John Richard “Dick” Parmeter Jr. was born on September 16, 1927, and grew up in The Dalles, OR. At the age of 17, he joined the U.S. Marines and was preparing for the invasion of Japan when the war ended. After his service, he attended Oregon State College and earned a B.S. degree in botany and plant pathology in 1951. He then went to the University of Wisconsin, where he earned a Ph.D. degree in plant pathology in 1955.
Parmeter’s dissertation was entitled “Oak wilt development in bur oaks,” and was completed under the direction of A. J. Riker and J. E. Kuntz. From 1955 to 57, he worked for the USDA Forest Service at the Lake States Experiment Station in Wisconsin.
In 1957, he was hired as assistant professor of plant pathology at the University of California (UC)-Berkeley, where he stayed until retirement, sharing a lab with Fields Cobb. Dick became a world’s authority on the root pathogen Rhizoctonia solani, but he devoted much of his career to forest pathology, including the dwarf mistletoes of pines and firs, air pollution effects on pines, bark beetle-pathogen interactions, and the root diseases.
His passion for and skill at fishing and hearts were legendary, as was his wit. He had many professional interests, among which were the effects of smoke on fungi and the role of root pathogens in shaping the structure, composition, and dynamics of forests in Yosemite Valley. His Ph.D. students included Bob Scharpf, Stu Whitney, Paul Miller, Richard S. Smith, Doug Piirto, Johann Bruhn, Jim Worrall, Devon Zagory, and Mark Schultz.
Many of the ideas and lessons that Parmeter taught were conveyed outside the classroom, while fishing, over the campfire or during a game of hearts. Dick and his colleague Cobb had small offices on either side of the lab and the graduate students would do their work—reading, writing, experimenting, or just chatting—in the space between. It was there that conversations between the students, Dick, and Fields would often start. They were usually a raucous variant of the Socratic method. The conversations started there helped make the Cobb and Parmeter lab a special place for generations of forest pathologists.
The discussions that developed could go in many directions, sometimes hilarious, others deadly serious, but always memorable. Dick always emphasized that the pathogens they studied were agents of change that shaped forest ecosystems. This was an issue of such importance to him that in oral exams he would sometimes alarm students by asking them to imagine a forest without pathogens, insects, or fire. Under the stress of the exam, the students might flounder answering, until they would remember these conversations, and how Dick had impressed upon them that a forest without disease or death would likely become an impenetrable biological desert.
Dick retired from Berkeley in 1991, and he and his wife Anita moved to the coastal town of Florence, OR. Dick once said that he chose Florence because of the moderate climate and because he believed the bounty of the ocean would offer relief from economic collapse or other disaster. In other words, ready access to fish was an important consideration. Dick and Anita travelled extensively to see their children and to visit colleagues in the United States and Europe. In 2008, Dick’s and Cobb’s former graduate students organized a reunion and tribute to both professors in Post Falls, ID. It was well attended and a resounding success. Dick died in Oregon on October 27, 2010. at the age of 83. He is survived by his wife Anita and by their children.
Written by Detlev R. Vogler and Robert F. Scharpf.
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