Matthew Hein

On Monday, I went to a memorial celebration for somebody I didn’t know. I sat on the floor along a sidewall. Every chair in Hoffman Hall was occupied, and most of the wall space was taken as well. Some attendees were in their early twenties; others seemed just this side of the century mark. They had gathered to celebrate and remember the life of Dr. Richard B. Forbes, who died on July 18 following heart surgery.

I never met Dr. Forbes. I heard a few people talk about him at the service, and now I think I understand what I missed. Forbes taught classes in Portland State’s biology department from 1964 until last year, and the memorial made constant note of his love of Northwest flora and fauna. His daughter, Eryn Elizabeth Forbes, told the assembled crowd, “He liked each person and animal he met, which meant that he did not see skin color, wallet size, educational achievement, fur thickness or beak size.”

Eryn Forbes described her upbringing as images from her father’s life appeared on screens behind her. She recalled being unable to argue with him; even as a teenager, her conversations with her father tended toward the jocular and cooperative. When she married a timber man, her Audubon Society-supporting, urban naturalist father welcomed his son-in-law into the brood, and then taught him to identify different birds indigenous to the American West’s forests.

It is a little strange to try to get a grasp on the 65-year-long life of a person one has never met. I have the images I saw displayed and the testimony of his family, friends, colleagues and students. I have the chapters he wrote for “Wild in the City,” a book about natural areas in the Portland area. And I wonder what kind of person could bring together such an assortment of people as the one I saw in Hoffman Hall.

In that book, published by the Oregon Historical Society Press, Forbes’ brief essays celebrate moles, gophers, salamanders and raccoons. What sort of nature-lover would turn attention to these far-from-romantic city pests? The same man who referred to himself as a “starling sympathizer.” One essay notes that he had “never seen a plush salamander, nor a salamander bathtub toy, hand puppet or cartoon character.” Who was this man?

His students describe him in glowing terms. The folks at the Audubon Society recall him as generous and spirited, someone who “helped you see the miracle inherent in all life.” Still, I’ll never know him.

When a species dies out, we call it extinct. There are some plants and animals we can only hope to see in books. When a single organism dies, however, we still have other members of its species to observe, study and enjoy. At different points over the last couple of days, I have felt as though Dr. Forbes was a species unto himself. I have the feeling that he wouldn’t care for that.

I might as well see some of the characteristics he shared with his fellow humans. I will never know Dr. Forbes. I missed my chance. I will, however, notice the generosity, enthusiasm and kindness in those people who are still in our midst. Maybe that will give me an idea of what I missed.