October 11, 2004

Biology professor still on the job after 50 years

Photo: Lee Kavaljian
Lee Kavaljian

When biological sciences professor Lee Kavaljian first joined the Sacramento State faculty, he recalls that the fewer than 1,500 students and his 100 teaching colleagues shared the campus with “jackrabbits and burrowing owls.”

That was a half century ago, a year after the school moved to its new campus from temporary quarters at Sacramento City College. Kavaljian stuck it out through the pioneering academic cycle and then some, into the burgeoning era of, currently, 28,500 students and 1,500 faculty members.

As far as he or anybody else knows, Kavaljian holds the seniority title among those 1,500 faculty members. Probably by a substantial margin. And adds to it every day.

He officially retired 13 years ago but that was only a milestone in his career. As professor emeritus, he continues this semester into his 51st academic year, teaching “a little more than half time.” He spends a lot of hours outside of class in his office in Humboldt Hall and on the campus because “that’s where the computer is and the books in the wonderful library here.”

Kavaljian grew up in the Chicago area. His interests in addition to his academic profession are in the arts. When he arrived in Sacramento in August 1954 after being personally interviewed in Chicago by the University’s first president, Guy West, he concedes now that he was not impressed by what the city of Sacramento had to offer.

“I was dismayed at the contrast between life in Chicago and life in Sacramento,“ he said in a recent interview. “The cultural opportunities were totally missing here. But I liked the weather a lot in contrast to Chicago.”

He coped with what he saw as Sacramento’s shortcomings in the visual and performing arts, principally by going to San Francisco as often as he could. Gradually, that drawback was overcome in the city where he had landed. He pronounces the art scene “much better today,” partially because of what is available on campus.

Kavaljian settled into his marathon stretch in academia after early trials in a couple of other jobs, one in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and another as a chemist in Fresno. In both cases, a teaching job at his alma mater, the University of Chicago, attracted him back to the classroom.

When he first came to Sacramento, the main buildings were administration, now Sacramento Hall, and the library in what is now Lassen Hall, Douglass Hall and part of what is now Kadema Hall. Sciences were in three one-story buildings now long gone.

Kavaljian is happy that teaching became his lifetime work. He teaches a class in introductory biology and an upper division class, “Plants and Civilization,” which deals with the global impact of plants on cultures.

Besides all this, Kavaljian takes the month between fall and spring semesters to travel to the Far East in search of additions to his extensive art collection. His trips are often to Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam but he has traveled to China three times and went frequently to Japan in the past. He has also been a participant in one, and co-director of three, Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad. All were in the summer, three in India and one in China.

How good is his art collection? Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum occasionally borrows pieces from him for display.

When will he will he totally retire? He answers the question with a question.

“Why leave?” he answered. “I find it stimulating and it keeps the cobwebs out of the brain.”

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