Appreciation: Biology professor Dan Guthrie P’83 dies at 80

Dan Guthrie P’83, longtime biology professor at the W.M. Keck Science Department, died July 1. He was 80.

Guthrie specialized in comparative anatomy, animal behavior, introductory biology, and environmental science during his 48 years with Keck Science. He and his wife, Judy, moved to Claremont in 1964 when Guthrie was hired as a founding faculty member of Pitzer College. Guthrie was instrumental in setting up the new science department for CMC, Pitzer, and Scripps that same year. He served as chairman of joint sciences from 1972-74 and again from 1986-1990.

Guthrie was born in Terre Haute, Ind., and raised in Garden City, N.Y. As a boy, he loved to explore nature, and at 12, Guthrie recorded all of the birds he had seen each day for a year. His passion for birdwatching and the environment defined his life pursuits. Guthrie’s daughter, Ruth ’83, joked that her father owned the most camera equipment and binoculars anyone has ever seen.

“Some people are born with a passion and they know what they are going to do. He was that guy. It was birds the whole time,” Ruth said.

Even as his mobility worsened, Guthrie always made sure to call a family member so he could get out of the house to watch birds and enter data into Cornell’s eBird database. His extensive collection of birdwatching notebooks continued through 2019. All told, his bird life list reached 7,153 species.

“He always needed to be outside. Even if he had seen the birds before, it didn’t matter,” Ruth said. “I remember when he was older, he still wanted to know what was going on with burrowing owls and habitat decline. He knew that 15 to 20 of them lived near the Ontario airport. So, we drove out there, and he had every little road, every back place, still in his head. Sure enough, we’d come to the middle of a vacant lot and there would be a burrowing owl. He’d count and record it.”

Guthrie attended Amherst College, where he studied biology and played lacrosse. He earned a Master’s degree in biology from Harvard and a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts. As a biologist, Guthrie salvaged and collected U.S. bird skeletons for use by museums and teachers. He donated his time and expertise to finding and identifying fossil bird bones from road cuts, excavations, and collections for local educational institutions.

Guthrie authored more than 70 papers and studies in biology and led numerous field trips both locally and abroad. He was also a fellow for the American Associate for the Advancement of Science and was active in the Southern California Academy of Sciences.

“My dad wasn’t a super social guy, but when he was a professor, he was transformed,” said Ruth, who followed her dad into academia as a professor of computer information systems at Cal Poly Pomona. “It was so easy for him to talk, share, and be excited about his passion for science with students.”

Guthrie lived in Claremont for 55 years and was an active member of the Pomona Valley Audubon Society, where he served in every capacity over the past four decades—from president to provider of free owl pellets to teachers in elementary schools. His love for learning never faded, and inspired his travels to more than 40 countries. A “vacation” to Guthrie, Ruth said with a laugh, was sleeping in a tent in Mongolia and burning cattle dung to stay warm at night.

“My dad never paid attention to ‘no trespassing’ signs,” Ruth said. “I remember a lot of trips in the family Volkswagen where we’d take dirt roads with potholes. We’d come across an old bridge and he’d get excited: ‘Oh, we have to see what’s up there!” My mom would have us get out of the car and wait for him to drive over it in case the bridge collapsed.”

Guthrie is survived by his three daughters (Kate Poaster, Ruth, and Winnonah Larson), eight grandchildren (Lee, Ben, Bobby, Acacia, Sage, Jack, Teddy, and Alex), and three great grandchildren (Aydan, Gavyn, and Cypress). Ruth and her sisters especially cherish their childhood summer trips from California to New York and visits to tidepools at Cabrillo Beach. Guthrie also loved soccer, attending CMC games, and was watching the FIFA Women’s World Cup right up to his passing.

In lieu of a memorial, the family encourages those who knew Guthrie to honor his memory by enjoying nature and looking for a Spotted Towhee, a Red-tailed Hawk, or a Summer Tanager.

—Thomas Rozwadowski, with special thanks to Ruth Guthrie ’83 for additional obituary information