Harry, Jean, and Miss Awesome Joy Yeatman at their home, Cloudcroft, near Sewanee.
Harry Yeatman, professor emeritus of biology and lifetime student of nature, will turn your idea of work on its head.
By Drew Phillips, C'06
These are the two best things that ever happened to Sewanee: the first was admitting co-eds," said Harry Yeatman, professor emeritus of biology, when he came by Fulford Hall to pick me up and take me out to his house for an interview this summer. He had celebrated his 90th birthday just a few weeks earlier. "The second was building that gym [the Fowler Center]. I go three times a week. For free." He finished this declaration with a smile that let me know I was in for many more surprises that Friday afternoon.
Yeatman's 31 years as a professor and 56 as a resident make him something of an authority on Sewanee — one subject among the myriad he's mastered during a lifetime of research and teaching. "He is, to my mind, the epitome of the complete naturalist," says Mary Patten Priestley, C'72, director of the Sewanee Herbarium. "He knows a lot about everything in nature and takes delight in sharing his passion with everyone."
A sketch of young Harry: born Henry Clay Yeatman Jr. in 1916; raised on a farm near Columbia, Tennessee, by descendents of prominent Southern families (Harry's great-grandfather, Lucius Polk, was a brother of Leonidas Polk, one of the founders of this University); supplied with science books by his mother, a high school teacher; received his bachelor's (in zoology) and master's (zoology with a minor in botany) from the University of North Carolina; served in World War II as a staff sergeant medic; cannot remember ever saluting or drilling ("None of that crap. I was the only one who could fill out reports in my company. I went out to catch butterflies on Okinawa, dodging bullets."); published two papers on cyclopoid copepods, microscopic marine organisms, during the war; taught at Chapel Hill where he met his wife, Jean, while working on his Ph.D. (she is also a botanist, and a mushroom expert); began teaching in Sewanee in 1950. Now take a breath. We've got 56 more years to cover.
"I've known Sewanee since 1928, since I went to Camp Robin Wood [which was located on Sherwood Road]. That's 'Wood' with a 'w,' not 'Hood' like the story," he said as we hit Highway 156, headed toward the Yeatman house, Cloudcroft. Yeatman drives a silver Chevy Aveo with a blanket covering the back seat for his traveling companion, a Rhodesian ridgeback named Miss Awesome Joy. "Anyhow, I know it from back then. My folks were staunch Episcopalians, but I know less about Episcopalianism than a Presbyterian."
He laughed and continued, "But it is important, and I think it's a loving, helpful type of religion and you should enjoy it. Growing up, I was part of a service league at St. Peter's in Columbia, started by Tom Carruthers' wife, Ellen Douglas Carruthers. When she started the service league, she threw a wild party. She bought the town out of orange soda. We played a game where the girls sat blindfolded in a circle, and the boys were milling around and they would kiss the girls and the girls had to guess which boy it was. And they could — if they had kissed him before. It was a wild party. I'd never known a service league to have one like that before." After only a few minutes, it was clear that Yeatman did not readily forget anything. After spending a few hours with him, it seemed that he didn't possess that particular human trait. Yeatman's storytelling reminded me of a Native American fiddle player who, legend has it, played for two days straight and never fiddled the same tune twice.
"There's something about Harry that is instantly grabbing," said George Ramseur, professor emeritus of biology. "I never knew what that was until I heard him tell a story. I know now that it's his absolute, 100 percent sincerity. He sees the world like it is and tells it like it is, no polish. Straight out of the world, do you understand? He's what you call an old-school naturalist, very aware of the world around him. He even published an article about Indian arrowheads."
Pulling onto the gravel road toward Cloudcroft, he recalled every name, and every event that took place along the way. In less than a minute, he had pointed to a lake, his swimming hole, explained to me the process by which he purifies it (with ultraviolet, not chlorine), and expounded upon the history of its name, Eva (for the mother of a man who retired nearby with his family, whose wife developed pancreatic cancer and died before she could see her daughter marry a man descended from a Confederate general).
"When I was about to go to Sewanee to teach," said Ramseur, "one of my professors at the University of North Carolina said that Yeatman had the most photographic memory of anyone he'd ever known, which was odd, because this particular man had the most photographic memory that I had ever known."
When tenured in 1960, Yeatman became the William Kenan Professor of Biology, and taught several zoology courses, comparative anatomy, vertebrate embryology, histology, parasitology, ecology, general botany, and others. That same year, his definition of "cyclopoida" was included in the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. A year before, he published an ornithological article on grackles. A year later, his second child, Jean, was born. In 1967, he served as a visiting professor of marine biology at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. In between then and his retirement in 1981, he wrote prolifically and impacted generations of Sewanee graduates.
After driving past pastures and horse stables, we pulled up to Cloudcroft, greeted by Miss Awesome Joy as well as the neighbors' standard poodle, covered up to its belly in mud. An old dinner bell stood before the front door.
Cloudcroft is as much a headquarters as it is a home. One look around covers multiple habitats — pastures, thick woods, ponds — which explain the abundance of wildlife the Yeatmans see at their home.
And the study of nature is certainly a partnership with them. A quarter century since Yeatman retired (not because he wanted to — at the time, University policy required retirement at age 65), he and Jean lead community nature walks; give naturalist talks at local summer camps, and community and University events; and co-write a section of the Sewanee Mountain Messenger called "Nature Notes."
"It's a way of life," said Jean Yeatman. "I went out to one of my flowers this morning, and there was a grey tree frog. So when Harry woke up I said, 'Here's a surprise.' We'll be sitting on the porch and he'll say 'Do you hear that barred owl?' and I'll hear it and a wood thrush. We'll go back and forth. … It's just a way of life for us."
He led me to the back porch, where, besides Jean riding by below on a lawn mower and a content cat sitting in a deck chair, one could see Lost Cove. One could see a lot of Lost Cove, in fact, and northern Alabama. And, as Yeatman was quick to point out, it's all teeming with life.
"You can still find shark teeth and coral there," he said, referring to the cove's past life as a prehistoric ocean.
As we walked through the house to his basement workroom, Yeatman pointed out family portraits dating back to the early 19th century and recited a history with each one — such as the story of his great-uncle, Thomas Yeatman, who traveled to France to enlist its support for the Confederacy during the Civil War and stayed there afterward, marrying a Frenchwoman and founding a dynasty of Yeatmans in France, including a granddaughter who married a grandson of Gustav Eiffel.
In a narrow hallway sat a bobcat skin tacked onto a board. Like all of Yeatman's many specimens, it had "an interesting story."
"We have cats," he said. "One cat, a Himalayan, had three kittens, and afterwards slept in the yard while it was recovering. Then it disappeared. We figured a bobcat had taken it, so Jean says to a man who was working around our property, 'If you see a bobcat, shoot it,' not really expecting anything. But two days later, plop."
The family portraits and bobcat skin made a good prelude to his workroom, which we then entered. Picture the cliché study of the Romantic mad scientist: the 18-foot-tall bookshelves, giant desk covered in papers and open books. Now compact the size of that room by 75 percent, lower the ceiling by 10 feet, cram over 300 stuffed wildlife specimens in it, along with all of the books and papers, and then you begin to see the study of Professor Harry Yeatman (who is not a mad scientist).
Across from a couch, which had not been sat upon for years due to the mass of animals and books on it, was a table with predatory birds posed in lifelike stances atop its surface. He showed me one of his barn owls (Tyto alba). "Whenever I give talks," he said, "I say it looks like a hook-nosed old woman with a hood on. I said that at a talk I gave the old folks." He grinned. "Some people call them senior citizens. I just say 'old folks.'"
Scattered around were the whittled pieces of Styrofoam that he uses to mount birds. He has preserved so many, he said, that he can carve the necessary piece just by hearing the name of the species and its approximate age.
"Taking off the skin is like taking off a glove. Oh, here's something interesting," he said, picking up a little jar with a few things that looked like colorless prunes floating in formaldehyde. "When you skin a hummingbird, you can perform a brain operation."
He pointed out a red shouldered hawk, killed in the nearby community of Midway. "Wanita Barry called me up saying, 'I'm so sick I killed this hawk,' and I said, 'We'll perpetuate it.'"
In case you were wondering, Yeatman would never pick up a specimen and say, "This is just a boring old indigo bunting. I can't even remember where I got it." No — he knows the exact history of every specimen, some of which date back 70 years. "Everything has a life history," he said. "I'm an individualist. And birds are individuals."
Far beyond his years in the classroom, he has spread his joy in nature and his knowledge of it to students and community members alike.
"Anyone who has a question about ecology or natural history of the Cumberland Plateau knows that Dr. Yeatman is the one to ask," says Bert Harris, C'06. "His love of the natural world is contagious." Harris received the Yeatman Award at commencement this past May, a prize funded by alumni to honor Yeatman and the students who follow in his footsteps by showing "leadership and inspiration in the study of biology." More recently, Julius Mullins, C'72, established another endowed fund named for Harry Yeatman, which allows students to work together with Sewanee biology faculty during paid summer research internships.
Harris, who is working on an ornithology study in Ecuador now and plans to earn a Ph.D. in ornithology, said that as he worked late in the Landscape Analysis Lab in the basement of Woods Lab, Yeatman would occasionally drop by, and the two would look over his photographs of local wildlife — mating copperheads, an enormous variety of birds. "It is now my goal to someday know half as much about nature as Dr. Yeatman does!" says Harris.
Here's the point where I could mention the humanitarian work he's done by assisting Iran and other countries with their efforts to contain populations of copepods that carry guinea worm larvae. I could mention that he has worked for the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, training scientists in copepod identification to prevent the spread of parasitic worms and disease; that he still dissects copepods under the microscope. But he didn't mention any of this until the end of our visit, and then only in passing.
"We all lead a double life," he said, then handed me a collection of articles about his copepod studies. Not that he wasn't proud of them or that they didn't interest him, but that it had been written about. He was more interested in telling me about the Southeast Asian scientist he corresponded with, and trained in copepod identification; the picture of him and his brother sitting atop a porpoise that had washed up on the beaches of Pass Christian, Mississippi, taken during a family vacation in the 1920s; how his son, Henry Clay Yeatman III, is in the Who's Who of America with him this year ("for engineering, doggone it") — the stories that you haven't heard, the ones that only Harry Yeatman can tell you, because the only place to find them is in his memory. Look at his specimens without him there — his snakes are on display at duPont Library — and you glean only a fraction of their history. He claims that preserving the animals and their stories is how he atones for their deaths, and it is a philosophy he extends to all facets of his life, to honor the blessings of friends and family.
As we left his home, he said, "I'm gonna ring this bell," and he did. It was crafted in New York around the turn of the century, from what I can read on the side. "This is the bell that used to call all of us in to dinner. That was back when we used to make homebrew. We'd use old soda bottles to put it in. It was my job to cap the bottles."
When you meet a man like Harry Yeatman, your whole idea of work gets turned around.