Professor Dave Orvos arrived at Sweet Briar in 2000 to help establish the College’s environmental studies department. A biologist and toxicologist with experience in industry and teaching, he created a major in environmental science and helped develop the newly expanded environmental studies major while building the department as its first chair.
David Robert Orvos died Dec. 28, 2010, at age 52. He leaves behind his wife, Andrea, and son, Michael, 16.
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He is also mourned by colleagues with whom he shared the triumphs of students’ successes, the pure pleasure of yelling as only fathers (and coaches) can at their sons’ soccer games, quiet sunsets over Paul Mountain, hugs when he learned he had cancer and funny e-mails about defying it years longer than he was supposed to, and, over a decade, work, opinions, humor — life.
He is remembered by enumerable students, majors and non-majors, who adored him as a teacher and mentor.
To honor his memory and his legacy, family, friends and colleagues will plant trees along the creek near the dairy barns from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, March 26. Anne Marie Clarke ’03, a former student, is organizing the event.
The trees create a riparian buffer that captures runoff pollution before it reaches the creek. It’s a fitting tribute. “Dr. Orvos taught me a lot about water quality in his classes,” said Clarke, who now works for the local soil and water conservation district.
Orvos was known by colleagues as a plain speaker who saw most things through the lens of science — but not for its own sake. Associate Professor Rebecca Ambers says the department balances the social and natural sciences. It takes both to solve environmental problems.
Orvos believed in students “getting their feet wet and their hands dirty to learn the process of doing science and to do that not in a vacuum, but by applying their work in ways that are of value to the community as a whole,” Ambers said.
He emphasized undergraduate research for his students. And he made a point of not hovering over them, even in the field, says Crystal Collins ’10, recalling one excursion to assess water quality.
“Dr. O immediately won points when he let us take the power boat out on our own to collect data. He taught us how to drive it and always went over safety precautions, but turned us loose to complete the lab work,” she said.
Orvos envisioned an applied program, balanced between theory and the ability to put it work, he said recently. When students interviewed with employers, he wanted them fluent in the terminology and once on the job, prepared to work. “When you get [our students] in the lab, they know what to do with the samples they collect [from the field],” he said.
He dished advice on everything from gaining entry to graduate school — a record he was proud of — to dating. He once told Collins’ class, “There is a man out there who knows everything there is to know about minnows. Ladies, you do not want to date minnow man.”
Most of all, students remember that he challenged them. “He quite often didn’t tell us what to think, but how to think,” says Carrie Speck ’03. “How to ask the right questions, and find the right answers.”
The questions weren’t always course-related. Speck earned a B.S. in environmental science. “Although most of the classes were chemistry-oriented, he helped steer me in a direction that more suited me,” she said. “He gave me the idea of environmental education as a career.”
Orvos also leaves behind lifelong friends — not to mention people whose lives he saved — said Michael Weller, one of several speakers at a Jan. 29 service in Memorial Chapel. Friends since high school, Weller and Orvos were firefighters and paramedics in their hometown of Hagerstown, Md.
Orvos was the guy you wanted to see coming through the door if your life depended on it, Weller said. He hated chaos and when he saw it, imposed order. While he acknowledged his friend’s legendary humor and penchant for pranks (he once rigged hundreds of ping balls to rain from the chapel balcony on the congregation at his alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University), Weller also spoke of middle-of-the-night calls to the homes of people who’d just lost a loved one.
“Dave would take [the hand of an elderly woman],” Weller said, and “say ‘let’s go back and sit beside your husband. I want you to hold his hand and I want you to tell me about his life.’ … That’s the real Dave.”
Orvos confronted his own mortality by resolving to fight his cancer. “He really wanted to see his son grow up,” Ambers said.
He did, too, relishing every minute. He let it be known every day was another day with his wife and son. And it was another day he could teach.
That’s what was important to her husband said Andrea Orvos. “Family and teaching. Those are two simple words but they encompass so much.”