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In graduate school I married Bill Dengler ten weeks after we met. You know those things never last. He died in 2014 at age 75, a month short of our 52nd anniversary.

He had served 36 years in the National Park Service, an excellent fit for me the nature lover as well as him the naturalist. I am ADHD and in the 40s, when nobody knew what it was, my mom had no idea how to channel me, so she turned me loose. I spent my childhood in the woods and meadows of rural Ohio, learning about myself and about nature. I am still at home and comfortable out in the wild. But what I really dreamt of doing was to dig up fossils. In the 40s and 50s, however, little farm girls simply were not paleontologists.

As our two girls were growing up, I developed my career as a freelance writer. I could do it at home. More importantly, I was not tied to a locale.

I’ve enjoyed over forty years of success. If writing paid well, why did I not keep writing? When Bill retired and we lived in Oklahoma, I volunteered my help building the Ancient Life gallery displays in the brand new Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, working with paleontologists. One thing led to another and I put aside my writing career to earn my PhD in paleontology. I am a paleontologist.

Of my three careers, motherhood gave me the most grey hair. It was, of course, all worth it. The kids turned out very well, mostly because of Bill. And as they were growing up, I developed my career as a freelance writer. It’s the perfect line of work. I could do it at home, although I was no super mom with cookies and milk waiting for the little sweeties as they clambered off the bus; they baked their own darn cookies. More importantly, I was not tied to a locale. Bill was a national park ranger-naturalist, and advancement required moving to a new venue. Simple. Unplug the computer at Acadia in Maine and plug it in at Yosemite in California.

Iguana in Costa Rica

Iguana in Costa Rica

The National Park Service was an excellent fit for me the nature lover as well as Bill the naturalist. I was ADHD in the 40s, when nobody knew what it was. My mom had no idea how to channel me, so she turned me loose. I spent my childhood in the woods and meadows of rural Ohio, learning about myself and about nature. I had never been west of Chicago, but I found I always loved deserts (It’s genetic. So did Mom, explained below). I graduated from Bowling Green SU with a B.S. a semester early, took a bus to West Texas, rented a horse, and spent two weeks in the backcountry of the Big Bend. I got fried, frozen, and occasionally lost. It was absolutely wonderful.

That fall I entered Arizona State University’s graduate program in desert ecology (although the term was not yet invented). Mom took one breath of Arizona air, ran home and packed up her ironing board, moved to Phoenix, and never looked back. Sidebar: Ever enamoured of the southwest she had never seen, Mom collected Fiestaware and embroidered luncheon cloths with saguaros and adobe motifs. However she was firmly and permanently rooted in Ohio where my father owned a business; not a chance in Helena she would ever see a cactus. But then my father died prematurely (acute myocardial infarction). She could pursue her dream.

When Bill retired and we lived in Oklahoma, I volunteered my help building the Ancient Life gallery displays in the brand new Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, working with paleontologists. One thing led to another and I put aside my writing career to earn a doctorate in paleontology, completing my writing contracts to study full time. I became a PhD the same month I signed up for social security.

Inventorying seal pups with Bill

Inventorying seal pups with Bill

Then I crossed over to the Dark Side. I became (gasp!) an editor, the publication editor for the Journal of Paleontology, a peer-reviewed journal. The two main editors and I worked some minor miracles, bringing the Grand Old Lady of Fossil Systematics back into her position as the premier international systematics reference. In 2010 I retired from the journal, for we had met the goals we set out to achieve. I am continuing research in paleontology, but now I have time to get back into writing.

Before Bill died, we volunteered our brains out. We were involved with the Marine Science Center, the local senior center, and the schooner Adventuress. We belonged to the United States Power Squadron, promoting boater education and safety. We walked an assigned beach monthly for the COASST Survey, responded to marine mammal strandings (usually dead seal pups, but there was this one bull sea lion…), and were active in the Episcopal church, although in different capacities. Not totally different; we were both faithful gadflies, each in his or her own way.

Bill was a charter member of the northwest chapter of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association. Of all the causes upon which he devoted time, money, skills, and effort, this one ranked highest. When he died, his wood-canvas Carleton canoe was about 108 years old. Well cared for its whole life, it is still in mint condition. And of course the kids and I will keep it that way as long as we can.


Canoe Journey


He is still in many ways part of my active life. I have maintained my membership in the WCHA and continue my church jobs; this is for Jesus, after all; and until midsummer of 2018 still walked the COASST survey. And like Bill before me, I am secretary of our local Power Squadron.

Half Dome, Yosemite

Half Dome, Yosemite

Two days after Bill died, I cancelled television. Now I sip a glass of port in the evening and do needlework. I crochet, knit, quilt, sew, and embroider (mostly crewel and cross-stitch). After inconveniencing electrons all day at my computer, I may go down into the basement and turn a pen or bottle stopper on my lathe, creating something tangible that I can hold in my hands. I enjoy making miniatures and my office wall displays twenty-six ship models of various sorts. Bill called it Port Plastic but don’t believe it; some of them are wood. The other wall sports dozens of framed frog pictures, mostly 4×6 cards, to accompany several hundred frog/turtle/other herps figurines.

On 8 December of 2014, at the age of 75, Bill Dengler lost his fifteen-year battle with congestive heart failure. He fought it to the very last moment, because he was that kind of determined and persistent fellow.

Bill and Sandy

Bill and Sandy

He grew up in Lititz PA in the rich Pennsylvania Dutch culture. His mom made wonderful shoo-fly pie, pig’s stomach, and other regional delights. For forty years after he left home, he would take an empty suitcase when he visited Mom and Dad. It would come back filled with Wilbur chocolate, local potato chips and pretzels, and the area’s Lebanon and sweet balognas. Oh, and don’t forget the cup cheese and scrapple.

His high school grades were far from stellar, but his principal got him into Elizabethtown College. The first semester he earned Ds. He sat himself down and made some heavy decisions, foremost: do I want to do this? I do. He turned himself around and graduated with honors. Fifty years later he learned he suffered from a dyslexia that slowed his reading way down.

We met and married at Arizona State University in graduate school, he in Range Management, I in Zoology/desert ecology. Our honeymoon consisted of camping somewhere in Arizona each weekend and getting back to work on Monday. Arizona is full of national park areas. He had equated “national park” with Gettysburg, the only one he knew. When he discovered the real park service, he made it his career. He was for thirty-five years a ranger and naturalist in the Grand Canyon, Saguaro, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Acadia, Yosemite, and Mount Rainier.

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree

After retirement, he worked as a camp assistant at Camp Mishawaka in northern Minnesota (Uncle Bill Danger; yet another story for sometime). Voyageur country. Muskegs. Cold lakes with walleyes. For decades, he had subscribed to the Hudson’s Bay Company house organ Beaver because he always loved the northwoods although he had never been there, and now here he was in the middle of it.

He also had a very strong interest in Indians. After retirement, we lived in Oklahoma for eleven years. Oklahoma is Indian country, with dozens of tribes and nations removed from their ancestral lands and given “worthless” land in Oklahoma territory. Bill again found himself in the midst of what he had always loved. A Comanche friend mentored him, and he became active in gourd dances and pow wows. His grandson now owns the regalia.

He made and collected Native American flutes and played well. He enjoyed beading and was an excellent woodcarver. He did decorative knot-tying (The house organ of the International Guild of Knot-Tyers is—(wait for it)—Knotting Matters) and attended their annual meeting when we visited England one summer.

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The purpose of the England trip was to visit the historic ships you have to go there to see—the Victory, the Mary Rose, the Trincomalee…. Decades before, we had redeemed a model kit of the Cutty Sark with S&H Green Stamps. The first vessel we stepped aboard was the Cutty Sark (two years before she partially burned). In Port Townsend, our latest home, he eagerly became involved in historic maritime pursuits, helping out aboard the Adventuress (google Adventuress Sound Experience) and working the Wooden Boat Festival each September.

As I mentioned above, he was a founding member of the northwest chapter of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association. He loved canoeing and as a teen would camp with buddies each September in Algonquin Park, basic getting lost while in canoes. When we moved to Maine, our first purchase was a wood-canvas Old Town canoe (that’s yet another story for sometime) that turned out to be a Carleton. It is in my garage as I write this.

He was a member of the Senior Center board. One day he left the meeting to answer nature’s call. When he came back from the bathroom, he found he was president. He was president of our homeowners’ association, too, but only because no one else wanted the job.

We both have really enjoyed helping out with the Tribal Canoe Journey here in the Pacific Northwest. Each year, Indians from Oregon, Washington, and Canada paddle their long canoes to a host village for a week of cultural sharing. Not too many centuries ago, these same tribes would canoe from village to village to pillage and murder. Now they sing and dance for each other. This, Bill would say proudly, is a REAL peace process.

How did we meet? In the early sixties I was a graduate assistant in Dr. Herbert L. Stahnke’s Poisonous Animals Research Lab at Arizona State University. This was heady stuff; the whole second floor of the Life Sciences Building PARL facility was locked down with tightly controlled access, not a bad idea since we had these rooms full of venomous snakes, scorpions, and Gila Monsters. My job was mostly milking the scorpions of their venom. A major function of the lab was to determine effective antidotes and contra-indications in the treatment of poisonous bites and stings. Bill was a teaching assistant to Dr. Stahnke and therefore had a key to the PARL sanctum, and the elevator opened right outside my office. We met. Ten weeks later, we married. You realize such whirlwind romances never last, right?

Forty-seven years later, during a visit with my sister in Scottsdale, Bill and I stopped by ASU. The Life Sciences building is still there, but it is now Building A, and there are B, C, and D out there. Any Tom Dick and Harry can walk up through the second-floor sanctum; it’s not limited access anymore, although the secondary hall doors are still there, and people probably wonder why.

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When we worked there, terraria in the main floor hallway housed a variety of hot and not-hot reptiles, everything from bull snakes to a Mexican beaded lizard. In fact, Dr. Stahnke’s minions (that’s us) often fed them. The terraria are still there, and while we visited, a grad student with a ladder was dropping the food (mostly dead mice) into the enclosures. Some things don’t change.

Because we were healthy and fully mobile, we decided to take our fiftieth-anniversary cruise in our forty-ninth year of marriage. Wonderful, wonderful cruise from Lauderdale to Seattle aboard Holland America’s Amsterdam. So for our fiftieth, the kids and grandkids took us over Christmas to a lovely rental on the cusp of Mesa, Arizona, and Tonto National Forest. All ten of us. Bill died a month before our 52nd anniversary.

And that is pretty much a thumbnail of our marriage. Life has been weird, very often exciting and stimulating, hardly ever the way “everybody else” lives, and extremely satisfying. The basics, the good things, the neat things have persisted for over half a century. We were blessed with excellent health, excellent kids, and excellent opportunities, most of which we seized with relish.

And if you ever find yourself in the position of having to milk scorpions, I’ll be happy to show you how it’s done.