BILOXI, Miss. (AP) — For decades, Della McCaughan presided over a Biloxi High School classroom filled with horseshoe crabs and catfish in aquariums. She lead her students on exploratory beach walks, always with her hair styled in a beehive.
“Now, if you ask a Biloxi fisherman...” she frequently said, and she frequently did ask: for their insights into the marine life in the area, for help acquiring items to teach her class, for assistance getting dozens of teenagers over to Ship Island for a field trip.
McCaughan passed away in February at the age of 92. During her 44-year-long teaching career, mostly at Biloxi High School, she launched the country’s first high school level marine biology class, wrote a textbook, and inspired several generations of scientists.
Alumni of her courses include a Navy physical scientist, a marine biologist who discovered for the first time that some humpback whales use French Polynesia as a breeding ground, and a climate scientist whose research shared in the Nobel Prize.
Virginia Burkett, chief scientist for Climate and Land Use Change at the U.S. Geological Survey, authored some of the reports for which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. She remembered “falling in love with nature” in McCaughan’s classes, which she took in the late 1960s.
“My curiosity just went out the roof,” Burkett said. “She instilled in me a curiosity about the natural world that I would never have acquired, perhaps, had it not been for her.”
AN UNUSUAL CLASSROOM
Bobbie Thompson, who later became McCaughan’s student assistant, still remembers the first time she met her. It was an orientation for middle schoolers about to enter the high school, and McCaughan’s classroom stood out right away: it was colorful, and it seemed like aquariums were lined up on every wall.
Suddenly, McCaughan hopped onto a table, laid on her back, and waved her arms and legs in the air, in imitation of a horseshoe crab.
“My class, we’re all 48 to 50 years old,” Thompson said. “Everyone talks about that day. I’m not sure what else we saw at orientation.”
It wasn’t difficult to focus in McCaughan’s class. Instead of lecturing at the front of the room, she’d walk around, showing her students items like a fish skeleton.
“There was no talking in her classroom, no distractions,” Burkett said. “Everything was so interesting, and she was so firm that there was nothing but school going on there.”
Thompson said the lessons were designed to encourage students to “look beyond what you see,” to investigate and question deeply.
LEARNING IN THE FIELD
Michael Poole, now a marine biologist living in French Polynesia, took McCaughan’s class in the 1970-71 school year. He remembered McCaughan frequently said, “If you want to know something, go ask a Biloxi fisherman.”
The line reflected her respect for the community’s fishermen: she knew that their fishing expeditions gave them an intimate knowledge of the Coast’s marine life and the web of connections between living things, their habitat and human activity.
McCaughan’s frequent field trips, whether to the beach near the high school or to Ship Island, Horn Island or Ocean Springs, were designed to give students the same opportunity for firsthand learning.
The trips happened rain or shine. With a boat borrowed from a marine lab or a local fisherman, McCaughan’s group would pull a seine behind the vessel. McCaughan would explain what they had found.
Because there were no high school marine biology textbooks at the time, McCaughan created her own, bound with ribbon and illustrated by a student, Rena Durr. The photocopied pages laid out information on the genus and species of organisms living in the tidal zones, marine and estuarine fishes illustrated with descriptions of their habitats, and instructions on how to maintain an aquarium.
One cover page included a quote from Sir Isaac Newton:
“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, ad diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
FROM TONGA TO CONGRESS
While McCaughan was a dedicated teacher at Biloxi High, she also joined a larger network of scientists, marine biology researchers, and educators around the country, and sought out opportunities to learn herself.
Patty Caranna, a former Biloxi High School English teacher who became one of McCaughan’s best friends, remembered McCaughan’s frequent travels to Washington, D.C. to read grant proposals as a member of the National Science Foundation.
She spent one summer in Tonga, and came home full of stories about what she had learned and seen. She also lived in Washington for a year as an Einstein Congressional Fellowship to work for the U.S. Senate as a science advisor.
Bobbie Thompson, who became McCaughan’s student assistant, said that at one point, when her family had moved out of the district but she wanted to stay at Biloxi High, she lived with McCaughan and her husband Finley. Thompson recalled that McCaughan usually spent her evenings working on grant proposals or lesson plans, always striving to obtain the best materials and equipment for her students.
“Even if you were sitting there watching TV, she always had like a notepad on her lap, working, thinking of stuff,” Thompson said. “She would jot down ideas, just her work ethic was unbelievable to me.”
FORMER STUDENTS REMEMBER TO ASK THE FISHERMEN
After she retired in 1994, McCaughan was one of the few teachers to turn up at class reunions.
Burkett kept in touch with her, too, exchanging visits and phone calls over the years. At one symposium in 2008 where Burkett and McCaughan reunited, a friend had brought some shell fragments to show McCaughan.
“She looked at that and knew exactly what it was,” Burkett said.
Poole last saw McCaughan in 1986, when she invited him to give a presentation to her students. The next year, he moved to French Polynesia to begin research on his Ph.D. He took McCaughan’s advice with him.
“One of the very first things I did was try to go talk to local Tahitian fishermen,” Poole said. “I spoke no French and no Tahitian when I moved here. But I carried a pocket dictionary, and I would ask them, what did they see?”
It was the local fishermen who gave him advice on when he could see the particular species of dolphins he was researching. And they were the first to tell him about seeing humpback whales in the area. That tip led to his discovery that the whales use French Polynesia as a breeding ground.
Caranna, who took McCaughan to church and out to eat a few times a week in her later years, said that she kept teaching even in the assisted living facility she moved to. More than 20 residents came to her marine biology classes at the facility, Caranna said.
“These were people who lived here on the Coast but who didn’t know a great deal about marine life,” Caranna said. “And some of them were former shrimpers, fishermen, she was continuing to teach.”
Burkett and other former students interviewed said it had never occurred to them to ask McCaughan why she loved marine biology, and why she was so dedicated to learning and teaching.
“You didn’t need to ask,” Burkett said. “It was her life passion, understanding the Coast.”