Trailblazing professor remembers it all

November 13, 2012 — Features

Biology professor Barbara Collins chose her direction in life and has shown almost 50 years of CLU students how to do likewise.

A student struggling to keep up on one of biology professor Barbara J. Collins’ nature hikes gave her the title for her new memoir: “Dr. Collins, you sure do lead a mean trail.”

And she has. The girl from Passaic, N.J., went away to live two years in Germany, earn a Ph.D. in geology, become an expert botanist in Illinois, and teach full time with five young children and no such thing as maternity leave. She climbed mountains, took students on field trips to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii and California’s deserts, and continued to teach way past retirement age. The 83-year-old’s stories are full of love, sadness and laughter.

The following are excerpts from You Lead a Mean Trail: Life Adventures and Fifty Years of Teaching, published this year by Lutheran University Press.

Early years in New Jersey
I received dolls for Christmas, while my brother got boy things: an electric train, an erector set, and one year, a chemistry set. I can remember what he got because I wanted those things too. Without them, as a result, my education in manual dexterity and putting things together was terribly lacking. After my brother went off to school, though, I took over his chemistry set. Many of the reagents had been used up, but there were still enough left for me to have fun.

Marriage proposal
It was in late April, around the time of my birthday, that we went out driving in the park. Larry had an old Buick, and afterwards, we stopped in front of my house to talk for a bit. We would often do this, chatting for a bit about classes or things we liked to do. Then Larry said, “I hope that sometime we can live together.”
That was pretty vague, I must admit, but I took it to mean a marriage proposal, and I quickly accepted it. We were engaged and would get married!

Five children later, disabling the television set
It was about a month later that we finally told the kids that we had purposely broken the TV. I think the kids understood why we had pulled the plug. For me, it was the best thing that we ever did. Greg came home and read or went out to play instead of plopping in front of the set. That year was the first of a whole series of years that Greg got straight A’s in his classes.

Travel study to Australia and New Zealand
Now it was back to Auckland and home. By this time I was getting attached to the kids. It was like they were all my own children. Some people in New Zealand actually thought they were all mine. At one of the camps that we stayed at, I announced that I had 16 kids. You can imagine the looks that I got. One guy wanted to know where the lady with the 16 kids was going to stay because he wanted to go elsewhere.

Cracking glass ceilings
When growing up, I never remember seeing a pregnant woman. Maybe it was an unwritten rule that a pregnant woman was not to be seen…. Dr. Strunk, the head of the department in 1964…informed me that there was a rule saying you could not teach if you were pregnant. I commented that if I had known, I would have continued teaching at Northridge. After speaking to the administration, he called me in and said that I would be able to teach. He had told them that if the students had not seen a pregnant woman by now, it was about time they did. So times were changing and I was in the forefront of this change.

Leading a mean trail
Looking back, the comment from one of my students, “Dr. Collins, you sure do lead a mean trail,” begins to make sense in more than one way. That statement was particularly true for the time in which I grew up. The road I followed was different from the expected. Science was not a field that most women pursued. My love for athletics and competition did not really fit in with the role for females at the time either. Maybe it was a mean trail receiving a Ph.D. degree in a field that women rarely pursued. No one in my family had received a Ph.D. degree, and certainly not any women. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that I was the first female at the University of Illinois to get a Ph.D. degree in the field of geology.