“Always kept us enthralled” — Remembering Baylor ecologist Fred Gehlbach

Dr. Fred Gehlbach led research about various animal species, but the former Baylor professor spent most of his time studying a screech owl colony in Woodway. | Photos from Baylor Archives

By Meredith Pratt | Staff Writer

Longtime Baylor biology professor and wildlife enthusiast Dr. Fred Gehlbach, 85, died on Monday. He leaves behind a legacy of conservation and appreciation of the natural world.

An Ohio native and Cornell graduate, Gehlbach began teaching at Baylor in 1963 and continued until his retirement in 1995. He went on to become a research professor at Baylor for several years after.

Many faculty members in Baylor’s department of biology revere Gehlbach’s contributions to the field of wildlife ecology. Dr. Heidi Marcum said she remembers being a student of Dr. Gehlbach’s in the 80s.

“He was a professor ahead of his time,” Marcum said. “His knowledge of ecology and his fascinating stories always kept us enthralled in class. He believed in his students and was always there with an encouraging word, and he urged us to get real world field experience.”

Marcum said her decision to become an environmental science professor was largely inspired by Gehlbach.

“He was the first and most important influence on my choice of profession,” Marcum said. “I would not be where I am today professionally and academically if it was not for his unceasing encouragement and strong support.”

Associate Dean for Sciences Dr. Ken Wilkins said when he joined the Baylor biology faculty in 1983, there were many reasons he was excited about coming to Baylor, but the presence of Professor Gehlbach on the faculty was “very high on the list.”

“His was a name I already knew from my graduate studies in the ecology of vertebrate animals,” Wilkins said. “Most of us specialize in just one group of organisms, such as mammals or birds or reptiles or amphibians or fishes, but Dr. Gehlbach was conversant — actually expert — in all of these groups. He knew plants equally well.”

Wilkins said this breadth of knowledge is the “mark of a naturalist,” and Professor Gehlbach was a “truly great naturalist.”

This year Gehlbach received a special achievement award from the World Owl Hall of Fame for his studies on eastern screech owls and other small owls.

With the help of his homeowners association, he was able to create a 15-acre wildlife preserve near his Woodway home to protect the ravine where a colony of owls lived. He studied this single owl colony for more than 40 years.

“I am one who cannot live apart from the wild,” Gehlbach said in his book ‘Messages from the Wild.’ “The ravine is my living classroom, theater, art gallery and concert hall.”

His wife Nancy Gehlbach was his partner in research. After winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1970, the two spent a year traveling across the country with their children exploring the country’s many natural landscapes.

Gehlbach not only shared his knowledge with the National Geographic Society, but with Baylor students and the Waco community. He served as a point of contact for officials at the Lake Waco wetlands and the Cameron Park Zoo.

He also wrote several books about different animal species and contributed to the Waco Tribune-Herald as a nature columnist.

A Frederic R. Gehlbach Scholarship Fund also exists within the Baylor Department of Environmental Science.

“Though he is no longer with us, we as colleagues and students are fortunate that he has left us with extensive writings that will be viewed long into the future as exemplary of that specialty of biological research known as natural history,” Wilkins said.