By Dave Waddell
It is impossible to imagine the Chico State campus without its many beloved trees. While its stately brick buildings provide character to the campus, the trees provide its living heart and memory. Dawn redwood. American chestnut. Monkeypuzzle tree. Western sycamore. Canary Island palm. These are among the 220 species of woody plants that make up Chico State’s amazing arboretum.
For more than half a century, one man has been instrumental in nurturing and defending the campus arboretum: Wes Dempsey, professor emeritus of biology.
About 1990, Wes Dempsey, nearing the end of his career as a CSU, Chico professor, ventured out of Holt Hall and onto something alarming.
An ancient valley oak, holding sway over Big Chico Creek, had been drenched by sprinklers. As Dempsey recalls it, two inches of water had gathered around the base of the tree, sealing off its roots from life-giving oxygen.
“That lit my fuse, boy,” says Dempsey. “I began to write everyone in power: ‘We’re the only people in the state that would water a valley oak!’ ” Dempsey’s passionate advocacy on behalf of old trees, including some planted in the 1800s by Chico founder John Bidwell, has helped preserve and enhance the University’s impressive arboretum. Ever the educator, Dempsey has been informing and inspiring students and community members about plants and trees since his arrival at then Chico State College during the early years of the Eisenhower administration. At 83, Dempsey continues to give tours of the campus arboretum, as well as of Bidwell Park—his talks enlivened by a love of history and a delight in storytelling.
“So, I’m still teaching,” says Dempsey.
“Never stopped,” adds Phyllis, his wife of 59 years.
Dempsey, selected in 2008 as the College of Natural Sciences’ first distinguished professor emeritus and also inducted into the Emeritus and Retired Faculty Association’s Hall of Honor last May, was part of a university culture that helped foster today’s ubiquitous sustainability movement. These faculty valued preserving native California plants and old trees over management practices that gave preference to sprawling lawns and lush plots of roses, camellias, and azaleas.
“They wanted to make this an English garden,” says Dempsey. “An English garden in Chico? Forget it.”
Be that as it may, the Chico State of today is a beautiful mix of manicured lawns and towering trees, of colorful gardens and natural riparian habitat. Campus recruitment officials know well the allure of the University’s physical appearance, which is why prospective students are urged to visit Chico before choosing a university. And it is not uncommon for alumni, when asked about their fondest Chico memories, to mention the trees that shaded their studies here.
Trees and CSU, Chico: It’s really no wonder that they’re associated. “We have probably the best soil in the world, and it’s deep,” says Dempsey. With the creek running through campus and a high water table, “trees only have to get their roots down six to eight feet and there’s water.”
Dempsey thinks Chico State’s old trees rival anything in Northern California north of Capitol Park in Sacramento and the arboretum at the University of California, Davis. “In spite of how stupid we’ve been and how neglectful, we have a nice collection of trees,” says Dempsey. “Trees are intertwined with our campus history. Each one has a story to tell, and I’m kind of a repository of those stories.”
From top to bottom: Wes Dempsey as a young boy (bottom right of photo) with his family; in his dress uniform; during paratrooper training; with his wife, Phyllis, four sons, and their families at the Emeritus and Retired Faculty Association ceremony in May 2010.
General Bidwell’s tree legacy
Dempsey’s story-telling tours usually begin just off campus at Bidwell Mansion, near where John Bidwell planted many varieties of trees in the last half of the 19th century. Bidwell left behind “an accurate and wonderful diary” that provides a wealth of information about trees he planted, notes Dempsey.
Not least among them is a soaring Southern magnolia that was planted in 1863, five years before construction of the mansion began.
“You can see why,” says Dempsey. “He wanted to shade his porch. In five years in this soil, you can get some pretty good shade.”
Bidwell also planted double rows of California incense cedars that extended westerly from the mansion’s backyard about a quarter of a mile, says Dempsey. One of those cedars still stands along Warner Street between Whitney and Tehama halls. Dempsey, who delights in reading old maps, has seen Bidwell’s cedars depicted in an 1875 map that provided an aerial view of Chico in the imagination of the artist.
Grinning at his own vision, the teacher who has given more than 1,000 campus and park tours has an image of General Bidwell, standing on his back porch, looking down those seemingly endless rows of cedars, and saying: “It’s mine; it’s all mine.”
If Bidwell were to do today what Dempsey imagines him doing in the 1800s, his gaze would surely land on Sutter Hall, the new five-story residence hall erected next to Whitney Hall. Because a university, by its very nature, is a constantly changing entity, notes Dempsey, the preservation of trees and other living things is an ongoing challenge.
Dempsey remains a member of the campus arboretum committee, a role in which he seems to have more “job” security than a Supreme Court justice. Other members of the committee can depend on his vigilance: “They know I’m out there keeping an eye on things.”
The entire 119-acre CSU, Chico campus was dedicated as an arboretum on Arbor Day in 1982, and more than 200 species of woody plants are identified on a 2001 map and guide to campus trees that was edited by Dempsey. Last winter, in an effort led by Dempsey, about 300 of the campus’s “heritage trees” were adorned with new identification tags that list both their common and scientific names, says Durbin Sayers (BA, Anthropology, ’82), who manages the University’s landscaping and grounds. Four times a semester, Sayers acts as Dempsey’s assistant guide on free 90-minute arboretum tours that begin at the Bidwell Mansion’s gazebo (for tour dates, call 530-898-6222).
In Dempsey’s view, among the campus trees that have historical significance are
- A number of valley oaks along the creek, planted perhaps 200 years ago by gray squirrels and scrub jays.
- A half-dozen surviving American chestnuts adjacent to the creek near Holt Hall that Bidwell’s diary says were first harvested by him and wife Annie in 1880. The trees still yield spiny fruits containing a brown nut that both squirrels and people find delicious, says Dempsey. The rings in neighboring chestnuts that collapsed through the years indicate the grove was planted in 1870.
What Dempsey describes as a “magnificent” row of 140-year-old large European lindens between Butte Hall and the creek.
A number of London plane trees and incense cedars, between Trinity and Kendall halls, that are estimated to date back to before the turn of the 20th century. A 1902 photo of the Chico Normal School football team shows several of those trees, most likely including the towering, arching London plane in front of Kendall Hall that’s been dedicated as the “Founders Tree,” according to Dempsey.
- A beautiful and rare dawn redwood (see cover photo), which is among Dempsey’s favorite campus trees, adjacent to the pedestrian bridge linking Holt Hall with Selvester’s Café. Believed to be extinct since prehistoric times, specimens of this Chinese native were brought to North America after its rediscovery in 1941. A mere basal bud planted by student Orris Gibson about 1952 rooted into that tree.
Sayers describes Dempsey as “the definitive resource” on the arboretum whose counsel is especially sought when trees are diseased or otherwise problematic. For example, Sayers says he was relieved last year to get Dempsey’s support for the removal of an 80-foot-tall bunya bunya near Holt Hall. The tree, which had been cordoned off for several years, was dropping 20-pound cones that posed safety risks to passers-by.
“People become very attached to trees,” notes Sayers. “Having Wes’s blessing on removing that tree made my job a whole lot easier.”
A naturalist born
Wesley Hugh Dempsey was born Dec. 2, 1926, in Waltham, Massachusetts, the fifth of six children of Paul and Marjorie Dempsey. He inherited from his Bostonian father and Maine-born mother “a curious accent that I’ve been trying for 80 years to overcome.” Growing up on a 30-acre farm he describes as 29 acres of rock, Dempsey says his family prided itself on being self-sustaining from working their garden and livestock.
Like his father, who was a professor for the University of Massachusetts, Dempsey was drawn to higher education. He attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, before joining the U.S. Army in 1945. Being a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division remains among Dempsey’s proudest achievements.
After his service stint, and with the financial support of the GI Bill, Dempsey enrolled in Cornell University, receiving his bachelor’s degree in plant science in 1949. For graduate school, he ventured west to UC Davis, where he earned a master’s in plant science in 1950 and a doctorate in genetics four years later. It also was at UC Davis that Dempsey met Phyllis Durr, a home economics major from Woodland who would become his wife.
The completion of his doctoral studies brought Dempsey to a pivotal decision in his life: Where to teach?
“I had a job offer from UCLA,” recalls Dempsey. “I would have been a failure there, I think. It’s a research institution, and I’m a teacher. I enjoyed training the students.”
Dempsey opted for Chico, a smaller place where he could fashion himself into the sort of professor he wanted to be. Plus, it didn’t hurt that the fishing was better around Chico than around Westwood. Or that the Sierras were nearby for his principal recreational passion: backpacking.
The Dempseys, having started a family, bought a ’50s tract home in a new east Chico subdivision on Karen Drive in what became known as the Longfellow neighborhood. Tragically, their first child and only daughter, Sharon Patricia, died at age 2 in an automobile accident. Four sons—Dave, Tom, Paul, and Jim—were spaced about two years apart.
Dave, the oldest at 55, is a third-generation Dempsey to become a university professor, teaching meteorology in the geosciences department at San Francisco State. Jim, 49 and the youngest, is an ecologist involved in habitat restoration for the state parks system.
Wes Dempsey’s love of teaching was tested upon his arrival in Chico in 1954. Joining the agriculture faculty, he taught 22 different courses in his first two years.
“No human being knows enough to teach 22 courses,” says Dempsey.
Recalls Phyllis: “He was two pages ahead of his students. He was never home.”
Dempsey eventually moved from the ag department to the biological sciences department, retiring after 38 years as a professor in 1992. His career highlights include a National Science Foundation fellowship in genetics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the mid-1960s, as well as visiting professorships at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand in the early ’80s and at the University of Australia at Perth in 1987. He also taught summer courses in field biology at the University’s Eagle Lake Field Station in Lassen County from 1979 through 1991. Notable among his efforts to enhance the campus botanically were plantings of various native species on the south side of Holt Hall.
Dempsey’s off-campus conservation work includes helping form a local chapter of the Sierra Club and organizing hiking activities for the California Native Plant Society. He has led community groups on more than 1,000 North State field trips that feature discussions of vernal pools, wildflowers, and plants used by Native Americans.
“I have a list of 30 plants that I like to show people,” says Dempsey. “I tell them how the Indians used some of the plants, and maybe taste them. I’m trying to teach science without people knowing that’s really happening.”
Still life among the trees
Dempsey has always admired what he describes as the Moorish architecture of Trinity and Kendall halls and Laxson Auditorium. He likes how they are framed by Italian cypress, 18 of which were added around the University’s oldest buildings in 1990. However, he doesn’t care for what he considers the pretentiousness of the sculpturing in the campus core.
“The three Madonnas behind Kendall, I find rather grim,” says Dempsey.
More to his liking when it comes to public art is a landscape sculpture called “Still Life” on the lawn between Modoc Hall and Big Chico Creek, and he has a dream for what that site could become. “Still Life” is the artwork of Steven Gillman, who also helped create the California Veterans Memorial in Capitol Park in Sacramento. Gillman was commissioned about 25 years ago to create a stone artwork in conjunction with the opening of a visitor’s center at Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park.
According to a short paper Dempsey wrote in 2009, “Still Life” consists of a 108-foot ring of polished and curved marble slabs set at ground level with openings at the four directional compass points. In the middle of the circle are two large granite slabs.
In the paper, Dempsey quotes Gillman’s impressions of the site: “I was first struck by the majesty of the tree canopy towering over the site. Spending more time there, I noticed that people walked through generally making a beeline for the other side, and not noticing the splendor of the trees above.” The polished marble is intended to reflect the scene above and subtly draw a viewer’s attention to it.
Dempsey’s dream is to replace the grass within and around “Still Life” with gravel and to plant a grove of valley oaks. Doing so would honor the native Indians who once had a village on the site and provide a serene place for professors and students to appreciate the campus’s natural beauty, he says.
Another hope of Dempsey’s is inspired by his appreciation of history and admiration for Chico’s founding couple. “The Bidwells and Chico State are pretty intertwined,” he notes.
In 1887, shortly after the state selected Chico as the site of the Northern Branch State Normal School, John Bidwell donated eight acres from his cherry orchard on which to build the campus that evolved into California State University, Chico. In 1910, Annie Bidwell gave two more acres to the school, and then donated an orange orchard a year later. During the first part of the 20th century, their mansion was called Bidwell Hall and was used first as a women’s dormitory and later as a student union.
In 1911, the students of Chico Normal School planted a grove of California coastal redwoods just north of Ayres Hall in appreciation of the Bidwells’ generosity. An expression of “lasting gratitude” was engraved on a plaque that marked the dedication.
Dempsey hopes the University will hold a commemoration in 2011 of the 100-year anniversary of the grove’s dedication.
“If no one else will,” promises Chico’s tireless tree teacher, “I’ll be out here to celebrate.”
About the author
Dave Waddell (MA, English, ’94) has taught journalism at CSU, Chico and been faculty advisor to The Orion student newspaper since 1996.
Best of the Best
Chico State is fortunate to have many active and accomplished retired faculty. In May, the University’s Emeritus and Retired Faculty Association (ERFA) held a luncheon to fete the first members of a Hall of Honor for outstanding emeriti faculty.
“These faculty members are the best of the best,” says Fred Brooks, professor emeritus of the Recreation and Parks Management Department and chair of ERFA. The honorees were Wes Dempsey, Allan Forbes, W.H. Hutchinson (deceased), Paul Kinney, David Lantis (deceased), Betty Lou Raker (deceased), and Valene Smith.
The University and ERFA are discussing creating a place on campus to pay tribute to outstanding emeriti faculty. ERFA will hold a second Hall of Honor luncheon in May 2011 and is soliciting nominations for new honorees. To make nominations, write Ralph Meuter at firstname.lastname@example.org.