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Vet Gazette

Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine eNewsletter

Love of Students Keeps Emeritus Professor Teaching Long After Retirement

June 19th, 2014
L to R: Dr. Morrie Craig, La Rea Johnston, Dr. Linda Blythe, and Dr. Erwin Pearson.

L to R: Dr. Morrie Craig, La Rea Johnston, Dr. Linda Blythe, and Dr. Erwin Pearson.

La Rea Johnston began teaching on the Botany faculty at OSU in 1959. Every spring, in her 200-level Botany class, she guided students through the fields around Corvallis, patiently teaching them to look closely at plants in order to identify different species. “When you first take them out in the field, you have to point out everything,” she says. “I think a lot of people are plant blind,” she says. “They just see a color.”

At that time, 200-level Botany was an elective open to students majoring in everything from Home Economics to Engineering, and many of the students enrolled chose to take it because they liked being outdoors or because their roommate said it was fun. After many years of teaching the class,  Johnston was given the option to quit – a perk for senior faculty. She declined. “It was my favorite class,” she says. “At the end of the term, the students would begin to really see plants. I had a student who was a physics major and he came in and said, ‘You have ruined my life!’ I said ‘Oh my goodness, what did I do?’ And he said, ‘I used to be a hiker. Now I get out of the car, I see a plant and I run over and sit down and look at it. Then I walk ten feet, see another plant and I look at that. I never get to hike anymore.”

In the 1960s Dr. Dean Smith was the director of the OSU Diagnostic Laboratory. One day, he showed up in Johnston’s office with a problem: local cattle were eating something that was toxic and, in some cases, fatal. He thought Johnston might be able to identify the poisonous plant. “I said, ‘I don’t know. Let’s go look’ and we went on a field trip,” she says. That trip led to a discussion of the possibility of identifying plants from pieces left in rumen contents. Johnston had never done it before but was willing to try. “It turned out, it was very doable.” she says. Soon, Smith was bringing Johnston the contents of animal stomachs on a semi-regular basis. “The professor in the office next to mine asked me to keep my door shut because I was stinking up the hallway,” she laughs.

Johnston can’t remember when she first started helping with the CVM Toxicology class. “I have field notes and a list of of plants from 1996,” she says. Team teaching with Dr. Linda Blythe, Dr. Morrie Craig, and Dr. Erwin Pearson, Johnston is responsible for a lecture on the use of plant keys to identify poisonous plants. She also helps Blythe track down and tag dozens of poisonous plants for the class field trip. On that trip, veterinary students are able to see the plants they learned about in class in their native habitat. “They really need to see these things growing,” says Johnston. “You can’t bring an eight-foot poison hemlock plant into class. And even if you could, you don’t get the same feel for it was when you see a whole bunch of them in a field.”LaRea

Johnston sometimes thinks about retiring completely but the students keep her coming back. “As long as the students seem to appreciate me, I will probably keep doing it,” she says. “I’m amazed at how good they [veterinary students] are. I realize it is difficult to get into veterinary school, but I haven’t taught students that, as a whole class, are this good,” she says. “They are very enjoyable.”

The other three professors teaching CVM Toxicology also lobby Johnston to keep teaching. “She’s invaluable,” says Blythe. “I don’t know what we would do without her.”

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