Remembering an American Teacher

Walter J. Sundberg, renowned mushroom biologist and my Ph.D. advisor. RIP, big man.
Walter J. Sundberg, renowned mushroom biologist and my Ph.D. advisor. RIP, big guy.

Dr. Walter Sundberg, my Ph.D. professor, just passed away.

He was my research guide at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. I will write more about him, and also about my four and a half years at that school. Right now, with a heavy heart, I am remembering him.

I am also remembering a few other wonderful teachers and colleagues.

When we were in Carbondale, Southern Illinois, I was only two and a half years old in America. The first couple of years were very difficult — both from emotional and financial pov’s…leaving India and Bengal and a very familiar, loving life behind. I had very little idea what America was truly like: its people, history, economics, geography, politics, media.

Yet, at 30, and with a small family, I was able to adjust and acculturate at SIU very quickly. And it was possible, not just because of my never-die-before-death roughness that came with me from Calcutta, but also because of the support and encouragement I got from some professors and fellow students.

Other than Walt Sundberg who found an almost-impossible winter scholarship for me, our then plant biology department chair Dr. Larry Matten (a renowned paleobotanist), and bryophyte giants Drs. Ray Stotler and Barbara Crandall-Stotler believed in me. Prof. Robert Mohlenbrock, a giant in the world of plant taxonomy and biodiversity. Their indulgence and warm, friendly association transformed me quickly from a shaky foreign student into a tough, confident foreign student, who was ready to bring out his best.

Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. A precious memory.
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. A precious memory.

Unbelievable, in the first year at SIUC, I was elected the first-ever president of the new plant biology graduate student association, and with help from Matten and a couple of fellow grad students (Alice Long, Dave Carter, Ellen Cypher, Kevin Aikman, Kevin Schuette, Dave Breen, Nadia Navarrette, Fabianne Latortue…lost you guys forever), wrote the group’s bylaws. The long-lost academic brilliance that I once had in Calcutta also returned. Larry Matten hand-held me, and mentored me to be a student leader, and that too, a poor (really poor) Bengali-Indian in a reputable American university. My wife defended her dissertation at SIUC with critical help from Walt Sundberg, and our child had a very beautiful and peaceful childhood in the forgotten wilderness of the Mississippi Delta.

Professor Larry Matten, an incredible personality. A true mentor. A friend. And a renowned botanist.
Professor Larry Matten, an incredible personality. A true mentor. A friend. And a renowned botanist.

I have left science to answer my inner calling for human rights work, but I have never forgotten Walt, Hal Burdsall, Greg Mueller, Rytas Vilgalys, Ron Petersen, Roy Halling, John Haines, Tom Volk, Meredith Blackwell, Scott Rogers, Joseph Ammirati, Orson Miller, David Hibbett, John Hopple, Steve Lee, John Taylor, Rod Tulloss, Gary Lincoff, Karen Nakasone, Sabine Huhndorf, George Carroll, Andy Methven, Mark Cubeta, and the other great teachers, friends and colleagues. I proposed to Tom today that he talk to his colleagues in the world of fungal biology, and perhaps help start a fellowship or something in Walt’s name.

R.I.P., big guy.

Sincerely,

Partha Banerjee

Brooklyn, New York

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Evergreen Terrace, our grad student family housing at SIU. We lived here for nearly three years.
Evergreen Terrace, our grad student family housing at SIU. We lived here for nearly three years.