Bathed in the dusky haze of the afternoon sun, the smell of freshly mowed grass hovering as an undeniable harbinger of spring, the University of La Verne baseball and softball teams on April 8 don...
For 55 years, Dr. Robert Neher has educated La Verne biology students and will retire with the respect and admiration of those he has touched — except one nasty python.
In the early 1970s as La Verne biology professors Bob Neher and Harvey Good sat on the floor, holding the massive 14-foot-long python so that its cage could be cleaned out, Good said that he wanted to show Neher how to hypnotize the python. He stroked its head, which seemed to hypnotize it — until he moved his hand away, giving it enough time to turn its head, open its mouth and sink its 200 teeth into his arm. It then coiled around Neher, making it difficult for either man to get out of its grip.
Good was in excruciating pain and Neher instructed an assistant to bring him a tool or anything that could force the python to release its grip. The stunned assistant returned with a large knife and then quickly disappeared, leaving Neher and Good to fight off the snake alone. After several attempts to knock out the python’s teeth with the knife — which resulted in a bloody mess — Neher got hold of a screwdriver and broke the snake’s jaw to release Good’s arm.
The meanest python Neher had ever met lived in the science department for another year until one morning when he found it belly up and “deader than a door nail” in its cage. He opened the window and threw the python outside to prevent the room from smelling. Neher tried very hard to keep a straight face as he broke the news to Good that one of his greatest friends was dead. Upon learning the truth, Good broke into a big grin. The next thing Neher knew, Good was outside his window, cutting the head off of the python, which he still keeps in his office.
As Neher told his La Verne tales, his longtime employee and friend, Sharla Geist, passed behind him and exclaimed that he is the best person in her life.
“I think you believe that,” Neher said.
“I KNOW it,” Geist said.
Geist, Natural Science Division Coordinator, joined others in preparing a slideshow for Neher’s retirement dinner in April.
“Don’t make it too sentimental; I’ll cry,” Neher joked, as Canon in D Major played in the background. “I want this to be happy, happy, joking, funny.”
“He’s such a kind-hearted person,” Geist said. “He’s my best friend and he’s been like a father.”
Geist said Neher has helped her become a better person, both professionally and personally — much the same thing he has done for hundreds of students and colleagues throughout his 55 years as a faculty member and interim provost.
“He’s a wonderful person, he is a good friend, he has a good sense of humor and he is willing to work with students to accomplish their goals,” said Good, now Professor Emeritus. “He does set high standards and expects a lot from his students, but he is reasonable in helping them to meet the challenges.”
After taking biology with Neher as a junior physical education major in 1958, Good changed his major to biology.
Neher has been truly dedicated to his students and says he was always concerned with what they learned and with helping them become better people.
“When you work with students, you have a chance to have some influence on their lives,” Neher said. “I really hope we can keep those values that we have, with the focus on our students, and seeing that they get a good education. I also hope that they’re inspired to learn how important science is and what they can contribute to it, because every single one of them has the potential to contribute to the body of knowledge that’s so helpful to society in general. The students are fantastic, and they’re what keep your sense of humor and keep you young, or at least you feel young.”
When Neher began his tenure in 1958, La Verne College was vastly different from the growing university on the same grounds today.
“When I came, the place was kind of a ramshackle school,” Neher said. “We didn’t have the money to keep it up.”
The original budget for the science department, which Neher developed into the natural sciences division, was about $400. Under his leadership, faculty with an interest in research have brought in millions of dollars in grants to the department throughout the past 20 years. He led the development of the natural science division and has inspired faculty as well as students.
Neher plans to stick around the University of La Verne and the Montana Magpie Ranch field research station to conduct research. The field station, which is located near Drummond, Mont., has been a place for students and faculty to conduct research and learn more about nature since the 1990s. It was Neher who spearheaded the Montana field station project, convincing President Emeritus Steve Morgan that it was a great opportunity for the university, and that Neher could make it happen.
“When Bob said he’d make something work, you knew he would,” Morgan said. “And you always knew Bob would be wise with expenditures, and that he’d never waste a dollar. He’d make it go as far as it could.”
Students and faculty who visit Magpie Ranch are able to conduct research that they would not be able to conduct on La Verne’s main campus. That research includes species and population studies, plant and animal surveys, and pollution studies.
“What sticks out in my mind is seeing him in the field at Magpie Ranch with his curiosity and passion for learning alongside students,” said Jonathan Reed, Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at La Verne. “Even at 82, he has a childlike enthusiasm for discovery. He’s still excited to discover, to ask questions, to inquire, to turn over rocks, to look up trees and to walk around fields and discover nature. It’s contagious. Anybody who has seen him in the field or in Montana has seen the real Bob. His legacy will be the development of a large group of faculty over time who shape La Verne and his legacy will also be what the Magpie Ranch in Montana represents.”
Because of Neher’s vision and leadership, generations of students and faculty to come will have an opportunity to learn about science and conduct research that they might not have otherwise.
“He knows how to inspire and he has vision,” said Jerome Garcia, Associate Professor of Biology at La Verne and a former student of Neher’s. “A lot of the things we younger faculty enjoy today is because of Bob’s vision.”
Several members of the science division recognize Neher’s impact and feel that the department would not be what it is today had it not been for Neher.
“He’s the rock of the department,” Professor of Biology Kat Weaver said. “He’s very supportive of all the faculty.”
Neher’s passion for biology and teaching was learned at an early age from his father, who was also a biology professor. Oscar Neher taught his son about conservation and sustainability half a century before such topics became fashionable.
“The whole concept of sustainability is one that has captured my imagination for a long time and has helped me develop the environmental classes that I’ve had,” Neher said.
That fascination with sustainability and conservation led Neher to teach classes such as environmental biology to help students understand the importance of protecting the environment.
But Neher doesn’t believe in forcing his ideas or beliefs on others, which is good because he has learned from his trips to Montana that his ideas and values are rarely in line with locals there.
“Up there, I’m called a tree hugger and a granola eater,” Neher said. “With my friends, that’s OK, because they know what I think. But I don’t try to make them think what I think, so it works out pretty well. They like me because I work hard and, to them, that’s really important. I don’t do things which degrade what they believe in and I’ve learned a lot up there because it’s a totally different culture from here.”
Neher, who has largely focused on sustainability and conservation, may be a tree hugger in Montana, but at La Verne he is a true visionary. He organized the first Earth Day celebration at La Verne in 1970 and was able to bring renowned biologist Paul Ehrlich to campus.
“Part of his legacy is the way in which sustainability has been woven into the fabric of life at the university,” Reed said. “He was thinking about sustainability and the importance of the ecosystem to human well-being long before it was popular. He really was ahead of his time and now it’s what we all take for granted as part of La Verne, as part of our values.”
Because of his growing concern for the environment and overdevelopment in La Verne, Neher spent eight years on the City Council working to address those issues.
It all leads back to Neher’s values as a Christian. He is also an ordained minister.
“Since I am a Christian, I know my moral values,” Neher said. “I try to go a little past that, in terms of what is right just for me, and I have to expand it and think what’s right for you, what’s right for him and what’s right for her. That doesn’t always equate to the same thing. Should I really get everything I can? Is that morally right? Or, do I share a little more than what I had been sharing? I try to make decisions today not on what affects my pocketbook, but on what I feel is right.”
Morgan, who first met Neher when he took biology as a sophomore in 1965, described Neher as a natural leader and a natural choice for two terms as interim provost.
“People trusted him,” Morgan said. “His word was his bond. He was always very direct and he told the truth and you knew that about him. He didn’t play games and I always appreciated that. He is one of those who will go down in the history of La Verne as having given his career to La Verne and having made a huge difference.”
Neher has been a rock and a pillar to all in the La Verne community; students, faculty, staff and even animals that needed his help. After dedicating 55 years of his life to La Verne, he is likely to be remembered for his longtime dedication to not only the people of the community and institution, but also for his care of various critters throughout the years, including skunks, possums, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, hawks, spiders and tortoises.
Even one nasty python.
“You think of the kind of impact a teacher such as Bob Neher has on generations of students — and I know the kind of impact he had on me and it affects the way I live my life and the way I look at the world — that’s quite an impact,” Morgan said. “He’s touched thousands of lives in very meaningful ways and he’s touched this university because he’s been one of those pillars, one of those foundation blocks that you could always look to for stability and a representation of the values and what we think of the University of La Verne.”
Story by Susan Acker
Public Relations Office, University of La Verne