August 1, 1928 – January 10, 2015
Jim was a herpetological icon, but his life’s work was much larger. Throughout his remarkable professional career, he had a strong family-centered life, cherishing and embracing extraordinary family values. His faith in Jesus Christ was lived out at home, at the First Baptist Church of College Station for over 47 years, as well as in the field. As Christians, Jim and Mary were open, honest, and loving to those not only in their church, but to all those they met.
Jim had a lifelong fascination with amphibians and reptiles. As a child, he even went so far as to hide an alligator under his hat as he tried to sneak it into his mother’s house. He discovered numerous species, but in 1952, he met his greatest discovery, Mary Ellen Finley, whom he married in 1953. In 1985, he even named a species of snake after Mary (Maryellen’s Ground Snake, Erythrolamprus maryellenae).
Jim’s dedication to his family, friends, and his students; his mischievous sense of humor; his infectious bear hugs; and his seemingly limitless energy to help others when needed showed the world that he was a man who wished to make it a better place and who succeeded in doing so. He did so much for so many people, often with a glint in his eye and an arm on your shoulder. We say goodbye to him in this world knowing the good he did for all of us, and we look forward to him welcoming us in the next.
As a herpetologist, Jim contributed to the understanding of reptiles and amphibians worldwide, focusing predominantly on the USA, Mexico, Central America, and South America, earning a reputation as one of the most prominent herpetologists of his generation. He earned his B.S. degree from Howard Payne University (1950), then entered the U.S. Marine Corps and served in the Korean War (1951-1953). Upon returning from Korea he was stationed in California where he met Mary. They were married in Costa Mesa, California, in 1953, and from then on, the two were inseparable. He was Curator of Reptiles at the Ross Allen Reptile Institute (1954 -1955), then went on to earn his master’s (1957) and PhD (1961) from Texas A&M University.
He was an Associate Professor of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M from 1959 to 1961, and then an Associate Professor of Wildlife Management at New Mexico State University (1961- 1965). His travels then took him back to California from 1965 to 1967, where he was Curator of Herpetology at the Los Angeles County Museum and adjunct faculty of the University of Southern California.
He returned to the faculty at Texas A&M University, teaching in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences (1967-1995), where he was awarded Professor of the Year several times. He was also Curator (1972-1985) and Chief Curator (1986-1995) of the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection. He was recognized as Professor and Curator emeritus in 1995. Jim published his first article in 1952 and remained a prolific contributor to the literature through 2014. He authored and co-authored several books, book chapters, and over 300 peer reviewed notes and articles.
More than 20 herpetologists earned PhDs studying under Jim at Texas A&M University. He also served as President of numerous herpetological and academic societies. He was an active member of the Texas Herpetological Society his entire career, serving as the president twice (1962 and 1972), and never missed a single meeting. He passed on his knowledge not only as a legacy to his own mentors, but as a commitment to his profession.
Jim was not only a great naturalist, mentor, and professor, but a dear friend who showed his students how to turn their dreams into goals and how to build their true passions into careers. He inspired so many, and proved that we can and should, continue to do what we love until the very end. He will be remembered as always cheerful, caring, generous, and supportive, and his legacy will continue through his family and the people he inspired and mentored.
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!’” — Hunter S. Thompson