April 13, 2004

Alan Woolf, 63, loses year-long battle with cancer

by Paula M. Davenport

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Alan Woolf, 63, only the second person ever to head the highly respected wildlife research lab at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, died Monday, April 12, at home, surrounded by his wife and daughter, after a valiant year-long battle with cancer.

A hard-charger whose "passion" was protecting wildlife and its increasingly threatened habitats, Woolf became assistant director -- under founder and then-director Willard D. Klimstra -- at the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at SIUC in 1979. He was 39.A memorial service is set for 11 a.m. Saturday, April 17, in the SIUC Wham Building Auditorium. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions go to the SIUC general scholarship fund, c/o of the SIU Foundation, Carbondale, IL 62901.

A unique program within the University's Graduate School, the lab emphasizes training and research in the principles and applications of ecology and wildlife biology.

"Dr. Woolf's legacy will live through his contributions to the wildlife profession. His insight, backbone and attention to detail ensured a quality product we could be proud of. Most of all, he cared deeply about natural resources. He was and will continue to be an inspiration to do our best," said Bob Bluett, a wildlife biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which often contracted with the lab for research.During Woolf's tenure, the laboratory pioneered techniques to transform massive old strip coal mines into havens for fish and waterfowl and increased understanding of bobcats, deer, tundra swans, quail, geese, ducks, river otters and more.

A native of Mount Vernon, N.Y., Woolf served as research director of the Rachelwood Wildlife Research Preserve in New Florence, Pa., before Klimstra hand-picked him to be second in command here, where he was also a zoology professor.

And he succeeded Klimstra as the lab's director in 1987.

An expert on wildlife diseases, it was Woolf who in 1981 made the alarming discovery -- during a state-ordered survey on whitetail deer -- of the presence of previously undetected but toxic heavy metals and other pollutants on nearby Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge.

That news led to the refuge's eventual designation and cleanup as a federal Superfund site.

A stickler for accuracy, Woolf held himself and the lab's graduate students to the strictest standards imaginable.

"He was very dedicated, extremely dedicated," said Jack Nawrot, a research scientist at the lab who worked with Woolf for 25 years.

And though he possessed a wonderfully dry wit, when it came to the integrity and precision of the lab's work there was no joking around.

"When it came to his profession, he was extremely serious. And as far as the professionalism of our students, they've been recognized as some of the best going into state and government agencies and academic institutions," Nawrot added.

Since its inception, more than 300 students at the master's and doctoral levels have been awarded degrees and their employment rate approaches 100 percent.

And in the last two decades or so, the lab attracted more than $13 million in contracts and grants.

Woolf proudly oversaw it all.

"He was just such a dynamic personality. He's going to be so missed around here," Woolf's long-time secretary, Char Burrell, said with a lump in her throat. "He was a driving force of this department."

And despite his illness, he worked up until about two weeks ago, she said. Woolf did not believe in sugar coating things or backing down from his beliefs. Said Nawrot, "If he believed something was the right thing to do, by God that was what you did. Over the years, he had clashes with the University's administrators, but he also had visions of what the lab was and what it should be doing professionally -- and he never compromised his principles for politics."

Woolf is survived by his wife, Jill, and daughter Rachel, a student at the University of Illinois.

He held two degrees from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., a bachelor's in wildlife management (1962) and a doctorate in wildlife science and veterinary pathology (1972).

He earned his master's degree in wildlife ecology at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. (1967).

He served on the endangered species board in Illinois and had belonged to the American Institute of Biological Science, the American Society of Mammalogists, The Wildlife Society and the Wildlife Disease Association.

An avid pilot, he also became an accomplished photographer.