Wally Heath

Robert L. Bezy

Wally Heath (right) and his son Thumbs Heath.
Photo by Annette Halpern Hinds, August 1981, near the Wind River, Idaho.
Wally Heath (right) and his son Thumbs Heath.
Photo by Annette Halpern Hinds, August 1981, near the Wind River, Idaho.

At 17 I knocked on the door of room 120 in the Biology building at the University of Arizona. I was there to meet Dr. Charles H. Lowe under whom I had come to study. Lowe opened the door and I introduced myself. He said he had to leave to go pick up his kids, but that the two nearby graduate students could show me around the lab.

One was a person sitting on a stool taking notes in front of what looked for all the world like a glass-fronted oven. He introduced himself as John Tremor, and I asked him what he was doing. He replied, “Jus cookin up your o saur ass,” which I eventually discovered meant running a critical thermal maximum on Urosaurus ornatus (Ornate Tree Lizards). The other was a guy with very long thumbs who was running between some stainless steel boxes with protruding tall yellow thermometers, turning dials, and singing the chorus from Beethoven’s Ninth.

He said his name was Wally Heath. Little did I know that he would become a very important part of my life. I would not call him a mentor actually, but rather a wonderful friend. His uninhibited personality and zest for life buoys my spirit to this day. He loved to build things and constructed a huge wooden rack for his acclimation water baths. For many years this “Wally Heath Tower” occupied much of the graduate student office as Lowe felt it prevented the administration from moving in a third student. Wally would often walk through the herp lab where I was pickling specimens showing off his large screw driver and announcing that he was off to play with his screwing machine.

Redfield Canyon
Redfield Canyon, Galiuro Mountains, Arizona

Occasionally Wally and Lowe would put on a can-can dance singing, “We are the girls of Pie Fie.” It dated from Lowe’s days of performing with Ken Norris for the sorority sisters where they once worked as hashers. Wally and Lowe would also sing a duet , “Wash my sins away, oh what a dirty job for Jesus” that Lowe and Dick Zweifel used to sing. Then there was Wally’s favorite, “They’re coming over…” referring to the commies with their nuclear bombs. I once attended a meeting of Wally’s campus Bahai group to try to figure out just what it was that he actually believed. Still don’t know for sure, but today I think I would call it Biophilia, love of life (painting below).

As an incoming freshman Wally took me on my first college field trip. He, Ed Lincoln, Natalie Davis, and I headed out in an old pick-up on the dirt road over Reddington Pass and down to the Río San Pedro. I sprawled in the truck’s open bed, basking in the morning sun, my hair flying in the hot desert wind, and fetching cold bottles of A1 beer from the metal wash tub for myself or to hand into the cab. I had just turned 18 and I was flying high in every sense of the word.

Crossing the Río San Pedro we drove on a rocky track out onto the bajada of the Galiuros high above Redfield Canyon. The four of us got out and we each carried two empty 3-gallon bottles down the steep canyon wall to the creek far below. Under the cool shade of the Platanus wrightii (Arizona Sycamores) we filled the containers with the cold creek water and seined Rhinichthys osculus (Speckled Dace), carefully placing a few of the fish in each glass bottle for Wally’s research. Then began the difficult part, as we started the climb back up the steep canyon wall lugging our precious fish in the heavy bottles. Wally, always incredibly fit, and Ed Lincoln, a “Mr. Tucson” weight-lifter, had no problem, but Natalie and I struggled with the heavy bottles. To our good fortune, Ed and Wally eventually came half-way back down to relieve us of our burdens.

It was my first real taste of the delicious freedom that is field biology, the play of the human spirit in the wilderness. I will always cherish this gift from Wally.

Biophilia II  Tapanuli Orang-utan & Great Flying Lizard.  Brest Van Kappen
Biophilia II Tapanuli Orang-utan & Great Flying Lizard. Brest Van Kappen

* We thank Marion Heath and Annette Halpern Hinds for providing photos.