Adventures in learning

Gene Rowe, right, and Bill May

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Reprinted with permission from Life Style, courtesy of Style Weekly, Inc.

Far up in the hills of Yellowstone Park, with temperatures 20 degrees below zero, Richmonder Gene Rowe moves carefully on the snowshoes he's just learning to manipulate. He clambers up a bluff and pauses at the top to catch his breath: "I looked up and there, not 20 feet away, a huge buffalo stared back at me. We'd been warned to stay 100 yards from buffalo, because of their unpredictability, but there I Was, knee-deep in snow, with this massive head and horns facing me. They say you can't go backwards on snowshoes, but I'm here to tell you I did. And fast."

Relating this anecdote, Rowe, a retired veterinarian, seems delighted at having been there, despite possible peril. New experiences and adventures and helping the environment while learning: This is what keeps the energetic and amiable Rowe going. He made his Yellowstone trip as an Earth Corps volunteer under the auspices of Earthwatch. This institution organizes worldwide environmental expeditions, using volunteer and professional staffers. Rowe went to Yellowstone to investigate the feeding habits of elk.

Since 1983, Rowe has volunteered on 34 environmental trips, sponsored by Earthwatch, the Smithsonian Institution, universities and other groups. He's monitored the eating habits of kangaroos and sheep in the Australian cutback, measured volcanic fallout n the Siberian peninsula, reported on seagulls in New Zealand, observed baboons in Ethiopia and lived underwater for Paleoindian Artifacts in Florida.

The walls of Rowe's townhouse are covered with awards for underwater photography, a hobby he picked up as a result of his volunteer expeditions. Diving gear, camera equipment and slides in trays, cardboard boxes and paper bags clutter the shelves, tables and floors in the basement of Rowe s townhouse. As Virginia state representative for Earthwatch, Rowe frequently gives talks and slide shows to interested groups, sharing his commitment to environmental volunteering. He's packed his two underwater cameras and lenses into Igloo coolers, ready for his upcoming archaeological diving trip to Florida. In his garage are three small engines he's repaired for the University of Florida, which is sponsoring an upcoming dive to study a paleoindian canoe, which may be tens of thousands of years old. As with his photography, Rowe says modestly that "engine repair is just something I found out I can do. People bring me engines to be fixed and I tinker with them."

Even a brief conversation with Rowe reveals his boyish enthusiasm for life and his eagerness to learn about everything. After growing up in Ginter Park, Rowe went into the "family trade" of veterinary medicine. (His father and uncle were vets.) He founded and ran Fairfield Veterinary Hospital on North Side. "My work didn't leave me time to do much else," Rowe recalls, "and as I look back, I was burning out." In the late 1970s, he turned his hospital over to another veterinarian, and began to travel and see the world, often on diving trips.

He took his first environmental volunteer trip in 1983, with boyhood friend and fellow diver Bill May, a Richmond dentist. "We went to the little islands of Turks and Caicos, just south of the Bahamas, to teach poverty-stricken locals how to get more protein into their diet by 'farming the ocean for crabs'," Rowe says. "We stayed on the Smithsonian research vessel for two weeks, built containers, captured crabs and put them into containers we built." Rowe launches into a detailed scientific discussion of the farming method and an explanation of its effect on the islands' economy. He talks like this about all of his ventures.

Rowe knows exactly why he goes on volunteer research trips: "Well, number one, it's fun - I love meeting people, doing different work in different places, and I enjoy working with scientists and feeling useful. Two, I have a strong feeling that the accumulation of knowledge will have a positive impact on protecting the environ ment. As an individual, I'd be tilting at windmills, but as part of a research team, I can make an impact. Three, I get the most value from my travel dollar. On research trips you pay all your own expenses, but it's tax deductible because the research is for non-profit organizations. Four, I learn a great deal-I love to learn."

May, Rowe's frequent diving and traveling companion says, '*Gene's brain is constantly working. I don't know anyone like him. He loves learning and has a great understanding of humans and animals. I have never seen him upset, short or angry with anyone." With ruddy cheeks, whitish-gray hair and beard and wire spectacles, Rowe looks a bit like a miniature St. Nicholas. His blue eyes gaze perceptively and kindly out at the world. He's quite fit physically, from regular swimming, diving and racquetball. Since his early retirement, he's taken two courses a semester at VCU. Before he turned 60, when he was paying tuition, Rowe "always took the courses for credit. But did you know after age 60, Virginia citizens can audit courses at any state school tuition-free? “he asks eagerly. "I do all the assignments and take the tests. I love to pit myself against the smartest kids in the class.”