Tien Wei Yang, 1991
Tien Wei Yang, 1991

Memories of Tien Wei Yang

Robert L. Bezy

I was working one summer night as an undergraduate in the University of Arizona herpetology collection and in walked a very tall man carrying several gallon bottles, each housing a live toad. He introduced himself as Tien Wei Yang and his broad contagious smile immediately charmed me. He set the bottles of toads on a table and wandered off into the Ecology lab to look for Lowe. Late into the night an incredible uproar of hearty laughter emanated from the room.

After he left, I asked Lowe who he was. He explained that Tien Wei had been his first PhD student and described how Yang had hiked regularly from the Avra Valley to the summit of Wasson Peak conducting transects to document the elevational distribution of the flora and fauna of the Tucson Mountains. Lowe’s admiration and affection for Tien Wei came through loud and clear.

Each summer Tien Wei would appear with his live toads from all over the Southwest. I remember seeing the rare Black Toad (Bufo exsul) , a species strictly endemic to Deep Springs in the Great Basin Desert of California. On another visit he gave me an ancient, wood box that he said was once the carrying case for a friend’s pet cobra. I eventually learned that he taught at Western Reserve Academy in Ohio and that his wife was the teller at the bank where Lowe sent us to cash checks. For additional details on his life see http://wra-pastandpresent.blogspot.com/2017/01/first-chinese-student-at-western.html.

I came to appreciate that besides toads, Tien Wei had a passion for Larrea (creosote bush) and traveled around the deserts gathering seeds from different ecotypes. He had done a masters thesis under Bob Humphrey on the distribution of creosote bush in southern Arizona and his seminal work on polypoidy in Larrea is highly regarded.

One night while he was visiting a ruckus broke out behind the biology building and we went out to investigate. A student was smashing the windshield of a car with a baseball bat. Tien Wei grew very upset and intervened. Being a soccer coach, he was incredibly strong and easily held back the young bat-wielding student.

Much turbulent water had flowed under bridge when 45 years later Wade Sherbrooke called me and asked if I would like to join him and Yang for lunch. It was a wonderful experience and the last time I was with Tien Wei. He was every bit the enthusiastic, animated, charming person I had remembered. He told us the following Lowe story showing that he held no bitter feelings.

Lowe had just arrived as a faculty member in the U. of A. Zoology Department which was housed in a tiny building next to the old library. A masters student was scheduled to give an oral presentation of his research. Before the talk the faculty and students went for Mexican food and cervesa at a downtown restaurant. After returning, the student launched into his seminar, which included a detailed analysis of the species’ diet. The head of the department rapidly fell asleep, his usual seminar state. At the end of the talk the department head woke up and asked his standard question, “What do they eat?” Lowe from the back of the room yelled, “Enchiladas !” It was quite a few years before Lowe made tenure.