Photograph by Marion Cave, courtesy of the University and Jepson Herbaria Archives, University of California, Berkeley.
ZAMORANO says goodbye with a heavy heart to Dr. George Edmund Pilz, yet his passing is also an occasion to celebrate his spirit of adventure, humility, kindness and exceptional intelligence.
The life of George Pilz began in the suburbs of Sacramento, California. As an academic, he achieved remarkable milestones at world-renowned institutions. He pursued his undergraduate degree at Stanford University double majoring in Biological Sciences and Chemistry. He then obtained his master’s degree in Biological Sciences, Chemistry and Educational Science at San Jose State University in California. In 1974, he earned a Ph.D. degree in Botany from University of California, Berkeley and later he performed post-doctoral research at University of California, Davis and at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. [Read his CV here].
His adventurous and caring spirit took him to countries experiencing harsh economic conditions but offering magnificent botanical treasures. George travelled to Andhra Pradesh, India as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer from 1966-1969, a few years after the Peace Corps had been created. His mission was to “Promote World Peace and Friendship” while also providing technical assistance to communities in the area, he specifically worked on improving milo seed, hybrid sorghum and a variety of rice. Right after his post-doctoral research in Missouri, in 1976, he travelled to Ibadan, Nigeria where he would research a variety of environmental subjects and remained there for seven years. In 1983, he happened to be passing through ZAMORANO and ran into Dr. Simon Malo, the university’s president at that time. George was sporting a dense and long ponytail and a dark and thick beard, reinforcing the stereotypical Californian care-free mentality. President Malo sensed something remarkable about George, past the beard and ponytail –which by the way he later lost to the sap of a tree- he perceived a keen mind and an admirable spirit. Yes, he wanted George in ZAMORANO. Thus, a job was offered and George stayed. The calm, humble, sincere and discreet George did not foresee that the Honduran hills would become his home for the next 34 years.
The regard his colleagues hold for him becomes obvious when they talk about the kind of person George was. “He was a man of his own culture. What he appeared was what he was. There was nothing hidden. He was not someone who went along with the crowd or did what other people were doing just because it was the in thing to do. And as much as he was his own identity, he never imposed it on anybody else, nor did he feel everybody else had to be like him. He appreciated different cultures, behaviors and personalities, to him diversity was healthy. As a faculty member, students by and large loved him, his colleagues loved and admired him. Coupled with all this, he had a great sense of humor, he had a way of not taking things so seriously that he or others would feel overwhelmed by them. George had a humor that would lighten the moment and in fact, when you were with George, you would anticipate that there would be a moment of humor and people enjoyed being with someone who had the capacity to see the lighter side of things rather than get heavy. This does not mean George did not have the capacity to analyze or deal with heavy and complex situations. He indeed had a brilliant mind,” remarked Dr. Jeffrey Lansdale, ZAMORANO’s President.
Sports were also part of the adventure. Dr. Abelino Pitty, one of George’s close friends, comments: “George and I played softball together for several years. He would tell me he had gone to a rural and small elementary school where kids would practice all kinds of sports, but he was particularly attracted to long-distance running and played American football and baseball. In baseball, he was a pitcher, a gentle and left-handed ball thrower. When he came to ZAMORANO, he represented the university in the softball league meetings in Tegucigalpa. In 1993 we won first place in the tournament, we still have the trophy. Something I admired about George was his ability to appreciate and listen to people regardless of their social or economic background. You might have heard that George was a good person, people don’t say that just because he died. He really was a good person”.
Gloria de Rojas remembers that “every week, George would join the poker club Los Siete Samurais (Seven Samurai) alluding to the seven fine players they were, and each time they would convene in a different home. George had a very positive outlook not just about life but also about people, that’s what stroke me the most about him.”
George was a distinguished botanist and biologist that, for more than 30 years, taught students from all over the Americas gathered in ZAMORANO. He devoted his professional life to the study of national and Mesoamerican flora, through the Paul C. Standley Herbarium in ZAMORANO, setting a scientific precedent for many undocumented species. It was fitting that at the end of his life part of his cremated remains would be deposited in the same land that years ago he had suggested should be protected from public misuse and devoted to environmental research and learning, the Uyuca Biological Reserve.
The ZAMORANO campus has also the honor of preserving part of George’s ashes as tribute to the legacy his life represents. Students, teachers, members of the Board of Trustees, staff members, friends and relatives of George, were summoned to offer their sympathies and to witness the planting of a tree (Ceiba Speciosa) in his honor. The ashes were poured out onto the ground by two students, members of the Board of Trustees, friends and family. At the event, Dr. Alison Stone, President of the Board of Trustees, read a poem by Emily Dickinson, such text will accompany a plaque to be displayed at the site. [See Dr. Jonh Medrano’s speech during the ceremony here].
ZAMORANO extends its heartfelt condolences to the family members and friends of George Edmund Pilz, a man who continues to live in the minds and hearts of those who had the privilege of meeting him. Let us celebrate the gift of his life.
A special thank you to Dr. Jeffrey Lansdale, Dr. Lilian Ferrufino, Mrs. Gloria de Rojas, Dr. Abelino Pitty and Dr. Juan Medrano for contributing to this article about a beloved professor, colleague and friend.