College of LAS « Illinois

Batman and Bobby Knight

A noted university president also knows a thing or two about bats.

2012 LAS Alumni Achievement Award winner David J. Schmidly.
2012 LAS Alumni Achievement Award winner David J. Schmidly.

There’s nothing like a beautiful outdoor dinner with hors d’oeuvres, refreshments, lively conversation, and several million bats.

In the 1990s, when David Schmidly was educating the public on the importance of bats, his Texas A & M-Galveston department would sponsor conservation fundraisers, in which people gathered for a catered meal outside of Bracken Bat Cave near San Antonio.

“It is the largest bat cave in the world, containing anywhere from 10 to 20 million bats,” he says. “The bats fly out just before sunset, and the column stretches for miles into the atmosphere. They come out like a coiled snake.”

Schmidly has had a storied career as a leading naturalist and mammalogist, studying not only bats, but rodents, whales, dolphins, and more. But he coupled his research and teaching with an equally impressive administrative record as president of Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and the University of New Mexico. Such a career has earned him a 2012 LAS Alumni Achievement Award.

Schmidly grew up on a cotton farm just outside of Levelland, which he describes as “the most appropriately named place in Texas.” His family didn’t have a TV or telephone when he was young, so he spent most of the time outdoors playing baseball and “chasing critters. I was after everything—lizards, snakes, frogs, and ground squirrels.”

Sometimes, the critters were also after him. He learned to develop a healthy respect for animals when a rattlesnake struck at him, but didn’t bite. He wasn’t quite as lucky with a ground squirrel, which bit him on the thumb.

“I think these incidents horrified my mother more than me,” he says.

Schmidly was drawn to Illinois because he was interested in deer mice, and one of the world’s experts on them was U of I professor, Donald Hoffmeister. At Illinois, he also cultivated his passion for mammal collections by working in the U of I’s Museum of Natural History.

In fact, after receiving his PhD in zoology at Illinois in 1971, he was offered a job at Chicago’s Field Museum, but he wanted to teach, research, and conduct Extension work, so he chose Texas A & M in College Station. He taught mammalogy and wildlife management and conservation, and he continued to study rodents. He also became an expert on bats, documenting their distribution, understanding their taxonomy, and educating farmers and ranchers on how to conserve and benefit from them.

Today, bats are highly valued for controlling pests in Texas, he says, and “bat houses” have become popular. People even travel from all over to see the bat flight every evening at the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin.

Schmidly also became an expert on whales and dolphins, even though he had never seen the ocean until he left Illinois. It all started with an embarrassing encounter with a stranded whale.

“There was a stranded whale on a beach near Galveston, so they asked if I wanted to come get it for my research,” he recalls. “So I jumped into my truck, drove down to Galveston, and pulled up next to a 10-ton whale in a half-ton pickup. The story even made it into the media: Did you hear about the Aggie professor who went to get a 10-ton whale in a half-ton pickup? After that, I decided I was going to learn something about whales and dolphins.”

Schmidly did more than that. He established an acclaimed marine mammal research program at Texas A & M in Galveston, and he formed the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, which responds to strandings of whales, dolphins, turtles, and other marine creatures.

As an administrator, Schmidly worked on rescue missions of a different sort, boosting sagging enrollment and improving graduate study programs. He went from being CEO and campus administrator at Texas A & M in Galveston to being president of Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and the University of New Mexico.

Schmidly says administrative work “just sort of happened” in the 1980s when the dean asked if he would provide the leadership to boost his struggling academic unit at Texas A & M. Schmidly also built up infrastructures, with close to $2 billion worth of construction on new facilities at all three universities where he was president. He even had a hand in reviving athletic programs, bringing legendary basketball coach Bobby Knight to Texas Tech. He developed a good working relationship and close friendship with Knight.

As he put it, “I had a chance to work with three phenomenal basketball coaches—Bobby Knight, Eddie Sutton, and Steve Alford.” (Sutton and Knight are in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.)

Schmidly retired in 2012, but he is not taking it easy. He is working on two new books, and he plans to continue research on mammals, zeroing in on the effect of climate change on mammal distribution. To start, he will study the mammals most likely to be impacted first by climate change.

That would be bats, of course.

Doug Peterson
11/1/2012

Related Topics

  • Alumni Profiles