In Memoriam – Gayle H. Nelson

It was a very productive first day in the Black Hills of South Dakota, with several rather significant finds. However, I’m going to forego an update on these and instead dedicate this post to the memory of my friend and colleague, Dr. Gayle H. Nelson, who passed away on this day three years ago. Gayle was not only one of North America’s premier experts on Buprestidae but was also an outstanding teacher of human anatomy. With a career spanning nearly five decades and generating some 70+ beetle publications, Gayle had the opportunity to interact with many of the world’s most important coleopterists. Despite this, he was one of the most humble and accessible persons I’ve had the honor to meet. I think about Gayle often, especially while on collecting trips – remembering the places we visited and the lessons he taught me. On this 3rd anniversary of his passing, I reproduce here a remembrance that I wrote for a memorial issue of the The Pan-Pacific Entomologist, published September 24, 2006 on the 1st anniversary of his death.

“I had the privilege of calling Gayle Nelson both a mentor and a friend. I first corresponded with Gayle in 1984 as a young collector with a budding interest in beetles, and my first communication with him probably mirrors that of many others – me asking him for help identifying specimens. And, as he likely did for those many others, he graciously agreed. For the next several years, I would send him my “catch” at the end of each season and anxiously await the return shipment. Opening a box of specimens after he’d looked at them was as exciting as Christmas morning, not only to see how well I had fared in my tentative identifications, but also in anticipation of the “gifts” Gayle more often than not included for my collection. On one occasion, I had included examples of a strange looking Agrilus from south Texas that I had found during one of my earliest collecting trips outside of Missouri. They turned out to be A. toxotes, known previously only from Mexico, and a species not represented in Gayle’s collection (a true rarity by that point in his life). In his return letter, Gayle’s excitement about this find was obvious as he politely asked permission to retain a male/female pair. I agreed readily, and when the box of beetles was returned, I found added to its contents several dozen especially colorful examples of western U.S. Acmaeodera. To this young Midwesterner, those beetles were as “exotic” as if they had come from Brazil or Africa. During those early years, Gayle’s letters were rich with advice on collecting and suggestions for localities I should explore, and his kindnesses did much to solidify my passion for buprestids and eventually led to the first of our several coauthored publications.

“It was not until 1991, however, that I finally met Gayle in person while he was still residing in California. I had moved from St. Louis to Sacramento and was eager to explore the “buprestid heaven” that is southern California. Gayle had extended an open invitation to collect with him, so in early June I traveled to his home in Rancho Cucamunga, where he and his wife Jean graciously hosted me for the first two days of a weeklong collecting trip. That first evening I marveled at what was undoubtedly the most impressive private insect collection I had ever seen. Not only was it larger than any collection I had seen, but the exacting and careful manner in which the specimens had been curated and organized was enough to impress even the most retentive among us. We talked about the collecting localities he planned to show me and what species we might find there. To this still relatively “green” buprestophile whose collecting experience was limited primarily to the Missouri Ozarks, the prospect of collecting species of such “exotic” genera as Acmaeoderoides, Anambodera, Prasinalia, and Lepismadora – in one trip – almost seemed too good to be true. But true it was! Our first day in the field I met his longtime friend George Walters, and the three of us visited several of their favorite collecting localities in the San Bernardino Mountains near Wrightwood and in Lone Pine Canyon. I collected around 15 species of buprestids that day – more than I had ever collected on any previous field trip. The next day he took me to the beautiful Santa Rosa Mountains and its fabled Pinyon Flats, Whitewater Canyon and Palm Desert localities, where I added another dozen or so species to my catch – all different from the previous day. During those two days, I was not only astounded by Gayle’s endurance – he was well into his 60s by then – but also impressed with his dogged persistence in searching for his quarry. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this was one of the secrets to his great success as a collector. By the end of the second day, I was so exhausted that I slept during most of the long drive back to his home. I spent the rest of the following week visiting many of the other southern California localities Gayle had recommended, looking on the plants he had suggested, and ended up with a whopping trip total of ~60 buprestid species. During the years that followed, I had the good fortune to accompany Gayle on field trips as far away as southern Mexico and close to home in Missouri and Kansas. Each time he taught me something new and re-energized my passion for collecting buprestids. I knew I was “learning from the Master!” Gayle Nelson was large in stature and in life. He was a scientist, a teacher, a dedicated family man and a friend to us all. He will be missed by all who knew him.”

Below is a photograph of Gayle and several other buprestophiles (including a much younger me!), taken July, 1992 in Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, México during a world buprestid workers gathering (this photo was also published in the Pan-Pac memorial issue). The day this photograph was taken, Gayle and I had collected the first specimens of what we would later describe as Oaxacanthaxia nigroaenea – the second species in an odd little genus with Old World affinities that had been described just one year earlier by Chuck Bellamy from specimens collected in the very same area.

L-R: Svata Bílý (Czech Republic), Chuck Bellamy (USA), Hans Mühle (Germany), Gayle Nelson (USA), Dave Verity (USA), me, Mark Volkovitsh (Russia). Photo by Rick Westcott (USA).

10 thoughts on “In Memoriam – Gayle H. Nelson

  1. Hi Ted

    Thank you for this blog entry. The photo is interesting. Gayle Nelson was one of the first people to request papers of mine on Buprestidae when I first started to publish research on the Australian fauna. He sent me most of his works which I thought were very good and covered both taxonomy and ecology.

    Best regards, Trevor

    • Gayle was perhaps the most widely liked and respected member of our North American fraternity. I think of him often and of the help he so freely gave to me. I try to honor his memory by encouraging and assisting in the same way those who now look to me for help. I am thankful that I had the chance to know him.

    • Gayle also made quite an impression as an anatomy professor at College of Osteopathic Med. of The Pacific, in Pomona, CA in the 1980’s ! I remember him well.

  2. Dr. Gayle Nelson was my grandpa. He lived in California for many years and we used to visit him. He used to take me out to the desert to hunt for beetles. He would never head out without his bottles of water and beef jerky! When he moved to Blue Springs, he would bring out his white beetling sheet and blacklight. I still have my first Acmaeodera collection that he showed me how to do. He made me write out on points and stick each one. The teacher thought I had cheated until I showed her my grandfathers credentials!

    I hope you all will know one day what it feels like to see such wonderful things said about your grandparents. Thank you! I know he would have appreciated it very much!

    • Hi John, what wonderful memories you have so graciously added – thank you.

      Despite our great difference in age, I considered Gayle one of my very best friends. We moved back to St. Louis just before Gayle moved back to Blue Springs, and on several occasions our families visited each other. He was one of the kindest men I have ever known and extended to me countless generosities. I treasure my memories of him and am also happy that my two girls got the chance to know him, Jean, and Suzanne.

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  5. I was in Dr Nelson’s human anatomy class at KCCOM in 1975. His chalkboard drawings were flawlessly detailed in their representation of anatomical structure and relationships. My whole medical school class and I marveled at his knowledge and artistic talent. No one ever wanted to be the one to erase his masterpieces at the end of his class. He and his wife graciously invited many students to his home in Blue Springs and I was privileged to see his amazing collection of beetles. At that point in my life, I had never seen such meticulous attention to detail. To this day he has left a lasting impression on me and I am honored to have known and learned from him.
    William A. Davis, Jr., DO


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