Gilbert Adrian was a man who could appreciate ants.
"Somebody was just telling me a story today that they were on a field trip in western Nebraska with Dr. Adrian later in his career," Hastings College President Don Jackson said Friday, remembering his former professor and mentor.
"He wasn't able to hike with them, so he stayed behind while they hiked away," Jackson said. "When the group came back, he was lying on the ground on his stomach. They were worried something had happened to him, and when they got to him, he said, 'You wouldn't believe these ants that are walking around here.'"
Laughing, Jackson said the story exemplifies a man who had an insatiable curiosity about the natural world, a passion he shared with thousands of students in his more than 31 years as a biology professor at Hastings College.
Adrian died Tuesday at age 85, leaving colleagues and alumni across the country remembering a remarkable teacher and friend.
"The world has lost a true giant in education," Jackson said. "The breadth of his impact on students is really unbelievable. I think what makes it so special is there are just not that many people in the world who you meet, even professors, who have that kind of lasting impact."
Adrian grew up in Dodge City, Kan., and entered the U.S. Navy in 1945. He would later serve in the U.S. Army as well, and was wounded twice during the Korean War.
After returning from service he earned an associate's degree from Dodge City Community College, a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Kansas and a master's degree in zoology from Fort Hays State University. Adrian joined the Hastings College faculty in 1962 as a biology instructor. He officially retired in 1993, but continued to teach courses for many years after his retirement as professor emeritus of biology.
He was particularly well known for his field trip courses that allowed students to study biology in the field in places like the Nebraska Sandhills, Mexico and throughout the American west.
Jackson remembered Adrian as an intense, but kind, teacher who expected his students to excel.
"Professor Adrian would walk into class, and the door would barely be closed before he would launch into his lecture. He talked so fast that you couldn't write it down as quickly as he was giving you information. Besides that, what he was telling you in class wasn't in the book," Jackson said. "He was infamous for his body of knowledge.
"At the same time, he had just such a way of helping students along. I just never met anyone like him who could help you learn at the rate that he had you learning, and still feel so mentored and supported at the same time," Jackson said.
One of Adrian's colleagues, Will Locke of Hastings, has a similar admiration for his teaching skills as well as his knowledge.
"He loved almost every subject there is," Locke said. "He loved geography, history and all the subjects of science, but just about any subject was of interest to him. He was a prodigious reader, a world-class reader with a photographic memory. He could recite, on his field trips, paragraphs and pages and names and numbers from memory. Wherever he was he could recall relevant information from memory, so people hung on every word."
Locke taught science at Hastings Junior High from 1962-89, when he became a professor at Hastings College's teacher education program. Locke said Adrian often visited his seventh-grade outdoor education program on the Platte River, and the two also co-taught interdisciplinary courses along the Oregon Trail and Lewis and Clark Trail.
Another colleague, Hastings College biology professor Bill Beachly, co-taught classes with Adrian on the natural history of the Sandhills that included camping and canoeing with students for a week before the fall semester began.
"He was just a wonderful person to camp with because he was so positive and so encouraging," Beachly said. "He would really get to know the students very well on that field trip and care about them and be a father or grandfatherly figure. It was really him in his element."
Beachly said the field trip classes were especially valuable for teacher education students, who got the chance to see Adrian's example as he taught in the field.
"So many alumni, I think, when they look back on their Hastings College years, if they were ever on one of Gilbert's trips, that's what they remember," Beachly said. "We've lost a wonderful, irreplaceable resource."
In addition to professional admiration, Locke said Adrian was a good friend and a kind man.
"He was so thoughtful. He was a good listener and listened to young and old alike. He was just so amazingly good at that. He was a genuine, caring individual, and he never flouted his brilliance.
Jackson said he reconnected with Adrian about 10 years ago after being away from campus for years. Despite the time apart, Adrian remembered Jackson's hometown, his parents' occupations and other details.
"He had a remarkable memory that was unbelievable. As a result, he could make you feel very special, that you were important enough to him that he actually knew who you were," Jackson said.
"I was particularly fortunate that I had numerous opportunities over the last several years to thank him and publicly acknowledge him, and to really hold him out as one of the people who makes Hastings College so special," Jackson added. "There are many of our faculty here on campus right now who you could say the same thing about, but he just happened to be the special professor for me, who just made Hastings College one of the most memorable experiences of my life and totally, completely prepared me for the next phase of life after college."
Adrian is survived by his wife of 51 years, Jeanette; daughter Debra Vorderstrasse and her husband Jason; four sons, Robert Adrian and his wife, Deb, Brent Adrian and his wife Tracy, all of Hastings, Brad Adrian of Kearney and Brian Adrian and his wife, Shelly, of San Diego, Calif.; seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, three sisters, a brother and numerous nieces and nephews.
Services are scheduled for 10:30 a.m. today at French Memorial Chapel on the Hastings College campus.