Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Bob Spear

It all started with watching butterflies.

As a child growing up on a Vermont farm, Bob Spear helped his dad with just about everything.  His mother died when he was very young, so Bob and his father tended the farm, built barns and felled trees with a cross-cut saw for building and firewood.  Bob, 91, still cuts wood for the stove in his workshop at the Birds of Vermont Museum in Huntington.  While out and about he became fascinated with butterflies and began to draw them.  When a parakeet flew into the barn one day, Bob loved the colorful little fellow and kept him uncaged as a pet.  He also made his first carvings of that bird and set himself on the path of learning all about birds in Vermont.

While he kept drawing and carving, Bob worked on the farm until he went into the Navy.  He was trained to maintain radar equipment - radar had just been developed - and he remembers using a slide rule (no computers!) for his calculations.  The atom bomb ended the war before he was sent to the Pacific, but while in sick bay with German measles he met and became lifelong friends with another seaman Henry McKinnies, known to the rest of us as Jeffrey Hunter.

Back in Vermont Bob worked as a technical specialist at GE while learning all he could about natural history and conservation.  He founded Vermont's first chapter of the Audubon Society and continued carving birds.  Bob had learned taxidermy from a  correspondence course when he was 12 and has always spent many hours on each carving, ensuring accuracy and detail.  He has a collection of bird specimens brought to his workshop by friends and strangers alike.  Some were killed by cars, flying into plate glass windows, some came from hunters.  All are carefully preserved by taxidermy and enshrined in glass drawers with their dates, species and donors listed.  Bob uses these birds to observe their size, markings, feather patterns, etc., when he begins a new project.

I thought Bob's hands were pretty amazing.  I think you can tell a lot by a person's hands and his told the story of his life of hard work, love of nature and meticulous attention to detail.

Bob's collection of carved birds grew so large he needed a building just to house it, so, after retiring from the Audubon Society he added to his barn on Sherman Hollow Road and opened the Birds of Vermont Museum.  2011 will see the 500th bird added to the collection.  Bob built all the display cases and created habitats.  He makes the green leaves from aluminum, carved and painted, too.  He was recipient of the 1966 Wildlife Conservation Award, given by the National Wildlife Federation “for outstanding contributions to the wise use and management of the nation’s natural resources”, the first of many awards for his dedication and artistry.

I asked Bob how he keeps up with it all.  He has help.  His daughter Keri and other BMOVT staffers run the museum these days and Bob works when he feels like it.  That usually translates to very day, though AND he still cuts wood and maintains the grounds and butterfly gardens.  He spends time in the summer on Lake Champlain and the winters on the Savannah River in Georgia and, yes, takes plenty of work with him.  Bob says he likes to watch the Western Channel on TV and "always has a book going".  He likes Shakespeare and keeps a copy of Hamlet on the bedside table.

Bob's next project?  Carving the Butterflies of Vermont!

I'd like to note that the BMOVT is a favorite destination for me and my grandson Anthony, 6.  We love to look at the birds, speculate about how they live and pretend to be owls.  The museum has many educational opportunities and fun outings.  Here are some photographs from a workshop in March on building habitats.  Anthony chose to learn about the Great Blue Heron.

I photographed just a few of the birds and habitats to show you what you're missing if you've never had this unique Vermont experience.  You need to visit the Birds of Vermont Museum!