In memoriam: Jerry Flora, 1928 - 2013

Jerry Flora, seen here in 1967, served as WWU president from '67 to '75. Photo courtesy of WWU Special Collections

Flora was well-known in the Bellingham community for his children’s television series, “Tide Pool Critters,” which aired locally on KVOS. This 1980 photo appears to be from a taping of the show. Photo courtesy of WWU Special Collections.

President Flora and his wife, Rosemary, chat at an event in 1967. Photo courtesy of WWU Special Collections.

A WWU student in 1968 reads the issue of The Western Front announcing Flora as Western's new president. Photo courtesy of WWU Special Collections.

Flora is seen on the steps of Old Main in this photo from September 1970. Photo courtesy of WWU Communications and Marketing

Flora is seen on the steps of Old Main in this photo from September 1970. Photo courtesy of WWU Communications and Marketing

In recent years, Flora was a regular attendee of WWU's opening convocation ceremonies. This photo, from President Shepard's Twitter account, shows Shepard with Flora and Western Foundation Board President Jerry Thon on Sept. 20, 2012.

Matthew Anderson
Western Today editor

Western Washington University President Emeritus Charles J. (“Jerry”) Flora has passed away. He was 85.

Flora served as Western’s eighth president, from 1967 to 1975. During his tenure, Western’s enrollment grew from 6,240 to 10,000, and four colleges -- Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Huxley College of the Environment, the College of Business and Economics and the College of Fine and Performing Arts -- were established.

It was a tumultuous period, both at Western and throughout the nation.

"I was so saddened to learn of Dr. Flora's passing,” said Western President Bruce Shepard. “He led Western safely through some of the most turbulent moments in its history, during the budgetary and social upheavals of the late '60s and early '70s. Confronted with extremely difficult decisions, President Flora was a model of candor and integrity. He was also an outstanding and much-respected professor, and an early advocate for the protection of Puget Sound. The entire Western community owes him a great debt of gratitude, and will be holding his family in its thoughts during this difficult time."

Flora began at Western in 1957 as an assistant professor of biology. He took a leave of absence from Western in 1965 to help develop a biology curriculum at Sri Venkateswara University in southwest India. He served as academic dean from 1965 to 1967 and as director of the Aquatic Studies Program, which included the Institute for Freshwater Studies and the Sundquist Marine Laboratory at Shannon Point, from 1976 to 1983. He returned to teaching in ’83 and retired from Western as a professor of biology in ’91.

Huxley College, considered by many to be the country’s first environmental college, was the brainchild of Flora and fellow biology professor Gerald Kraft, according to a 2010 story in The Bellingham Herald.

"One of the finest professors that I have ever known," said Ralph Munro, an alumnus of Western, a current member of Western's Board of Trustees and the former Washington secretary of state, via email. "Famous for his beach walks and early calls to protect Puget Sound. We have all lost a fine man and friend."

Flora was well-known in the Bellingham community for his children’s television series, “Tide Pool Critters,” which aired locally on KVOS. On behalf of the show, Flora won the Golden Mike Trophy, given to the nation’s best local television program in the interest of youth, in 1963. Flora also led regular beach walks in Whatcom County, on which he’d lead community members in hands-on explorations of area beaches and mudflats.

Flora earned his bachelor’s degree in bacteriology from Purdue University in 1950. He worked as a high school science teacher in 1953 and ’54 and then earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in biological education from the University of Florida in 1955 and 1957, respectively.

An amateur historian and humorist, Flora published a 1991 book called “Normal College Knowledge” that takes a funny and nostalgic look at Western’s history. Arranged as a 100-question exam, the book includes such questions as “Which president approved the dissection of a 1,000-pound Stellar Sea Lion in the faculty parking lot?”, “What office was occupied in Western’s first sit-in?” and “The Smoking Room was vital to Western’s modern history. It was located in which building?”.

Each of the book’s hundred answers is accompanied by a funny anecdote or poignant memory from Flora.

“I’ve always looked at the institution with love and humor,” Flora told The Western Front in 1991.

A huge proponent of Western, Flora also held a deep appreciation for the broader value of learning, especially at the college level.

“I don’t think the principal rationale for higher education is that it helps one get a better job,” he told George Shoemaker, then the director of the Western Washington State College Foundation, in about 1968. “I think that the most important reason for higher education has to do with the survival of the society that contains it.”

Western serves society at least in part by providing students with a well-rounded education, he said.

“If Western turns out a business administrator, that person should be able to do a competent job of managing a bank or whatever,” Flora said. “He should also be an educated human being. We’re concerned not only with producing people who can do, but with producing people who can think.”

Flora is among the faculty interviewed for this 1964 KVOS special on Western, titled “A Professor Looks at His College.”

In addition to “Normal College Knowledge,” Flora also was the author of “The Bioherm: A Treatise on Biological Reefs,” “Seashore Stories,” “A Return to Home” and “The Sound and the Sea,” a textbook on West Coast seashore life.

Flora was born on Nov. 16, 1928, in Wabash County, Indiana. He married his wife, Rosemary, in 1950. They had four children: Lisa, Chris, Deva and John.

After his retirement from WWU, Flora and his wife, Rosemary, spent spent years scuba diving throughout the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Red Sea. They also taught science, mathematics, English and accounting to high school students in the Republic of Kiribati in the Central Pacific, according to 1997 story in The Bellingham Herald.