In February of 2005 I flew out to Mizzou to interview for a position within the biology department’s graduate program. The recruitment process is one part fun to three parts stress – there is drinking and food and socializing but there are also one-on-one interviews with faculty, graduate students, and staff, and implicit to the process is that everyone is judging you. Take your standard job interview, stretch it out to 2 full days, make sure all applicants get to meet and size one another up, and there you have it.
I met Ray Semlitsch toward the end of that first, worst day. I had already met my future advisor and many other faculty and was pretty exhausted when I walked into his office, but then Ray asked me about myself, he smiled a lot, laughed a lot, exuded excitement and encouragement about my professional interests and suddenly I was wide awake. I felt great talking to him and I felt great when I left his office – I had just spent 30 minutes in the office of a nationally recognized leader in his field and it was the most relaxing part of my day. I loved Ray for that and vowed to put him on my committee should I attend Mizzou.
Attend Mizzou I did, and it quickly became clear to me that the Ray I met as a nervous recruit was exactly who Ray really was. He was excited, accessible (during the non-hunting season), and approachable throughout my graduate career. He challenged me to think big, he urged me to stay hungry, he provided encouragement when the imposter’s syndrome was running hot to scalding. He taught an invaluable and foundational class for incoming students, he shared with me the fundamentals of deer hunting, he told me how proud he was of my work, how impressed he was with Allison’s thesis, how fun it was to see his own graduate students acquire skillsets that surpassed his own.
Ray was human – he missed meetings (especially during hunting season), he disappointed his students, he could be unfair. But so what. I have really fond memories of Ray that will be easy to hold onto. I remember Billy’s impersonation of weak-kneed graduate students introducing themselves to Ray at professional meetings like they were shaking hands with The Beatles, a phenomenon I was reminded of today when multiple emails were shared in my office today about Ray, one of which said, “I really can’t imagine my field without him.” I remember how much my own work benefitted from Ray’s influence, and I remember the warmth and encouragement he greeted me with that first day I met him and in the years that followed. I valued his friendship and wish I could have told him so again. Ray was a great committee member and a mentor in the truest sense. Mizzou, his students past and present, and our field all suffer for his loss.