On a crisp autumn day almost exactly two years ago, we drove down the long, oyster shell driveway that leads to Avalon Farm. Flanked on either side by fields of wheat-colored grass, Jack Greer and I made our way down the gravel road toward an old farmhouse perched on the shore of Kent Narrows.
Michael Pelczar greeted us at the kitchen door, holding it open to usher two Chesapeake Bay retrievers out before welcoming us in. We entered a warm, cheery kitchen and sat down with a cup of coffee.
For Jack, it was a reunion. He’d known Michael for years, but hadn’t seen him for a while. For me, it was an introduction –– a chance to talk with a man so central to the history of Maryland Sea Grant, the University of Maryland, and to the discipline of microbiology (“Microbes to Mute Swans”).
As we talked, I glimpsed a unique lens on the passage of time. Here was a formidable scientist and passionate steward of the Chesapeake Bay who’d watched his beloved estuary change from the same vantage point on Avalon Farm over the course of more than 40 years.
He knew right from the start that it would take the expertise of various disciplines working together to promote conservation and restoration of the Bay. This was prescient –– a way of approaching the study of science that would still be struggling to be fulfilled years later.
My encounter with Michael Pelczar was only a brief morning over a cup of coffee, but it touched me deeply. Here was the very embodiment of a life fulfilled. A rich legacy of a long professional and academic career and an even richer legacy of family. His office was filled with pictures of his six children and dozens of grand- and great-grandchildren. That morning, his daughter Ann was with him at the farm, helping make us feel at home.
Upon publication of the article about Michael Pelczar in Chesapeake Quarterly, we received notes from our readers. One stood out in particular. Norman Hines was an undergraduate student under Dr. Pelczar in 1960-1961. He wrote that he still has Pelczar’s textbook, Microbiology (written in 1958), on the bookshelf in his office. He wanted to know how to contact him. He wanted to let Dr. Pelczar know that he’d left an enduring impression, and maybe even to stop by the farm when next out to visit a cousin on Kent Island.
Michael Pelczar passed away on October 13, 2009, just a few months short of his 94th birthday. His textbook Microbiology has recently been republished in India, with promises of more sales than ever. He had only weeks ago hosted a visit with his Indian colleagues who’d led the effort to bring his book up-to-date.
Michael Pelczar presented me with an autographed copy of Microbiology before I left Avalon Farm that day. When I heard of his passing, I took the book off the shelf and looked again at the quote by microbiologist Louis Pasteur in the Preface.
“Messieurs, c’est les microbes qui auront le dernier mot.”
“The microbes will have the last word.”
That was his favorite quote, he’d explained. I think it resonated so deeply for him because of his sense for the interconnectedness and intricacy of the natural world, with humans only a part of a vast ecosystem.
When we’d finished talking in the kitchen, Michael took us outside to see his elaborate garden. His peppers were ripe and Jack and I both went home with a bag full of miniature purples, yellows and reds.
From there, we wandered down the shore of the Bay. Though leaning heavily on a cane, Michael Pelczar was surefooted and strong. I will treasure the memory of that crisp, autumn morning, of a singular opportunity to meet a man with such conviction of mind and spirit, grounded by his roots on Avalon Farm and his love for the Chesapeake Bay.