As summer gives way to the splendor of fall, John H. (Jack) Rumely has passed from the quiet winter of his life into the vast beauty of eternity. A beloved husband and father, revered educator and Professor Emeritus of Botany at Montana State University, he died peacefully at home of natural causes on Oct. 3 at the age of 86.
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John was born in New York City on Jan. 14, 1926 to John L. and Louise (Clasper) Rumely. His only sibling, Janet (Sue), celebrated her first birthday five days later. She became his childhood pal and life-long friend. They shared interests and developed skills together, experiencing the natural world through the keen eyes of an artist mother and a father for whom knowledge was paramount. Good books and classical music surrounded them; drawing became second nature as they emulated their dear "Mum."
They spent their early childhood years in Bethlehem, Conn. Little Jack learned to read at the age of four, and was placed in second grade when he began school at age six, during an era when "rapid advance" was in vogue. The family returned to NYC in 1935 to give the children the benefit of its good schools. Working as a trainee at the Museum of Natural History and collecting mineral specimens with a close friend occupied spare time.
In the fall of 1939, John and his sister enrolled as art majors in New York's High School of Music and Art, graduating a few days after he turned 16. During night walks through the streets of New York, listening to jazz bands through the open windows, he developed an appreciation of big band and swing music. He found his first part-time job at $12/month, running the office of the Junior Astronomy Club at the Museum of Natural History.
He enrolled at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio in January of 1943. A year later, responding to the call for men to serve in World War II, he volunteered for the Army Air Corps. During the war he was primarily stationed at Turner Field near Albany, Ga., where he operated crash rescue-boats in the Okefenokee Swamp. At war's end, he mustered out and returned to Oberlin, receiving a Bachelor's degree in Botany in January of 1948. Extra-curricular activities included running cross-country and serving as editor of the 1947 college yearbook.
During the spring semester of 1946, John met Constance (Connie) Dudley in an Oberlin course on dendrology – the study of trees and shrubs. Through field trips, library dates, walks, and school dances, their relationship soon evolved into a commitment to marry. Connie graduated in June of 1946, totally in love, knowing that she had met "the perfect man." Steady correspondence and intermittent visits over the next 22 months brought them to their wedding on March 20, 1948. The knot was tied in a simple ceremony at Fairchild Chapel in Oberlin, with close friends and both families present. Their love and commitment endured through 64 ½ years of married life.
John applied to graduate school at Washington State College in Pullman, Wash., and obtained a teaching assistantship in Botany. Driving west in a 1939 Chevrolet panel delivery truck holding all their worldly belongings, John and Connie arrived in Pullman with mind and heart set on John's earning a Ph.D. in Plant Ecology. His doctoral work involved a study of the Hager peat bog near Priest Lake in northern Idaho; this included assessment of pre-historic vegetation based on pollen analysis of core samples. Connie supported the endeavor as secretary to the Dean of the Graduate School. In later grad school years, under a research assistantship, he used his skill as a free-hand artist to illustrate a volume on the plant family Compositae for Cronquist's Flora of the Pacific Northwest.
All his life, small children were a delight to John. He called them "'tars," because dressed in snowsuits, they looked like five pointed stars. With great joy, John and Connie had welcomed Robert Scott (Bob) into the world in 1952, and Katherine Louise in 1954. They were blessed with a third child, Elizabeth Ann (Beth), in 1957. In 1956, he was awarded a Ph.D. from Washington State. John was hired by Montana State College as Assistant Professor, and moved to Bozeman, Mont. John loved Montana, its beauty and space, and the diversity of its flora. He and Connie put down roots, and it became their true home.
John's versatility had caught the attention of Dr. W.E. Booth, Curator of the Herbarium at Montana State College. In addition to teaching Botany and Plant Ecology, his initial assignment was to fulfill Booth's vision to develop a method of teaching General Botany using taped/projection-slide-synchronized lectures. Thus began three decades of association with MSC/MSU.
With Dr. Booth's retirement in 1973, John became Curator of the Herbarium, continuing in that position until 1988. His teaching assignments shifted to Plant Taxonomy, Biogeography and Agrostology. He developed an outstanding collection of plant specimens that gave students hands-on learning and enabled them to develop their own reference collections of Montana plants. He held noontime reading sessions in the Herbarium, regaling students and colleagues with stories by Damon Runyan and other authors; his dry wit lightened many an afternoon. Grasses became his specialty. For eight years he helped lead 10-day summer trips of the Western Range Ecosystems class, serving as a resource educator in ecology and plant taxonomy. He was the thesis advisor for numerous master's and doctoral students. To the public, he may be best known for identifying plant specimens submitted to the Herbarium by County Extension agents, researchers, and private citizens. He continued to teach Agrostology until 1988, after which he volunteered his services in the Herbarium for many years.
Dr. Rumely is remembered for being a dedicated, "tough but fair" professor who equipped his students with tools for studying their natural environment and inspired them to believe in their own capabilities. In 2003, he was presented with a "Special Achievement Award" by the Montana Native Plant Society "for excellence in teaching the botanical sciences, Montana's native flora, and contributions to the botanical community as a whole." He held membership in several professional organizations and served as editor of the Proceedings of the Montana Academy of Sciences from 1984-1989.
John was a devoted father. From school projects to taking his family on cross-country camping trips, no matter what a person's interest might be, he was there to encourage, support, and facilitate. For many years, John and Bob took part in the annual Bozeman Christmas bird count. Every year, they seemed to spot some unusual bird in a small valley near Axtell's bridge. This happened so often that local birders nicknamed it "Rumely Gulch."
He was a founding member of Pilgrim Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) in the early 1960s, and advisor to the church's Boy Scout Explorer Post for five years, organizing two expeditions to the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. In 1968 he served as District Chairman of Boy Scouts and attended Woodbadge training in Minnesota; subsequently he conducted the first Woodbadge training session in Montana.
After retirement he continued an active life. He conducted plant walks at the Elkhorn Ranch for several summers. In later years, he and Connie visited their children and grandchildren in Germany, Hawaii, and Georgia. Wherever he went, he kept his eyes open for interesting plant life, pressing specimens to be added to the MSU Herbarium collection. He continued to enjoy contact with former colleagues through bi-weekly get-togethers of "the Geezers."
The family is deeply grateful to Hospice of Southwest Montana and Cottonwood Case Management for their assistance in John's care during his final year at home.
John was preceded in death by his parents; and is survived by his sister, Janet Rumely; wife, Connie Rumely; son, Robert Rumely (Cherilyn); daughters, Katherine (Bob) Griffing and Beth (Rick) Plumbo; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. He will be remembered as a man who lived with integrity, loved his wife and family deeply, and accepted the trials of life with grace. The breadth and depth of his knowledge, versatility and dedication were appreciated by those around him. His wit, humor, puns, and cartoons were a lift to any day.
His life will be honored privately by the family now, and celebrated publicly at Pilgrim Congregational Church on Saturday, Nov. 3, at 2 p.m. In lieu of flowers, memorials in his name may be sent to the MSU Foundation "John H. Rumely Award" P.O. Box 172750, Bozeman, MT 59717-2750, to Pilgrim Church (2118 S. Third Ave. Bozeman, MT 59715) or a
Arrangements are in the care of Dokken-Nelson Funeral Service, www.dokkennelson.com.
Dokken-Nelson Funeral Service
113 South Willson Avenue
Bozeman, MT 59715
Published in Bozeman Daily Chronicle on Oct. 7, 2012