John Alfred Gustafson
John was born in Boston, Massachusetts to second-generation Swedish immigrants, and showed an early interest in the world of nature and living things. He attended Boston Public Schools, enrolling in the horticulture emphasis at Jamaica Plain High School. During World War II he joined the United States Marine Corps at age 17 and as part of the Navy’s officer recruitment program was stationed at Dartmouth College for four semesters. It was here that he was introduced to camping, hiking, and most importantly the college’s naturalist, Douglas E. Wade. It was at Dartmouth that John’s commitment to field natural history and environmental education took root.
In 1948 he graduated from Dartmouth and entered Cornell University’s graduate program in science education (field natural history emphasis) under the direction of professors E. Laurence Palmer and Eva L. Gordon. He was deployed to China after WWII as part of the occupation forces there. In 1950, he took the marine zoology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he met Nancy Johnson and were married in 1951. His graduate career was interrupted by recall to active duty during the Korean War. He returned to receive his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1954, and taught at SUNY Brockport for one year before joining the faculty at SUNY Cortland, where he served from 1955 until his retirement in 1981.
His signature courses were field natural history, ornithology, marine biology, and botany. He served as Biology Department Chair from 1965 -1977. In 1978 he was instrumental in obtaining an NSF grant for SUNY Cortland, designed to enhance its field study programs. He organized and led extended field excursions during spring breaks, introducing college biology majors to the ecosystems of Florida and The Outer Banks of North Carolina. Having been a student of Robert Frost when at Dartmouth, he frequently read poetry when in the field, and continued these “Frost Walks” every year, even in retirement.
Recognizing the importance of field study sites, in collaboration with other professors, he facilitated the acquisition by SUNY Cortland of the Hoxie Gorge site and ultimately the Lehigh Valley Railroad right-of-way west of the City of Cortland. This latter site became the backbone of a larger plan to preserve the marl ponds, Chicago Bog, and vernal ponds in a conceptual Lime Hollow Preserve. After the formation of the Lime Hollow Nature Center, he was elected Treasurer in 1993, a position which he held until his death. In 2015 he was honored on his 90th birthday with the Lime Hollow youth education center being named “Camp Gustafson”. Dr. John, as he was known, was mentor to generations of young people; right up until his death he had a direct, personal influence on the Lime Hollow attendees.
Both before and after his retirement, John served at the local, regional, and national levels in promoting outdoor education and field sciences, as well as civic organizations. His service includes:
- Treasurer and President of the American Nature Study Society; editor of the Society’s journal “Nature Study” for many years; first recipient of the Society’s aptly-named John A. Gustafson Distinguished Service Award;
- Member and Chairman of the Central New York Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC); NY State Board of TNC, overseeing seven chapters; awarded Oak Leaf Award by national TNC;
- Served on Cortland County Environmental Management Council.
- Member Board of Education, Homer Central Schools;
- President of the Cortland County Bird Club;
- In the 1970s was elected president of the newly-formed (North American) Alliance for Environmental Education (NAAEE); later served as editor of newsletter, “The Alliance Exchange”;
- Beginning in the late 1970s, represented Cortland County on the Labrador Hollow Unique Area Advisory Council;
- Served at the request of NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller as a member of the Temporary State Commission on Youth Education in Conservation in the 1970s;
- Awarded the Taft Campus Award in Environmental Education by Northern Illinois University in 1989. Treasurer and Board member for the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC) 1980s-90s.
Beyond his many accomplishments, he is most remembered by countless individuals for his compassion, enthusiasm for life, and boundless energy. Throughout his adult life, John was involved in lay leadership in his church and denominational affairs. For many years, he was the unofficial visitation minister, going regularly to area hospitals to visit church members. Wherever he went, in any endeavor, he was always teaching through words, actions, and his love and acceptance of others.