2013-03-07 / Schools

A natural teacher

Retiring biology professor leaves behind 50-year legacy at Cal Lutheran
By Kateri Wozny
Special to the Acorn

FOUNTAIN OF KNOWLEDGE—Beatriz Kowaliski and Ryan Marder, two seniors at California Lutheran University, give congratulations and flowers to their former professor, Barbara Collins, on Saturday during a retirement party for the longtime CLU faculty member. Collins, who is dealing with a life-threatening illness, started teaching at the university in 1963. DAVID YAMAMOTO/Acorn Newspapers FOUNTAIN OF KNOWLEDGE—Beatriz Kowaliski and Ryan Marder, two seniors at California Lutheran University, give congratulations and flowers to their former professor, Barbara Collins, on Saturday during a retirement party for the longtime CLU faculty member. Collins, who is dealing with a life-threatening illness, started teaching at the university in 1963. DAVID YAMAMOTO/Acorn Newspapers If she could be any flower, Barbara Collins says she would be the Canadian mountain lady’s-slipper.

“They look like ballet slippers; they’re gorgeous. (The flower) is very rare and occurs in a remote area on a steep slope next to a waterfall.”

Rare is a good way to describe Collins, who is retiring this spring after five decades of teaching biology and botany at California Lutheran University, where the 83-year-old has become an institution.

“Barbara is one of the pioneers of CLU, and to have a career spanning that long is amazing,” said Joan Griffin, dean of the college of arts and sciences. “She’s an excellent teacher for so many generations of students. . . . Barbara sets a standard for excellence, and many students talk about how she transformed their lives.”


WORDS FROM A FRIEND—Barbara Collins is greeted by longtime friend Jacqueline Pontius during a retirement party for the biology professor and environmentalist. A serious illness led the 83-year-old to retire this year. 
DAVID YAMAMOTO/Acorn Newspapers WORDS FROM A FRIEND—Barbara Collins is greeted by longtime friend Jacqueline Pontius during a retirement party for the biology professor and environmentalist. A serious illness led the 83-year-old to retire this year. DAVID YAMAMOTO/Acorn Newspapers More than 100 people showed up last weekend for Collins’ retirement party inside the Lundring Events Center to say thank you to a remarkable woman who’s inspired them to love and protect the world’s natural beauty.

Collins is retiring due to a lung infection that has left her seriously ill. She told the Acorn she never dreamed of retiring.

“It wasn’t an option for me. I wanted to keep going,” said Collins, a resident of Thousand Oaks.

Trail blazer

Collins became interested in nature as a youngster growing up in Nutley, N.J., a small township near the New Jersey-New York border.

“My house was adjacent to an empty lot with trees and bushes. That was my woods, and I would go in and play and take in the beauty,” said Collins, who earned her bachelor’s degree in geology in 1951 from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

She found her calling to be a teacher at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., where she earned a master’s degree in 1953.

“I had a wonderful professor who had a passion for teaching, and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,’” she said.

At a time when few women studied science, Collins, in 1955, became the first woman to earn a doctorate in geology from the University of Illinois.

While she was at the university, she met her future husband, Larry, who was also studying geology. They met at a square-dancing night in October 1953 and were engaged the following April. They married in February 1955.

In 1960, the couple moved to California to accept teaching jobs at San Fernando Valley State College, now Cal State Northridge.

Three years later, Collins accepted a position at an upstart college in Thousand Oaks called California Lutheran College, becoming one of the first faculty members.

It didn’t take long for the young professor to establish herself as one of the university’s most dedicated instructors.

While she was pregnant with her first child in 1964—she has five, two adopted—the chair of the biology department told her she couldn’t teach while she was pregnant. But she resisted, and eventually the administration changed its policy.

“Back then it was unacceptable to work while being pregnant, and I didn’t dare take any more time off,” she said. “Once I had my child I was back to work shortly thereafter.”

Nature lover

Collins has been sharing her passion for nature with CLU students ever since, taking them on scientific field trips in California’s deserts, Hawaii, Australia, Fiji and New Zealand.

“I try to be enthusiastic and excited about the amazing things we see in the world. That’s why I take students in the field,” said Collins, who has climbed California’s Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, four times.

At CLU, she collected more than 100 plants for the Barbara Collins Arboretum, which opened in 2007, and compiled an online directory of thousands of plants in Southern California and Canada.

“I had been collecting photos and information for 20 to 30 years and decided it would be a good idea to put them on the web as a resource,” she said.

In 1996, students named her Professor of the Year and she received the President’s Award for Teaching Excellence in 2007.

The professor’s influence has reached far beyond the campus.

Collins has worked to preserve open space in the Conejo Valley and protect natural plant species in the area, including the Lyon’s pentachaeta, Plummer’s mariposa lily, Conejo buckwheat and chocolate lily.

“If there are rare, endangered plants that are going extinct, we need to protect them,” she said.

She has also written a memoir, “You Lead a Mean Trail: Life Adventures and Fifty Years of Teaching.” In the 348-page book, released last August, Collins talks about real and figurative trailblazing.

The title came from one of her students, who was struggling to keep up with her during a strenuous field trip. The student declared, “Dr. Collins, you sure do lead a mean trail.”

“One woman who read my book said that it should be required reading for every young woman,” the professor said.

In addition to her memoir, Collins has written 10 books that have been adopted by the state of California to be taught in schools, including “Key to Coastal and Chaparral Flowering Plants of Southern California.”

Saying goodbye

At Collins’ retirement party last weekend, many reflected on how she changed the lives of her colleagues and students.

Kenneth Long, a fellow professor of biology, said he will miss her as a co l league and the spirit and spark she brought to her classroom.

“Barbara is a rock of a person in the department of biology and a mentor to the students,” he said. “Her gift is that she always kept things fresh and interesting. Barbara may have done a gram-stain in micro lab hundreds of times or pointed out shooting stars that bloom in early spring to dozens of classes, (and) she never lost sight of the fact that her students were experiencing these for the first time.”

Leanne Neilson, provost at CLU, says the connection Collins had with her pupils is what will be missed the most.

“The alumni were discussing how Barbara bara helped them find a direction in life. They owe their career to her,” she said. “ Barbara is always upbeat and focused on students. Her legacy of being part of CLU since day one is going to be missed.”

Collins says she will miss her colleagues and students tremendously.

Her final piece of advice for her students: “follow your hearts.”

“Follow your dream and do what you love to do,” she said. “Don’t search for the money, find your passion and have a job that you want to go to.”

To purchase a copy of Collins memoir, “You Lead a Mean Trail,” visit www.callutheran.edu/bk/index.htm.

Barbara’s Biological Beatitudes

Blessed are those who hike
desert, mountain and
meadow trails.
More blessed are those who
help preserve these trails
for future generations.
Blessed are those who stop
and appreciate a flower.
More blessed are those who
identify it and place it into its
proper ecological context.
Blessed are those who are
considered a good friend
and colleague.
More blessed are those who
consider Barbara both.
A poem by
Kenneth Long, CLU

Return to top