Friday, May 4, 2012

SWANZEY, N.H. -- For decades, the name Tom Wessels has been synonymous with environmental education, but the humble professor and author, whose textbooks are used at colleges throughout the world, would scarcely let anyone know it.

After spending the last 34 years teaching at Antioch New England in Keene, N.H., Wessels is retiring from teaching, but not entirely.

As more than 250 people from throughout New England, New York and the rest of the country gathered in Swanzey, N.H., on April 28, David Caruso, president of the college, announced that Wessels will be granted emeritus status and be able to teach various classes in his own time frame.

Tomas K. Wessels
Tomas K. Wessels

Caruso stated the board of directors for Antioch still has to approve the measure, but he was confident that they would grant him that status.

"He truly is the heart and soul of environmental studies," Caruso said of Wessels, who lives in Westminster, Vt.

Throughout the day, the crowd of former alumni, friends and family members shared stories about their many adventures with Wessels and congratulated the man who had affected so many lives through his teachings and outreach.

Not one to have the spotlight on himself, Wessels was quick to credit others for his many accomplishments.

"The teacher I am today is because of the feedback and interaction with students," Wessels said. "I've been sculpted by thousands of hands and minds .


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.. and blessed to have found a job that's honorable, in the service of others and something that I'm good at."

For Wessels, his ability to distinguish trees merely by their bark began when he was about 5 years old.

"I didn't know their names but I knew the differences," he said. "I knew when I was with this type of tree or that type of tree. I knew that I'd always find these shaggy bark trees down in the lowlands with skunk cabbage (and) I was going to find smooth gray-bark trees up in drier sites."

The youngest of three siblings, Tom taught himself the wonders of nature as he was often found exploring the various landscapes of western Connecticut, wandering through the woods.

"I didn't even pick up a field guide until I got to University of New Hampshire," he said.

When he did learn that field guides were available, Wessels began to memorize each.

"That was so exciting," he said. "I remember I got this canvas army satchel that would just fit four Peterson Field Guides and I'd be out every day with those things or with my binoculars."

Wessels said he plans to spend his partial retirement building a new home on property in New Hampshire he and his wife Marcia bought, writing three new books and teaching four to five classes per semester.

He said instead of traditional classroom instruction, each course would be an "intensive program" made up of a couple of weekends.

Michael Simpson, chairman of the environmental studies department, described Wessels as a "founding father."

Simpson also credited Wessels with creating the popular conservation biology concentration at Antioch New England. "He's the keeper of the history, holding everything that's ever happened at the university in his head," Simpson said of Wessels. "His role as an educator has been constant service to the students. For me though, he's been a friend and a mentor who brings wisdom and patience to everything he does. In urgency and crisis, he's the calming voice of reason."

Wessels' forensic and verbal skills have also made his interactions with students and faculty memorable because of his ability to make critical connections between things most people don't even think of, Simpson said.

"He's not just an educator, but a communicator," he said. "Tom breathes depth into the most complex subjects to allow the audience to follow along. He's a story teller."

Most students that have taken a class from Wessels or been on one of his numerous outing adventures said he started every day with one phrase: "Does anyone have any questions?"

Wessels' ability to show genuine interest in anyone he spoke with about any topic provided people a new way to approach teaching, said one of his former students.

"He shows you a whole different way to view the world," the student said. "He makes all of us feel special."

After obtaining his master's degree from the University of Colorado, Wessels traveled back east to teach at Windham College in Putney and immediately adopted what he had learned about landscapes into his curriculum.

"That was the focus, even though I didn't know how to interpret landscapes here," he said.

Wessels brought with him a method of teaching that included providing a puzzle to his students, given them the tools and then letting them loose to decipher the patterns in the landscapes, the changes in soil and topography.

His involvement with his students and his encouragement for them to succeed provided a lasting mark.

Steve Chase, director of the environmental advocacy and organizing program for the school said it's nearly impossible to find the words that best describe Wessels.

"If I can become half the teacher he is, I'll be an amazing educator," he said.

Sue Weller, Wessels' office mate and director of administrations for the environmental studies department for many years, said he's "like a moral compass and at the same time a tireless champion for students."

"Anytime, if anyone had a question he was there, and he was always an advocate for the students," Weller said.

Following the dozens of speeches about his life and how he affected so many people, Wessels said he was overwhelmed by their admiration.

"It's so gratifying to know all these wonderful people and be able to relive the experiences I've had with them," he said. "I look forward to making many more memories with them."

Josh Stilts can be reached at jstilts@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 273.