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December 2009 cover image Birdwatching at San Bernard River National Wildlife refuge

Nutty Professor

The eccentric Henry Hildebrand inspired many budding scientists.

By John Goodspeed

Never one to bother with fashion, Dr. Henry Hildebrand would wander the halls of the University of Corpus Christi (now Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi) in the same checkered shirt and striped pants, partially unzipped, that he’d worn three decades before. His belt often was twisted and not fully buckled. His socks didn’t match. His hair was mussed. His glasses were dirty. Sometimes he wasn’t sure what day it was.

Based on appearance alone, it would have been hard to believe that Hildebrand was the pioneering biologist who founded the university’s marine science program in 1957 and discovered the nesting grounds of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, helping to save them from extinction. More frequently found in the company of beer-drinking, hell-raising commercial fisherman and shrimpers — gaining insight into the fisheries, of course — than in an intellectual tête-à-tête with his fellow academics, Hildebrand was a long step outside of the mold.

In the 1960s, Hildebrand was among the first to teach students that while books are important, the best learning experience is to work hands-on in nature. His students pulled nets and learned to identify fish, sample water, and process the collected data. He also taught students that to learn about a species, one must study its entire ecosystem, including human impact. To protect the species, one must influence public policy, he believed.

“He had a reputation of showing up anywhere that had something to do with the marine environment, and it was like, ‘Uh, oh — here’s Dr. Hildebrand,” says Dr. Wes Tunnell, founder of the university’s Center for Coastal Studies and associate director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. Tunnell replaced Hildebrand when he left the university in 1973.

“He knew how to ask the pointed questions, whether it was at a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department hearing or a Corpus Christi City Council meeting,” Tunnell says. “He usually took students with him. He told them that an important part of being a scientist was being engaged. He really made an impact in that way.”

Tunnell recalls that Hildebrand, who died in 2003 five days shy of his 81st birthday, always appeared calm, almost meek, and his ramshackle appearance lulled people into believing he was a pushover — that is, until a discussion turned to one of his passions or he disagreed with something being said.

“Then you could see his eyes spark and he was ready to get into it,” Tunnell says. “Sometimes his lip would quiver as he would start into his diatribe about how wrong they were and how they didn’t have the data to support the statements they were making.” While never Hildebrand’s student, Tunnell attended his seminars in the late 1960s and accompanied him on field trips, including one when a norther blew in on a rising tide and they almost had to abandon Hildebrand’s truck when it got stuck in a pass.

“I’d already put him on a pedestal as the kind of marine scientist I’d like to be like some day because I’d heard so many good things about his field trips and his publications,” Tunnell says.

Hildebrand was born in 1922 in Fowler, Kansas. Both his parents were teachers, but his interest in marine biology was sparked by his uncle, Samuel Hildebrand, a distinguished ichthyologist. Henry Hildebrand began teaching at the University of Corpus Christi in 1957. In 1973, he left to teach at Texas A&I (now A&M) University in Kingsville, and in 1979, he entered the private sector as a commercial fishing consultant. Hildebrand officially retired in 1985, though he remained very active in marine science.

Throughout his career, Hildebrand conducted groundbreaking research on many marine subjects, but is perhaps best known for discovering the nesting grounds of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, which had been a mystery until 1960. His careful investigation showed that the turtles nested on the beaches of Tamaulipas, Mexico — residents told him of large numbers along the shore. With the help of an amateur film taken in 1947 showing thousands of turtles, Hildebrand pinpointed the nesting site near Rancho Nuevo, a small ranching community. In 1966, conservation efforts began, and in 1978, the United States joined Mexico in an effort to save the turtle from extinction, establishing nesting beaches along the Texas coast on Padre Island.

In his field work and his teaching, Hildebrand left behind an important and continuing legacy.

“Many of Henry’s students, like many of ours now, are in all the state and federal natural resource agencies around Texas, the United States and Mexico,” says Tunnell. “Many are professors, carrying on the legacy of getting out in the field with hands-on study, research and teaching.”

After Hildebrand died, Tunnell inherited his home library, which filled four bedrooms and five closets. The books were brought to the university, where it took several years to fully review the collection. Included was an unfinished manuscript called Fishes of the Texas Coast. Tunnell shared it with his colleague, Dr. David McKee, professor of biology and coordinator of the mariculture degree program at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. McKee expanded on Hildebrand’s work, while also narrowing its focus, to write Fishes of the Texas Laguna Madre, published in 2008. While Hildebrand’s approach was scientific, McKee’s intent was to reach a broader range of readers, including fishermen. In his book, McKee included the rich illustrations by Hildebrand’s friend, the late Henry Compton, from the original manuscript.

“[Hildebrand] was a real hero of mine, and I just loved the old guy,” says McKee, who took a fisheries biology class with him in the 1970s. “He was a remarkable, brilliant scientist. But he wasn’t Mr. Personality. If you wanted to talk to him and it didn’t pertain to science, he’d just turn around and walk off. He wasn’t necessarily being rude, but if he wasn’t interested in something he’d just walk away. But he was a real sweetheart of a guy.”

Some students called Hildebrand the “old walrus” because in his later years his teeth had worn down to the gum line. He spoke in short, choppy sentences that forced people to listen closely — and everyone did, from scientists to shrimpers. As with his students, Hildebrand had become a hero to commercial fisherman, a frequent presence on the docks who championed the fishermen’s way of life against restrictive regulations he believed were not based in science.

Even after he retired, Hildebrand always had a cause. He would visit the university and go from office to office — “Running his traps, as we called it,” McKee says — to discuss the scientific topic at hand. Often he would walk in on a professor’s closed-door meeting without knocking, sit down and wait until it was over to talk about what was bothering him that day.

McKee says Hildebrand was so influential on his life that, without him, he would not be doing what he is today. But he never told Hildebrand that. “He would have turned away, pretended not to hear it or say it was nonsense,” McKee says.

On the water or in the classroom, McKee often thinks of Hildebrand, whether reminiscing about studying freeze kills, counting fish on Baffin Bay or lecturing.

“In terms of how I do things and the way I think, I’m a whole lot like that old guy,” McKee says. “A lot of us tried to model ourselves after him, changing some traits but holding on to the best stuff. I’ll say this is the way the book says it is, but I’ve had personal experience and this is my side of the story. Then I realize, golly, this is probably the way Dr. Hildebrand would have addressed the topic. A lot of his philosophy was to work hard and have fun at what you really want to do.

“But I do try to zip my pants up and keep my hair combed,” McKee laughs.

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