F. Russell Cole arrived on Mayflower Hill in 1977 as assistant professor of biology and went on to quietly and relentlessly push Colby to its place as a leader in environmental studies and sustainability.

As Oak Professor of Biological Sciences, Cole taught a variety of biology and ecology courses; led regular student research trips to Belize, Bermuda, and other locations; and published nearly continuously during his Colby career. From bog shrubs to rodents in Hawaii to Argentine ants, his interests were myriad, and student researchers were often coauthors.

Even as he pondered the mysteries of small creatures, Cole had his scientist’s eye fixed on the bigger picture at Colby. He played a key role in bringing millions of dollars in science funding, including the $6.4 million Olin Foundation grant that resulted in the Olin Science Center, where he taught. With Thomas Tietenberg, Mitchell Family Professor of Economics, Emeritus, and David Firmage, Clara C. Piper Professor of Environmental Studies, Emeritus, Cole helped environmental studies grow from a concentration within biology to a full interdisciplinary program with distinct majors in policy and science. Under his leadership the program gained a reputation as one of the nation’s first and best undergraduate environmental programs, and it grew to some 150 majors in recent years.

Speaking at his retirement dinner on campus May 10, Cole characteristically spoke mostly of the colleagues and students, past and present, who made his career rewarding, he said, and Colby a stronger and more environmentally sustainable place. Others spoke glowingly and proudly of his contributions, including Ted Wolff ’86, who, with his wife, Trustee Anne Clarke Wolff ’87, has established the Russ Cole Residential Lectureship and Russ Cole Research Fellows program. (link to press release)

Russ Cole at his retirement dinner.

Russ Cole at his retirement dinner. Photo by Fred Field

That program will provide selected Cole Fellows with opportunities to seek research grants focused on the environment. In addition, high-profile lecturers will be brought to campus to explore environmental issues with students, serving as mentors with expertise in a shared field of interest. Both facets will honor Cole’s dedication to the environment, Colby, and his students.

“Russ prefers the anonymity,” said Wolff, an environmental attorney, after President David A. Greene announced the gift. “For three-plus decades he’s been continuously behind the scenes, incessantly working, consistently building, zealously researching, but, most of all, never-endingly teaching.”

Cole, his former student said, “envisioned what an environmental studies program should be long before such a thing existed. He recognized sustainability before the phrase was used by marketers. He engaged the campus community to teach a generation of students from across the globe to think and to learn and to be independent stewards of themselves and the environment.”
Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Philip Nyhus pointed to Cole’s role in the creation of what is now the Colby Liberal Arts Symposium, an annual celebration of scholarship that involves hundreds of students. Firmage, Tietenberg, and others were part of these and other efforts, including making sustainability a strategic priority for the College. But it was Cole, Nyhus said, who was “the engine that pulled everyone along.”

He credited Cole for helping make Colby a destination for teaching and scholarship in ecology; for tapping Maine’s lakes, ocean, and forests as research resources; and for taking part in the hiring of the environmental studies faculty. “He was relentless,” Nyhus said.

In parting, Cole credited faculty (He described Nyhus as his younger mentor.), students, administrators, the Physical Plant Department, and Dining Services, deflecting praise yet again. “It’s been a great job,” he said. “We have terrific students here. They’ve been wonderful to work with. They’re eager to learn, enthusiastic, and it’s been exciting to be a part of and will be fun to follow as they go on to do great things across the world.”