Gail Achterman died last Saturday at the age of 62. Her death was unexpected - she was in great shape, keeping herself fit and eating right. But pancreatic cancer took her far too early. The disease was diagnosed last August and the fact that she survived this long is a testament to her constitution. A colleague of mine who recently died of the same disease went in to the doctor's office with a stomach ache. Two weeks later he was dead.
Many of you, especially those outside Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, are no doubt wondering, 'Who's Gail Achterman?". I cannot recount her life and many accomplishments; you'll find those in this piece by The Oregonian's Bill Graves (the picture is filched from his article).
Read about her affliction here, in her own words. Information about her 9 February memorial service is here. It's appropriate that the reception will be held at the Multnomah Athletic Club! Here is a piece from OSU. You can leave your thoughts and recollections here.
I knew her for just about six years, and had not heard of her till I interviewed for my OSU position in July 2005.
One thing I remember about Gail was her remarkable ability to grasp concepts quickly - the proverbial 'quick read'. Nothing seemed to get past her. She also knew so much. And she seemed to know everyone who had anything to do with natural resources and transportation - two of her passions. Another trait - people from all sides of an argument respected and trusted her. I would see that on a trip we took, described below.
My fondest memory of Gail is of a 'road trip' she arranged for me and another OSU newcomer, faculty member Hannah Gosnell, in August 2006. As a PNW newbie running the Institute for Water and Watersheds (Gail directed the Institute for Natural Resources) I needed some schoolin' and Gail took it upon herself to do that. The best way to school me would be to see the state and meet the people with boots on the ground. Three days and two nights...Sounds like a promo for a Vegas getaway.
It was an amazing experience. We met: legislators; state and local officials; journalists; consultants; writers; irrigators; ranchers; farmers; enviros; water managers; NGO workers; economists; attorneys; agency people; academics; and....We met them individually and in large groups (irrigators). We ate with then. Yeah, we even had a few drinks with them. And the list went on, and on, and...These folks were movers and shakers, just like Gail herself.
One thing was obvious: despite the political or other leanings of the people we met, they all respected Gail and she, them. I learned later that some of the people had had some titanic battles with Gail over the years, and still harbored major differences. But vitriol and acrimony never reared their ugly heads at these meetings.
I recall one field visit with an irrigation district manager outside Bend. The man, who had actually grown up in Bronxville, Westchester County, NY (as I recall), showed us the headwaters of a stream that had a fair amount of flow in it even though it was mid-August. He proudly noted that he expected to see salmon in this stream in a few years after they'd been gone for decades. He then told us a story of his first day on the job back in 1988. It was August, and one of the senior patrons who was showing him around took him to the same spot on the stream where now stood 18 years later. At that time, the stream was dry. The old man sternly told him, "Son, if this stream has water in it this time of year then you ain't done your job." The message was clear. What I didn't know then was that Gail Achterman had a lot to do with making that possible - the transformation from 'irrigation rules' to 'salmon count, too' - while reducing the suffering and striving for win-win situations.
That trip taught me a lot about Gail. Not just how smart and respected she was, but how much her life and work had touched such a disparate group of people. And it also reinforced the importance of listening and reflecting. Don't rush to judgment. A guy wears overalls and has rough hands? Don't assume he doesn't like salmon restoration.
Even today I go back to my journal and read about that trip.
What I did not realize then, but do now, is that I had traveled with an Oregon treasure.
"We've lost a treasure." - WaterWired reader, referring to Gail Achterman