Va Cave Week

Presented by friends of the Virginia Cave Board

This year we are celebrating Virginia Cave Week
June 2 through 8, 2019


How I nearly caused John Holsinger's premature demise

By Julian "Jerry" Lewis, Ph.D.

(Reprinted from the Indiana Karst Conservancy newsletter)

Photo:  Jerry Lewis and John Holsinger (right)

Jerry Lewis & John Holsinger        In November, 2018 one of my oldest and dearest friends passed away:  Dr. John R. Holsinger.  John was one of those cavers for whom an obituary can be written with page after page of accomplishments over a career of decades – see the N.S.S. News*.  In brief, John was a cave biologist specializing in the evolution and systematics of subterranean amphipods, although he was fluent with essentially anything that lived in a cave as well as the caves themselves.  He spent much of his career dedicated to the conservation of caves and karst. 

           An indication of how long I knew John is the fact that I not only have a file folder of letters (sent through the mail) from him, it's more thananinch thick.  The oldest letter is dated October 11, 1972, and was written on theletterhead of the National Museum of Natural History – Smithsonian Institution, where I believe John was completing a post-doctoral fellowship.  John was writing to provide me with identifications of amphipods that Ihad collected in Mystery Cave, Perry County, Missouri.  In another letter two weeks later he identified cave isopods that I had included in a shipment of flatworms to Dr. Roman Kenk at the Smithsonian, which Roman then handed off to John. Our friendship grew over the years that I was an undergraduate student in Illinois, and upon my graduation I accepted an invitation to go to Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia to study as John's graduate student.

            I started working on a master's degree with John Holsinger in the fall of 1976 (for perspective, John had just published one of his major works, the book Descriptions of Virginia Caves.  That semester was noteworthy as the first timeJohn offered his cave biology class, which I of course took.  The highlight of the class was a field trip to see caves and cave animals in the Appalachians of West Virginia and Virginia.  The vehicle that the university provided for the trip was a former airport limousine painted robin egg blue.  It's difficult to describe how comical we must have looked tearing down gravel roads out in the boondocks in that idiotic limousine, which we called the "Blue Goose". 

            We spent the first night somewhere in Lewisburg, West Virginia.  That evening we were walking down the sidewalk of what passed for the main drag of town, for whatever reason all of us walking in a row along the concrete curb.  One of the female class members was a pursuing a rather ribald conversation about the depth of water required to immerse those parts of the anatomy associated with human reproduction.  For reasons beyond my recollection I felt compelled to mimic a West Virginia accent (why would anyone from Indiana need a worse accent?) and throw out for the group's consideration "mah mamma told me that as long as ah kept that thing in my pants ah'd do okay".  I think John had to that moment considered me to be polite – he was so taken aback that he turned around to say "What?!?" and was laughing so hard he fell off the curb … into on-coming traffic.  Luckily someone grabbed him and yanked him back to the curb, or I would have been responsible for the demise of my friend and mentor back in 1976. 

            The next day the class found themselves in Tazewell County, Virginia to look at Fallen Rock Cave, where John wanted to show us a unique isopod that lived in the cave.  I remember looking at the isopods plastered onto rocks in the rushing current of the cave stream, which I'm currently (43 years later) describing as a new species.  As the obituary in the NSS News notes, John "could also be irascible, and it is fair to say he did not suffer fools gladly."  If I didn't know this aspect of John's personality already, I found out when the class was standing in the Appalachian Valley looking at the surrounding peaks.  I made the mistake of asking John if those "hills" were what he considered to be mountains (my previous experience had been with the more impressive Rocky Mountains).  John's response was "You're damn right those are mountains!  God damned flatlander!  If you don't think that's a mountain try climbing up there.  You wouldn't know a mountain if it bit you on the ass."  From that point on I became known as the "flatlander".    

            During the spring semester I had a research assistantship that consisted of doing whatever John needed to have done, mostly inking drawings of amphipod appendages for one of his large works describing new species.  It was a unique experience since I had a desk in John's office and had the opportunity to pester him constantly with questions.  Generally patient with the barrages of questions, one day I guess I asked one too many questions and he told me "you're a smart boy, you'll figure it out" … a phrase that subsequently became axiomatic for me. Unfortunately, after that semester I opted out of completing my master's degree at Old Dominion as my father had contracted a fatal case of lung cancer and I returned home to assist my mother.  But I returned to Indiana having been provided by John with a firm foothold in the study of subterranean isopods, a pursuit that still continues now 43 years later.

            Our friendship continued through the decades that followed and our paths crossed many times.  Surprisingly I only co-authored one paper with John, a description of a new species of subterranean isopod from Virginia.  The vast majority of our interactions were long distance, which eventually evolved from the hundreds of letters we exchanged about amphipods and isopods into emails.  Over the past few years I had heard little from John as his memory began to fail him and he eventually stopped working with cave animals.

            My path might continue to cross John's in a manner of speaking, as I have a large unpublished manuscript on the amphipods of the genus Stygobromus that John had written over 25 years ago, but for some reason never published.  Last year friends Wil Orndorff and Chris Hobson (Virginia Natural Heritage Program) met with John and he was very interested in having this unpublished treasure trove of information come to publication. I also have a new species of Lirceus isopod that John discovered in 1967 in a cave in Washington County, Virginia.  It was sitting on a shelf in the Smithsonian where I found it in 2016 and it seems fitting to name it in honor of John.  With a little luck both of those projects can come to fruition before I see John again, but I'll miss him in the interim.

*Culver, D., W. Orndorff, and C. Hobson, 2019, John R. Holsinger - Obituary, National Speleological Society News, v. 77, n. 1, p. 28-29.


Back to Home


Copyright 2019, Friends of the Virginia Cave Board.
All rights reserved
Webmeister: David Socky