Hometown: Esopus, N.Y.
Paul Huth grew up on his grandmother’s farm in Esopus, where he still resides to this day. He attended grades 1 through 6 at a one-room school with just 30 classmates, and found that the differentiated instruction among students of varied learning abilities “was a real model of personalized education.”
His high school report cards may have painted Huth as a distracted, inattentive student who failed to turn in homework, but from where he was standing, “I always had what I considered to be more interesting things to do outside.” His deep affinity for natural studies would end up determining the direction of his entire life: After receiving both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from New Paltz, Huth went on to forge a 40-plus year career in ecosystem research at the Daniel Smiley Research Center at the Mohonk Preserve.
What kind of impact did the New Paltz faculty have on you?
I’ve always said that at any institution of higher learning, you can come out with a degree and an education. But I found that New Paltz, especially, had very talented and giving faculty. It had a tremendous amount of equipment and opportunities for you, as a student, to take advantage of. And I did. The chairs of biology in Coykendall Science Building – I was friendly with all of them – allowed my coursework to focus on field biology courses with Heinz Meng, and ornithology with Selden Spencer, and plant taxonomy with Jerry LaRoche, since I was focusing my degree and my life on outside studies. All of them were very perceptive and very tolerant of me as a student. I was determined to go one direction. Sure, you have to have some requirements, some prerequisites. But we should have the ability to tailor the grade to the student, to where they are expected to go.
You look back and you say, “How did I get to be where I am?” You don’t know when you’re going through college that there are individuals who, because of their insight and guidance, change the direction of your life. We might not know who these people are until we’re in our career, in our 40s or 50s. You think back about that one professor who said, “Why don’t you come take that course with me?” And because of that little guidance, it changes your whole life and opens up a new world. I’ve had a wonderful career, and I can’t say it was because of me, as much as the people around me allowing me to take the opportunity to work with them. It was the kindness of others. I always try to keep that as a hallmark. My goal, and my satisfaction in life, is to see someone else succeed just as my teachers wanted to see me succeed.
You speak very highly of the personalized attention you received as a child attending a one-room school in Esopus. Did you find that experience translated to New Paltz?
Yes, I did. After I transferred to New Paltz from SUNY Ulster, I had a huge course load – chemistry, physics, public speaking, music – and I went to Dr. Grey, the head of the biology department at that time, and I said, “I don’t know if I can manage all of this.” He said, “Well, in my day, if you couldn’t do that, we’d put you back in remedial reading.” He was setting a very high standard for me.
The one who I could give the most thanks to is Selden Spencer, who is emeritus faculty now. I give him very high marks. He was very kind to me. Carol Rietsma is a good friend – she was my principal professor for my graduate degree. She’s now on the board and the research committee for the Mohonk Preserve. She helped me out a great deal in terms of standards and science and writing. I think very highly of her.
I think for each student, as you’re going through college, you have to make of it what you can. I commuted in. I didn’t stay in the dorms. I lived 15 miles away. But I participated in a lot of things at the college. You’ve got to make college yours. Your goal is to succeed, but their goal is also to see you succeed. I guess you could say it’s like a family. Don Christian and all the past presidents I’ve known, right on back to Alice Chandler and beyond – they all want to see it be a very positive and strong experience for you as a student.
What was your favorite course at New Paltz that had nothing to do with science?
The one that sticks out was public speaking. I remember giving a talk about the growth of sweet corn. I can’t say I enjoyed doing it, but it stuck with me. In my career, I’ve given hundreds and hundreds of talks, and I’ve kept that style from public speaking class. It forces you to focus not on what you’re interested in talking about, but what the audience might be interested in hearing. It forced me to think about that as a package. If you’re giving a talk about something, how do you research it? How do you put it together? How do you illustrate it? It’s a model I still use. Never wing it.
If you were at the dawn of your career rather than the twilight, what would you say are the biggest issues to tackle today?
Climate change. We see it all the time. I don’t say how climate change is driven. I don’t get into whether it’s people driven or a natural process. But we are in change. And my rule is that change is the rule, and nature is constantly changing. It doesn’t matter how. It may be good for us; it may not be good for us.
I was a weather observer for decades here with the National Weather Service. When we see these big storms – Sandy, Irene, all the big ones that have come through and really trashed our infrastructure – we read these amounts of rain. We had more than 8 inches during Irene, the most significant 24-hour rain event in the 118 years of record. You take the data, you collect it, and you store it. But what I’m thinking about is, “What are the impacts to people?” It’s hurting people. It’s costing us all over. I don’t care whether you believe in climate change and how it gets there, but change in weather, change in temperature, change in precipitation – all of that costs us money as a society.
How has your relationship with New Paltz lasted beyond your graduation?
I’ve had lots of opportunities to move away, but I stayed local. Working with Dan Smiley, I developed and appreciated a great sense of place. That’s kept me here. There’s so much you can do here. It’s beautiful, it’s historic; every weekend there’s something going on somewhere. It’s a rich place.
The Preserve has an institutional membership with SUNY New Paltz. You stand anywhere on the New Paltz campus, you see the Shawangunks and Skytop Tower. I took advantage of that – doing independent studies, going in the field with Carol Rietsma. We’ve got more students now than ever. The faculty is aware of our desire to link the land with the college, not only for student opportunities, but research for faculty. And that doesn’t include only science-based programs, but it can be English or poetry or history. All these things, within a very short car drive – or a good bike ride if you’re interested. You can come to the Ridge, or Minnewaska, or the Preserve, or the Mountain House, and you can experience things you can apply in college.
The relationship between the college and the Preserve is growing, and I think it will continue to grow. Don Christian is very friendly with the Preserve and sits on the board. Ron Knapp, an emeritus faculty at New Paltz, is president of the board. Carol Rietsma is on our board. Biology professor Dave Richardson is bringing students onto the land. I look at it as a wonderful opportunity for an educational institution and a preserve to educate each other on what our needs are. I hope all the students can come to Mohonk, to the Preserve, to Minnewaska Park, and hike, climb, bike, whatever they’d like to do. It’s an enriching experience.