Childhood and youth: I was born in Clarksville, Tennessee, in 1951, the first of 5 children, which worked to my advantage as I spent my youth in a rural region where my home was surrounded by fields, streams, and forests. My father was 22 when I was born, and although he was an optometrist by profession, his passions in life were fishing, hunting, and similar outdoor activities. He carried me with him on his back into the woods before I could walk, and the earliest memories I have as a child – whatever age that is – are all about being out in the woods and on rivers and lakes. I learned at an early age to hike, fish, canoe, swim, hunt and/or trap small game (rabbits, squirrels, groundhogs, doves, quail, and waterfowl), camp, cook wild meat over outdoor fires, and many related skills. My brother Clif (2 yrs younger) and I continued these activities (especially hunting, fishing, camping, & canoeing) throughout our formative years, then through high school and early college days, and we still share these activities when I return to Tennessee to visit family. In high school/college some close friends and I planned canoe explorations every summer on different rivers, mostly in Kentucky & Tennessee; these trips ranged from 2 – 4 days, and over the course of 3 or 4 summers, we explored over a dozen different rivers. With one of these friends I also backpacked a short length of the Appalachian Trail through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
As a direct outcome of all of this exposure to and experience in the outdoors, I frequently asked my father permission to bring home animals that I caught (or that he helped me catch) when we were out in the woods, and he always said “yes” as he actively encouraged my interests in nature. I can remember one summer when I was 3 or maybe 4 yrs old, walking behind him when he was cutting the grass, and a small snake moved rapidly to the side to avoid the mower. I ran and instinctively picked up the snake, and was amazed to see that it had no legs! I had been bringing frogs, toads, beetles, small fish, etc., home to keep alive for pets, but this was my first snake. My father knew that it was harmless, and he told me that I could keep it, but not to take it in the house. This began many summers of our family maintaining an outdoor zoo, and at one point my father had a contractor build an outdoor tank for holding fish/frogs/turtles in the summer. Our family would often cook hamburgers outside by the “minnow pond” on summer evenings, and we would throw chunks of meat to the turtles, bullhead catfish, and whatever else was in the tank. In early fall the tank would be drained and all animals released for the winter. So my early life included a lot of time catching amphibians & reptiles (especially salamanders, anurans, turtles, & snakes), catching many species of southern freshwater fishes, making collections of butterflies, leaves of common trees, etc. (for school projects), and shooting various species of birds & mammals (at one time I was doing a lot of taxidermy). These interests made me the “oddball” in high school because I did not care about cars, music, parties, and I did not have the height for basketball or the body mass for football. I did have the stamina for distance running and was a member of the track and cross-country teams, which provided me with additional friends who shared interests in hunting and fishing. I was a very average student at this age because I did not see the value of English literature, mathematics, Latin (one year of which was required), but I was very proficient at field identification of the native animals and plants of central TN, and knew that I wanted to study natural history as a profession, in some way. I graduated from Clarksville High School in 1969 (in a class of over 600 students).
College major and an early career track: I entered Austin Peay State University, in my home town of Clarksville, in the summer of 1969, with a declared major in biology. I had never doubted what my major would be, even though at that time I did not know what I would do with the degree. After my freshman year, which was again average, I got more serious about my academic record (after my father had the “behind the woodshed” talk with me) and began to improve in classes other than biology. I was fortunate to gain employment for two summers as a naturalist for the Tennessee State Park system, and lived in Natchez Trace State Park (summer of 1970) and Fall Creek Falls State Park (summer of 1971). I was hired to lead visitors on nature hikes, give programs at night in campgrounds (on any aspect of the park’s natural history), and to construct new hiking trails when not doing these other activities. My father had given me a 35 mm camera in1970, and this fostered a love of nature photography that continues to this day. I photographed plant and animal life in these parks, and while I did not earn much money, I felt like I had been paid for my hobbies for these two summers.
In the spring of 1972 I enrolled in a field botany course, met Joanne Lawson, and married her in 1973 in part because she enjoyed many of the same outdoor activities that I did. I graduated with a BS degree in Biology in 1973, and then entered the MS program, also at APSU, that fall term. I completed a thesis project on foraging strategies of local populations of the dusky salamander (Desmognathus fuscus), and graduated in the summer of 1975. My thesis advisor, the late Dave Snyder, impressed upon me the need to develop research around a conceptual question that could be framed as a testable hypothesis (foraging strategy theory in my MS project), instead of simply describing a phenomenon (I originally proposed a study of “food habits”). This was an invaluable lesson for me. Upon completion of the MS program, I secured a job with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and helped to establish the Tennessee Heritage Program, and began to work out of the Heritage Program office in Nashville, TN. I was hired as the vertebrate biologist (along with a botanist, a plant ecologist, a computer programmer, and several others to staff the program), and enjoyed this job because it required me to visit museums with research collections to document locality records of rare/threatened vertebrates throughout Tennessee. In the course of interviewing research faculty at institutions like the University of Tennessee (the ichthyologist of “snail darter” fame, Dr. David Etnier), I realized that I did not know enough biology, and that I needed to enroll in a PhD program to continue research in a field-oriented discipline. After a year with TNC, in the late summer of 1976, I quit the job and Joanne & I moved to Texas.
PhD program and my discovery of systematics and speciation research: Throughout my undergraduate and graduate program at APSU, and while working for TNC, I had kept up with much of the herpetological literature, and began correspondence with potential PhD advisors, including A. Carr, W.F. Blair, J. Dixon, B. Duellman, A. Kluge, R. Mount, R. McDiarmid, D. Tinkle, and D. Wake. I selected these individuals based on advice from my thesis advisor as well as my own knowledge of where these scientists worked, and the kinds of questions they studied. I really liked Don Tinkle’s evolutionary ecology focus, and this was my first choice of graduate programs but I was not accepted into Michigan. I did not apply to UC-Berkeley because I did not think I would be competitive, and I was not accepted to the programs in Florida (UF) or Kansas. Of the three places I was accepted – Auburn (R. Mount), U. South Florida (R. McDiarmid), and Texas A & M (J. Dixon) – I selected TAMU because it was geographically the most distant from the southeastern US, and I thought I should move to a completely new place. Dixon’s work heavily emphasized tropical and desert herpetofaunas, and while he worked on all groups of herps, he concentrated heavily on lizards, and I also thought it was a good idea for me to shift from salamanders to reptiles (lizards) as a model system. When I joined Dixon’s group in Aug. 1976 I still wanted to design a Tinkle-style evolutionary-ecology research project because I thought the questions were very interesting, and such research would require much field work. That fall semester I enrolled in a graduate course in “Phylogenetic Systematics” taught by mammalogist Dave Schmidly; this course was an epiphany for me – the study of evolutionary patterns and processes - and was also amazed at the amount of field work this research required. A guest lecture was given by John Bickham on the use of novel methods in cytogenetics (chromosome ‘banding’) to test evolutionary hypotheses, and so I went to Bickham’s office to talk. Bickham gave me a copy of an unpublished Harvard PhD thesis by William Hall (filed in 1973), which described the extensive geographic variation in chromosome number in the Sceloporus grammicus complex in Mexico, and the implications this had for speciation. I started reading this thesis and could not stop – it was incredibly stimulating, and I thought “THIS IS IT!” I had my dissertation project if I could contact Dr. Hall and make sure that he was OK with me working on part of this group. That worked out well, and I have never looked back!
Post-doc years and landing a tenure-track position: I completed the PhD in 1980, under the co-supervision of Jim Dixon and John Bickham, in the Department of Wildlife & Fisheries Sciences, at TAMU. This is an atypical arrangement for research in evolutionary biology, but this department, in the College of Agriculture, housed the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection (TCWC), and the vertebrate systematists were all housed in WFS. After completion of the degree, I shifted over to the Department of Biology (in the College of Science) to work in the lab of Ira Greenbaum. He had agreed to serve as my post-doc advisor in a position that gave me opportunities to gain classroom teaching experience, as well as additional research background. I was in this position for two years, learning the finer aspects of starch-gel electrophoresis as my research training (mtDNA restriction mapping was just emerging at this time), and I taught general biology (for majors), and one course in comparative vertebrate anatomy.
This post-doc experience gave me time to complete and submit dissertation manuscripts, generate data for new papers, and also build a teaching portfolio. The post-doc was initially for a year, but renewable for one or possibly two years beyond the original appointment. I had begun applying for academic jobs late in my first year as a post-doc, and then continuing into my second year, and in February of 1982, was brought to BYU to give a research seminar. I had applied for a job advertised for a “Vertebrate Biologist”, and received the offer in late February/early March of this same year. After some deliberation, I accepted the BYU offer, and we (our family now included a baby girl, Hillary, born in June of 1981) moved to Utah in July of 1982.
Summer pet 1958
With Dad's Guns 1959
Reelfoot-Lake about 1962
Barred Owl pets, Sites home 1968
4lb bass-lake Barkley 1972
Red River squirrel hunt, 1972
Joanne at Mt LeConte-Smokies 1975
June 1977-MX, Jack&Joanne, 2 students, Pat & John Bickham
TX Jack in TAMU office, Aug 1977
TX-'Bwana' Jim Dixon at Halloween Oct 1979