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Honoring the Late George Tanner, WEC Professor Emeritus

Left to right: George Tanner, Edith Reyna, Rafael Reyna, and Eduardo Naranjo. Photo courtesy of Rafael Reyna

 

George Tanner, Professor Emeritus, of the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation died on Saturday, August 1 after a short battle with cancer. He received a BS and MS from the University of Central Florida and a PhD from Texas A&M in Range Science. Dr. Tanner worked in UF/IFAS for 30 years, starting in 1978 in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation in the Department of Wildlife and Range Sciences. He was a faculty member in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation since its inception in 1994-95 until retirement in 2009. Dr. Tanner worked in the fields of wildlife habitat management and restoration, management of rangeland systems, the role of fire in southeastern ecosystems, and wildlife ecology. He played a leadership role in both undergraduate and graduate education for WEC, including the advising and co-advising of nearly 40 MS and PhD students, and serving on the graduate committees of over 100 other graduate students. He was an active member of The Wildlife Society (TWS) and the FL Chapter of TWS throughout his career.

He is universally remembered by his students and colleagues as a dedicated, dependable, egoless faculty member. He relished his work with students, and he served his department in multiple ways. He selflessly served as Interim Chair four times and was pleased each time to relinquish the appointments.

Other descriptive words used by a number of his colleagues are humble, kind, steady, sincere, helpful, generous, fun-loving, devoted, humorous, and dutiful. He was a good colleague, friend, advisor and man.

A memorial service for George Tanner will be held on Saturday, August 22 at 10:30 a.m. at Lockwood Missionary Baptist Church, 16224 Old Chaney Highway, Orlando, FL 32833. Expressions of sympathy may be directed to Ms. Joann Head, 17 Meadow Wood Drive, Ocala, FL 34482. 

 

Remembrances of George Tanner from WEC faculty, staff, students, and alumni:

 “Yes, I was just reminiscing yesterday about his famous venison chili and the string of people with fistfuls of grasses headed to his office to get an ID… What a gem. He taught great classes that he was so dedicated to and looked after lost grad students and never had a bad word to say about anyone.  On the last day of Wildlife Techniques at the Ordway, he’d show up at the Butler building at 7 AM with a deer’s worth of venison, and then cook all day for the students to chow down at 5 PM when the week intensive class was finished.  We all work hard for our students, but George was everyone’s Uncle George. WEC was his family, and we felt that way because of him.

George’s office was next to mine, and just being near him taught me a lot about being organized and keeping a good attitude. He would ALWAYS be in before me no matter how early I tried to get in. I even went for 6 a.m. a few times… Nope, George was already there. He’d be silently working on emails and reports and papers and classes until 8 a.m.. At 8 sharp, he would get on the phone and call his collaborators and students and anyone from the public who left a message about a raccoon in their garage or invasive weeds in their pastures. By 10 AM he’d be done and off to teach or whatever else needed doing.

George worked really hard and always had time for everyone who asked for it. Such a sweet and steady guy who could calm down a freaked out assistant prof. with a joke or a story about his pet llama (didn’t he have a llama, or am I hallucinating?). One time he walks into my office and asked me if I wanted 60K a year for the next 5 years to hire a post doc on (this was quite a while ago – in case you think we were being cheap!). As a hungry newbie I asked  – what’s the catch?  George just said there is no catch. He said the agencies trusted him so much that he rarely had to write a proposal. People just called and dropped projects on him and so he was giving me an extra one he did not have time for. That really helped me get up and running! And another time I was freaked out about my house getting robbed. George just said jeez that’s too bad. Then, the next day he came in with “the Department’s” shotgun, and gave it to me to take home. It freaked me out but he said – you don’t need to load it, just if you hear somebody all you have to do is cock the handle. Anyone hears that sound they’re gonna run like rabbits! I never asked him why the department had a shotgun… But anyway I kept that gun in my closet  for about a week and brought it back – it was fun to make that sound and scare my friends!”

  • Katie Sieving, WEC Professor

 

“George Tanner was a prince among men. He served in the thankless position of Interim Department Chair, not once, but 4 times; shepherding me to a tenure-track position and a full professorship. He was a beloved teacher and could interest just about anyone in range science. He could identify any strange plant I dragged in. He knew the moon and tide phases to catch any fish. Over the decades, he cooked huge vats of chili and barbecued all manner of things to feed thousands of WEC students, staff, and faculty. He could always make you smile, and often guffaw. His advice to me upon hearing of the death of a friend: ‘None of us has a promise of tomorrow. All we can do is live each day as if it is your last…’ ”

  • Susan Jacobson, WEC Professor Emeritus

 

 “Through these words, I would like to recognize and honor George´s kindness, friendliness and dedicated guidance for graduate students. As a foreign student, I really appreciated the warm welcome to the country George gave me by waiting for me at the airport and helping me to settle down in a completely new city and culture. I will always remember the trip from the airport to the city, in which George asked me what I would like to learn from my stay in the USA. Among other things, I mentioned I would like to learn about the people and the culture. He told me all of us are equal, in the sense we share common values independently of the part of the world we came from. And we certainly do. His classes and academic guidance were essential during my first steps at WEC. Impossible to forget his famous venison chili, on the annual event that welcomed students in the fall. A remarkable learning experience about food, music, and culture for a foreign student as me. I will always remember him with love and affection.”

  • Sonia Canavelli, WEC alum

 

“George was one of the first of three or four faculty in our department, which was once called ‘Wildlife and Range Sciences’ (Everglades National Park had it on their rolodex for years as ‘Wildlife and Ranger Services’; made sense to them!). George was the Range Sciences, an important part of our history that has lived on in our faculty who have had strong interactions with cattle ranching in Florida. His programs built foundations that became central to our work and teaching, in management of fire, rangelands and wetlands. Wetland ecologists of the time didn’t pay much attention to little things like grazing and fire- they were more interested in grand theories about energy flows – and fire ecologists were all focused on uplands. George was out there on his own applying classic dryland range ecology to a wetland state. We became the richer for it though.

I’ll echo many of the things that Katie said – his wry humor, wide-open friendliness, service to the department and university, and fun, fatherly figure for students. He was also the only faculty with real botanical skills in the department for a very long time, which now seems very strange.  For the first 15 years I was here, we had an annual event that welcomed students in the fall, and George was the chef of enormous vats of chili.  One pot was for the vegetarians, and while serviceable, it wasn’t a very interesting stew. The second pot was the venison version, and his time in Texas really showed – it would take the roof off your mouth.  George loved providing for people, and that was one of his expressions. He will be missed!”

  • Peter Frederick, WEC Research Professor

 

“I was George’s MS and PhD student from 2000 to 2007. George was an amazing person and having him as my advisor for 7 years was a privilege as he was always positive, calm and confident all will be well. I met him some day in August 2000 at 2:00 a.m. in a train station near Gainesville where he went to pick me up after I arrived from Mexico to Miami and took a train to Gainesville. We do not know each other at that time and we have only communicated by email before. Driving to a nearest town at 2:00 a.m. to pick up an unknown student was a nice gesture of him.

George’s positive attitude was well known among all students to the point that he was invited to join in all committees and exams. The number of Latin student community that were seeking advice from him was growing to the point that Michael Moulton (his next door colleague) started calling him ‘Jorge Tanero’.

George went to Mexico to the rainforest while I was doing my PhD, my wife and I took him in such a small car that he was bending his neck for the four hour trip that took from Cancun airport to Calakmul forest. He did not complain at all, neither after I took him for a walk in the forest that took us the whole day. My wife and I are very sad George is no longer around, but we will remember him as a great person, great attitude, and respect for everybody.”

  • Rafael Reyna, WEC alum, and Edith Rojas

 

I cannot help but be positive when I think of George. Even if I am sad. At least I told him often what he meant to me, as a person and a professional mentor. No regrets there. Lauren appreciated it, because he was not a good fit from a Dean’s perspective, but his students mattered most to him.

I think his scientific accomplishments are very important, especially in the infancy of using mechanical and chemical treatments as a fire surrogate or pre-fire treatment as Florida was leading the nation in restoring fire to long unburned ecosystems. And his work showing low-intensity cattle management for positive ecological outcomes. So much of what he did was foundational to restoration ecology ‘common practices’ today that we take for granted.

But they were his intangibles that made him so effective. He was never on an ivory tower. I recall him being overlooked for promotion – the Dean of CALS told him he did not carry himself as a UF professor; he needed to trade in his bass boat and old tan F150 for a Cadillac and golf.  Retaining his truck and boat, George never overlooked the power of IFAS that made UF relevant to a cattle production state. George’s great power was his ability to translate science to the land or range manager, and the student. He was comfortable among everyone, everywhere. The university or swamps or science conferences or cattle pens. He made everyone understand by asking questions, laughing, and getting them to picture the issues and why the answers suddenly seemed so obvious. I was glad I got to write him a letter of recommendation the next go ‘round as a Wildlife Program Manager for the USFS.

He taught like that also. I never felt stupid. He never condescended. He was Chuluota’s Socrates.  Man, did he make me keep unraveling ecosystems. He taught me to think them through. He taught me to see and consider what was missing and what it did. How to measure for it, test it, his other graduate students would tell you the exact same thing. We talked about him often as we met. A few of his students now manage over 1,000,000 acres of public land in Florida.

And he was so decent. He loved Loren so much. He had integrity, and was humble, and would do anything for you. He would drive across the state six hours, camp next to a swamp with you, and help you get your field work started, be there to troubleshoot it with you as you got your plots started, in heat and mosquitoes and heavy cover,  just to give you the support you needed. “ 

  • Carrie Sekerek, WEC alum, a former MS student of Dr. Tanner and a dedicated FL TWS member

 

“I had him for “Range Plants” back in 1981. A great field taxonomy class taught by a great instructor. I used the knowledge learned in that class throughout my career. Thanks George and rest in peace. Robert Wolfe SFRC (Wildlife) 1982.” 

  • Robert Wolfe, School of Forest Resources alum, 1982

 

“Dr. Tanner will be missed. He was never too busy to talk to undergrads and was a great advisor to the student TWS chapter for many years. Everyone looked forward to his venison chili at the annual wild game dinner. His class notes were always disorganized on random pieces of legal pad and he usually only wrote a single word or two on the board the whole class (“Fire!” was a favorite). But he really knew his stuff! My favorite memory though was from Wildlife Techniques class at the Ordway. I was riding with a couple graduate students in a passenger van and while I can’t remember how it happened, the van got stuck in some deep sugar sand. We couldn’t go backwards and trees blocked the way forward. Nothing worked to get it out. So we hiked back to the pole barn to find someone. Dr. Tanner was there, so we all hopped into his pickup truck. He laughed when he saw the van and said “No problem!” and whipped a big chainsaw from out of the truck bed. “We’ll just get rid of a couple of these trees!” and zip, zip he cut down a couple saplings, hauled a big chain out, hooked it up to the van and his truck, and yanked the van out of the sand pit (a couple bushes and smaller saplings sacrificed along the way). We were super embarrassed about the whole thing but he never made us feel stupid. Other people might have been angry, annoyed, or made a big deal ribbing us over it–but he never did. That just wasn’t something he did.”

  • Elizabeth Farley-Dawson, WEC alum

“George was my Master’s advisor (MS 1999), but that title certainly doesn’t encapsulate the impact he has had on me. He always had time to visit whenever I needed help or guidance. He helped me to become a better writer, encouraged me to think about things from different perspectives, pushed me to do things I didn’t think possible, and helped me to gain confidence in my abilities. But, he also treated me as a family member – he even took me and my dad fishing in Cedar Key!  On that fishing trip, I hooked a stingray, which took off swimming away from the boat. George tried to move the boat, but line continued to stream from my reel. Eventually, George reluctantly cut the line; he was bummed to lose the gear and really would have preferred that we caught redfish!  He handled the whole situation with the calm demeanor he always had. I have tried to embody many of his qualities in my own student advising. I am grateful he was willing to take a chance on me and help me grow.”

  • Andrea Litt, WEC alum, former MS student of Dr. Tanner

 

“George was a mentor, advisor, and most importantly, a friend.  I had the pleasure of working on my MS degree in Wildlife Ecology under George in 1985-1986.  I can remember struggling to come up with a study design to look at southeastern pocket gophers…George had a unique way of pulling ideas and approaches out of you rather than dictating how to go about a project. He basically helped me build the confidence needed to figure out where I needed to go! Numerous times he came to the Ordway Preserve with me; he taught me to appreciate plants and almost all of the sandhill species I know I learned from George. He also facilitated working with the research associate and other grad students on their projects which really enriched my grad student career. After becoming a public lands manager I frequently consulted with George on various vegetation management techniques – he was always happy to share his wonderful knowledge. He and wife, Loren, were a great team. I’ll miss you George.”

  • Cyndi Gates, WEC alum, MS, 1986

 

If you would like to add a remembrance to this tribute page, please email WEC Communications Program Assistant Katrina Rossos at krossos@ufl.edu.