the entire Natural Science Department is built. His everlasting dedication to the University has meant many hours and dollars sacrificed, but Bob would not have it any other way. He became the man whom everyone could count on to take the lead in uncertain times. “We Nehers are really good interim people,” Bob says, referring to his time as interim provost and vice president of academic affairs from 2000 to 2001 and again from 2003 to 2004. “I was offered the position because they were looking for someone who wouldn’t hurt the college. They knew I was 100 percent committed to the school. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but at least I didn’t wreck anything,” he chuckles. Bob also served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1975 to 1976 and has been the chairman of the Natural Sciences Division since 1978. Administrative positions were always carefully and often reluctantly taken by Bob, who watched the faculty-administration relationship change drastically over the years. “By the time I was asked to be provost, we really had an administration that was separate from the faculty, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to ‘lower’ myself to an administrative level.”
Of his many posts, Bob treasures his position as Natural Sciences Division chairman the most. In that role, he is responsible for keeping the sciences together instead of as separate departments. This feat is one of Bob’s greatest points of pride because it has contributed to the integration of programs that Bob considers crucial to a well-rounded science education. ”What I would like to see happen in the Biology Department is something that is already happening: We’re creating a multi-faceted department that’s not just designed to train students in health sciences, but also to prepare them for going to graduate school, which focuses on more basic subjects and research.” The benefit of this science division, he says, is everyone can work together and support each other.
Although Bob foresees more space issues as enrollment in the program continues to increase, he is most excited for the program’s reputation as the provider of a quality education. “It will be challenging to fit all these students and still give them that great education, but I see us getting more equipment to allow seamless movement from class into lab, and I know we will make it work.”
Nowhere to build but up
When Bob first drove past Indio, Calif., en route to La Verne in 1958—after the long car ride through the sweltering desert—he started to see lots of green, and he was relieved. “The cross-country ride was difficult for my wife Mary,” Bob recalls. “We were in a car without air conditioning, and Mary was pregnant with our son Jon and trying to keep our son Kenneth comfortable and occupied. When we came to the San Gabriel Valley and saw the citrus groves, that’s when she started to think we could live here. It was beautiful and green here, but the smog was terrible. Back then people still used smudgepots to keep the groves from freezing, and when you got up in the morning, the smog was so bad that it was hard to breathe.” Bob adjusted quickly to life in the city of La Verne. The greenery offered the familiar comfort of home, but he found the society to be much more tolerant than the “bigoted society of close-knit, prejudiced people” he left back East. As Bob became more involved in the University, he also began to involve himself in city matters. Before long, he had established the city recycling program and joined the city’s Planning Committee.
Despite opposing all development proposals that came through the committee, Bob says he was outnumbered and alone in his quest to prevent the entire wipeout of the citrus groves. Mayor Frank Johnson encouraged Bob to run for La Verne City Council if he wanted to make a difference. With the help of his colleagues, Bob was elected to the City Council in 1976. His first Council meeting is one that he will never forget, for it shaped the philosophy behind Bob’s decision-making process. “A developer came in with a proposal, and, of course I opposed the measure,” Bob says. “I remember we debated a little. I told the developer I could see both sides, and he got angry. Then he said something that stuck with me forever: ‘If you can see both sides of the issue, then you have no money invested in it!’ That got me thinking: Are the decisions I make based on the kind of profit I will make, or based on what is right?”
The City Council became a sounding board for Bob, who was determined to find a way to block rapid overdevelopment of the area, but he found it more difficult than anticipated. Patience, he said, became his most powerful tool, for he often had to mention an idea several times until it took root in another council member’s mind and sounded like a good idea. Through patience and the clever means of causing others to think his ideas were their own, Bob was able to change how the Council looked at development and the environment in La Verne.
Bob says his greatest accomplishment on the City Council was his use of the only tool he had to affect the nature of development: rezoning efforts. “Since we couldn’t really stop development, the best we could do was put restrictions on zoning of the development in order to lessen its impact, even if just slightly. For example, we could put zoning restrictions that would limit housing development to one house per acre as opposed to three, in order to decrease the possibility of overcrowded land.”
After eight years on the City Council, Bob grew tired of the political aspect of his position and left the Council in 1984. “I’m not a politician, so I didn’t enjoy that side of City Council,” he says. “I was still disturbed by the rate of development, too. Sometimes it seemed like there was nothing we could do to keep it from happening.” After spending years analyzing the city of La Verne, Bob sees many challenges ahead in regards to growth. The midwesterner in him still admires the city, regarding it as an interesting middle ground where the quality of life is still good, and it still feels small-town. However, the environmentalist in Bob fears for any further attempts to develop La Verne, and he says quality of life could be at risk. “I think the city has taken all the direction it can; everything is pretty fully developed. The only place to build is up. The city ought to reconsider the existing codes to allow for higher buildings if it doesn’t want to diminish the quality of life by overcrowding already developed areas.” Bob sees a need for more development of the University itself, including more efficient use of the Brown property, building the often-promised athletic pavilion and allowing the extension of existing buildings to four or five stories in order to make use of existing space.
In addition to University development, Bob calls for more parks in La Verne. “We have a La Verne Land Conservancy Committee that bought undeveloped land in northern La Verne and gave it to the city to use for recreation purposes. We envisioned that the city would make use of the property and connect the trails up there to the Claremont trails, but they refuse at present. It’s an unfortunate thing; if they did it, it would be a boom for the community, not to mention environmentally sound.”
A lasting legacy and an uncertain future
After enlightening the minds of “too many students to count” during a teaching career of more than half a century, Bob has begun making retirement plans. Persistent vocal problems have kept him out of the classroom and led him to the decision to retire by the end of 2013. “I’m basically on an extended contract right now, since I can’t teach at the moment,” he says. “There’s a lot to be done in terms of shifting my responsibilities to someone else.” The obligation that takes the most consideration is his position as chairman of the Natural Sciences Department, which is a daunting task to hand over. “Vision is what makes Bob a tremendous leader and professor,” Jerome says. “The environment, high impact practices in science education, the interconnectedness of the natural sciences, and research are concepts that Bob practiced and implemented when I was an undergraduate student here, and I am sure they were done before my time.”
Although the intricate process of shifting his responsibilities into other capable hands has Bob preoccupied, it is the looming lack of preoccupation that concerns him most. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself once I retire,” he chuckles. “My favorite places to be are the Biology Department’s Montana field station and my office.” Bob glances around at his spacious office, walled in full bookcases and dominating plant that has been given ample time to grow along the ceiling. “I’ll really miss this office,” he says. “It’s been my second home for so many years. I suppose that retirement will give me more time to spend with the family,” which includes his wife Mary, sons Kenneth, Jon and Daniel and grandchildren Hayley, Natale, Carly and Wesley.
As he reflects upon his life and his time spent at La Verne, Bob says he has only a few regrets. “One day, at the time when I was dean of the school, mayor pro-tem and moderator of the local Church of the Brethren, it dawned on me that I kind of owned La Verne,” he remembers. “I was just riding my bike, and I realized that this was my town. I wish that I had exerted a little more of the power I had to do things.” Bob says that he is not sure why he did not take advantage of the power he had, but believes he may have been afraid of it. “I liked the influence that I could have, but power is a dangerous thing because you can attempt to interject too many of your ideas on other people. I don’t like when it’s done to me, which is probably why I chose to sell my ideas to others instead. I probably could have accomplished so much more if I had exerted a little more of that power, though.”
Bob also has a few personal regrets; he says that despite the many weekend field trips he took to the desert and the foothills, he wishes that he had expanded his exploration of the sea and sky. “If I could go back in time, I would have learned to swim better,” he sighs. “I could have done cooler things within my field if I swam better, like scuba diving and sea exploration. I also wish that I had learned how to fly. I know I projected this desire onto my sons. One of them got his pilot’s license, and he took me flying once; it was a freeing experience that I wish I had the opportunity to experience more.”
All regrets aside, Bob says he is proud of what he has done at La Verne and hopes to continue his service to the school in some form. His dedication has led him to gradually give a large amount of his salary back to the Natural Sciences Department. Bob currently keeps only 49 percent of his salary, and donates the rest toward extra money for other faculty salaries, renovation and equipment for the Montana research station and other worthy causes. “Once you reach a certain age, you realize that you don’t need that much to survive on,” he says. “So I decided to donate the extra money I don’t need back to the University. Even after I retire, I still plan to devote my time here, especially at the Montana field station.”
Despite the incessant talk of retirement, Jerome is skeptical that Bob will be able to stay away for very long. “The new trend in sports is to announce your retirement and then un-retire,” he says. “I’m hoping Bob will do the same as his leadership guidance, counsel and friendship will be missed.”
“My favorite place: The Magpie Ranch”
Bob Neher’s favorite place to spend his time is the University of La Verne’s Clark Ford Field Research Facility, nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains in Drummond, Mont. The station occupies more than 160 acres of rugged, forested land on Baldy Mountain and two smaller parcels of land along the Clark Fork River. The area along the river is dubbed the “Magpie Ranch” and is being developed as a self-contained, multipurpose, year-round research facility that uses solar power to supply its energy needs.
The station is open to students and alumni during the summer and has been run by Bob and his wife Mary for the past 17 years. Research projects at the ranch include species and population level studies, reproduction and life history studies, and plant and animal surveys.
The dream to create Magpie Ranch came to fruition in the early 1990s when La Verne alumnus Richard Base and his family donated 160 acres of timberland on Baldy Mountain in Montana. However, the property can only be accessed by an undeveloped logging road that is unsafe during bad weather, which made the land impractical for a permanent facility site. Bob then went searching on several occasions for additional land to find a location suitable for the facility site. In July 1996, a group of volunteers spent nearly 2,000 labor hours to build the facility that hosts the laboratory, storage facility, dormitory, kitchen and recreation space at the station.
Now, students spend between one and three weeks at the ranch every summer conducting their own research and projects. Bob says he always welcomes more guests and plans to continue spending his time at his beloved field station.