Nanney Autobiographic Essays
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Tilting at Windmills - Educational Misadventures in the Big Ten (Draft 02-10-06)
David L. Nanney

14. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

I need, perhaps, to comment a little more fully on my personal administrative incapacities.  My first traumatic immersion in administrative duties occurred soon after I came to Illinois.  Jim Kitzmiller was head of the department that recruited me.  He had taken over a few years earlier as head of Zoology in a palace coup when Frank Adamstone, the iron-fisted ruler of Zoology for many years, made the tactical mistake of finally taking a sabbatical leave. Kitzmiller, a mosquito geneticist trained in Michigan, was the chief rebel and took over as the new chief.  Jim was a world traveler who roamed the tropics, and sampled mosquito populations and the “fleshpots of the world” (his term) with cultural and culinary indiscrimination. He could scarcely abide Urbana/Champaign when summer came.

So, soon after my arrival Kitzmiller asked me to serve as Acting Head of Zoology during the summer, and the circumstances of my initiation made me sure that this function was not part of my academic calling. The chief episode in my memory – though it was not alone – involved a dead cat on the roof of the Natural History Building.  Most of the Zoology Faculty and their students and artifacts – along with the musty Museum of Natural History – were housed in that building.  The story began with a call from someone in a public agency that was identified as the “Urbana/Champaign Sanitary District” – or some such thing. The caller was reporting a complaint from an unidentified respondent.  Nauseous odors were reported in the vicinity of the Natural History Building, and were suspected to be of animal origin.  Since animal remains seemed to be involved, the Zoology Department was considered to provide an appropriate route of remediation.  That Department had provided my name as that of the Acting Head.  Would I please explore the problem and report back?

A trip to the Natural History Building, following my nose, led me to a window on the 4th floor, overlooking a section of flat roof.  Clearly visible was a white enameled dishpan filled with a brown soupy liquid on which floated patches of fur.  I timidly raised the window, and then picked myself up from the floor and closed it again, managing meanwhile to salvage my breakfast. A nearby graduate student suggested that the dishpan contained the remains of a cat that had been deposited on the roof in the winter, in expectation that a cat skeleton would be available after the spring rains and summer sun had done their work. I began questioning the snickering graduate students who were gathering about, and asked if anyone there was capable of disposing of the display.  Eventually a student of anatomy who claimed not to be seriously offended by such things agreed to “take care” of the problem.  I was never sure whether he was the one who had designed the exhibit in the first place.

The episode was not over yet, however.  I received another call the next day.  This time the caller was Donald Hoffmeister – the Director of the Natural History Museum.  Professor Hoffmeister reported that the offensive dishpan had been emptied; its contents had been transferred to some other container and removed from the roof.  However, Professor Hoffmeister reported, the student had left the dishpan – now upside down – resting on the roof.  Would I please finish my job by telling the graduate student to go out on the roof and remove the dishpan?

Again I visited the Natural History Building, where Professor Hoffmeister directed the Museum and where his students conducted their research in mammalian anatomy.  I discovered that the student who had placed the cat on the roof was in fact a graduate student of Professor Hoffmeister, and that Hoffmeister was fully aware of who had placed the cat on the roof.  However, Hoffmeister had had an altercation with the student – about something totally unrelated – and was not on speaking terms with him.  It was Hoffmeister who had notified the Urbana/Champaign Sanitary District that something smelled bad in the Natural History Building.  Somehow dead cats on a hot tin roof came to symbolize for me the essence of administrative duties.  I was permanently conditioned to avoid formal administrative assignments.