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MU ecology professor, prairie conservationist Clair Kucera dies at 91

Tuesday, July 30, 2013 | 8:30 p.m. CDT; updated 3:05 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Former MU ecology professor Clair Kucera holds big bluestem, a grass native to Missouri, in Tucker Prairie on Aug. 11, 2008. Kucera said the plant is one of his favorites. "It's tall and dominant-looking," he said.

This story has been updated to include information from friend and colleague John Faaborg.

COLUMBIA — Throughout the 58 years of his professional career, Clair Leonard Kucera earned many titles, including professor, ecologist, author and conservationist. Above all, though, he was known as a passionate environmental advocate and the driving force behind MU’s Tucker Prairie.

Dr. Kucera never failed to speak up for the issues he felt deeply about, and when he spoke, people listened. Likewise, when the prairie spoke, Dr. Kucera listened.

“He was just a person who was way ahead of his time,” said Barb Sonderman, a close friend of Kucera’s and the Tucker Greenhouse coordinator. “If there were more people like Clair, the world would be a better place.”

Dr. Kucera died Saturday, July 27, 2013, at Lenoir Woods Senior Living Community. He was 91.

He was best known for his influence in securing and maintaining 160 acres of untouched native land known as Tucker Prairie.

Dr. Kucera was born April 30, 1922, in Tama County, Iowa, but he later moved to a farm in Parnell, Iowa, at age 8. He was the oldest of seven children born to Emma Krafka Kucera and Charles Kucera.

After graduating high school in 1940, Kucera’s father sent him to Iowa State Agricultural College — now Iowa State University — to earn a degree that would lead to an easier career than the harsh farm life his parents experienced. Dr. Kucera met his wife, Elizabeth Tremmel, at a mixer there, but World War II pulled him away from her and his studies.

In 1943, Dr. Kucera enlisted in the Army and attended officer training school in Oklahoma. He entered active duty in Europe, where he rose to the rank of first lieutenant attached to the 660th field artillery as a forward observer.

He spent a year in England after V-E day until his discharge in 1946, when he returned to Iowa State on the G.I. Bill and married Tremmel. In 1947, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in forestry. He went on to earn his master’s degree and doctorate from Iowa State in plant ecology.

Dr. Kucera became MU's first ecology professor in 1950. He taught a variety of courses during his 37 years at MU, including ecology, plant geography, plant taxonomy and basic environmental studies. He was well-liked by his students, who ranged from freshmen to graduate students, because of his broad knowledge of plants and passion for learning.

“He had very high academic standards for his students, but he was very encouraging and helpful,” said Robin Kennedy, who earned her doctorate under Dr. Kucera as a graduate student and is currently curator of the MU Herbarium.

"When he realized a student didn’t fully understand something, he would patiently go over it again and make sure the student looked at the issue from all different angles,” Kennedy said.

It was during his first few years at MU that Dr. Kucera first heard about Tucker Prairie from his colleagues. The parcel of land, about 20 miles east of Columbia, is a fragment of the 15 million acres of prairie in Missouri tread on by European settlers in the early 1800s and developed ever since. It gained its name from the Tucker family of Fulton, who purchased a large grassland area in 1851 that included Tucker Prairie.

For several years, Tucker Prairie served as an outdoor classroom for students and teachers like Dr. Kucera. When the Tucker family announced they would sell their land in 1955, Dr. Kucera recognized it as an opportunity that could not be overlooked. It was the only large tract of native prairie remaining in Missouri north of the Missouri River.

He promptly approached Elmer Ellis, then MU president, and encouraged him to buy the prairie. At the time, MU was allowed to bring classes to Tucker Prairie, but did not have full access to the property. Ellis was enthusiastic about acquiring the land for student and faculty research.

Dr. Kucera began to single-handedly raise the money for MU to buy the prairie land. He wrote a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation, which, when awarded to him in 1958, provided the bulk of the money for the land’s purchase and the development of research facilities there. The remainder of the funds were secured through private donations and from MU.

On Sept. 13, 1958, Dr. Kucera gave donors, scientists and university representatives a tour of Tucker Prairie in celebration of its purchase by MU. For 30 years, he continued to lead researchers to Tucker Prairie for several different projects, including the practice of burning land to enrich soil, which was controversial at the time.

 “He was a pioneer in fire ecology when ecologists were just figuring out that fire was required for prairie systems to survive,” said John Faaborg, an avian ecology professor at MU.

Dr. Kucera experimented with fire burning for 25 years to see what annual burn frequency worked best. One of his burn plots continues to serve as a teaching tool for MU students, Faaborg said.

Dr. Kucera retired from MU in 1987 and went on to pursue his interests in ecology through research. He published more than 60 journal articles in fields like plant ecology and plant systematics. He also published four books, including “The Grasses of Missouri,” which has become a foundational taxonomic account of the state, and “The Challenge of Ecology,” published in English and Spanish and used as an introductory ecology textbook in many countries.

After Dr. Kucera retired,  Faaborg was appointed director of Tucker Prairie the same year. The prairie is not used as much as a research center anymore, he said, but Dr. Kucera’s dedication to the land lives on in other ways.

“Tucker Prairie is such a wonderful place because it allows us to see what the natural soil of a tallgrass prairie looks like before humans take over,” Faaborg said. “It kind of serves as a benchmark.”

 

He added that seed from Tucker Prairie is presently being used to restore other prairies, such as Prairie Fork Conservation Area in Williamsburg. More than 200 acres have been seeded there, and 80 percent of that seed comes from Tucker Prairie.

But Dr. Kucera's studies did not end with plants and ecology. A consummate student, he read widely and broadly.

"I was surprised to learn that after he retired, he began reading books of all kinds," said Ron Kucera, Dr. Kucera's son. "He would read a book a day, and not just science books. It could be a detective novel, a western, a history book — it didn't matter to him, because he just loved to learn."

As an international expert on the ecology of tallgrass prairies, Dr. Kucera traveled the globe to speak and serve as a consultant, visiting countries from England and Wales to Kenya and Tanzania. In 1990, he was honored as one of only 10 MU Sesquicentennial Emeritus Professors for contributions to his profession and the university.

Dr. Kucera is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; his children, Ron, Kim, Carol and Gary; his grandchildren, Christina, Matthew and Megan; his brother, Bob; and his sisters, Dorothy, Mary and Elaine.

A funeral will be at 3 p.m. Sept. 8, at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 2615 Shepard Blvd.

Memorial contributions can be made to the Missouri Prairie Foundation, online or c/o Martinburg Bank, PO Box 856, Mexico, MO 65265.

Online condolences may be posted at heartlandcremation.com.


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