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Brackenridge Field Lab Resident Manager Retires After 45 Years

Brackenridge Field Lab Resident Manager Retires After 45 Years

John Crutchfield helped establish BFL as one of the premier urban field research stations in the country.

Crutchfield-at-the-lake-webWhen John Crutchfield agreed to be the resident manager at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory, in the fall of 1967, he didn’t see it as a particularly long-term commitment.

“I needed a job and they needed someone to see about things,” said Crutchfield, who retired at the end of August. “I never dreamed it would last 45 years.”

Crutchfield, a native of Austin, had graduated from the university a few years before, with degrees in botany and business. In the interim he’d served in the army, assisted an ecology professor with his research on native grasses, and traveled around the southwest collecting specimens for a landmark survey of the aquatic and wetland plants of the region.

When the job offer came, it seemed reasonable to say yes. The newly dedicated research facility needed someone to live onsite and be responsible for assisting the faculty in setting up the grounds for their experiments.

The size of the apartment he’d live in—about 650 square feet—was less important to Crutchfield than the size of the backyard, which consisted of more than 80 acres of richly biodiverse woodlands, bordering the stretch of the Colorado River then known as Town Lake (now Ladybird Lake).

“I’m someone who needs to be outside more than I need to be inside,” he said. “That’s just the way I’m put together.”

The work, too, seemed meaningful to Crutchfield. He would maintain the grounds, help faculty set up plots and ponds and greenhouses in which to do their research, work with undergraduate and graduate students, and just in general be the guy who made sure everything that needed to get done got done.

“I don’t think there’s a title that can capture everything he’s done,” said Lawrence Gilbert, director of the field lab and a professor of integrative biology in the College of Natural Sciences. “He was trained in biology, so he came in as someone who understood what scientists do. He’s also a rancher, and knows how to manage the landscape. So he’s taken care of the routine stuff, like plowing plots for different experiments, and putting up fences, and fixing plumbing. He’s the night watchman. He’s the guy who deals with emergencies, who knows what to do and who to call. He’s been a teacher for many of the students who’ve passed through. He’s an archivist, maintaining a lot of the records. And he, himself, is the repository of the history of what’s happened here.”

Crutchfield-19701366When Crutchfield got married in 1970, his wife Grace moved in with him, and though she never officially worked for the university, she too became part of the larger effort to make Brackenridge a place that is more than the sum of the research that’s done there.

“Sometimes in life you see your future without realizing it,” said Grace Crutchfield. “When I was an undergraduate at UT, I had a friend who had an aunt and uncle who lived under the stadium at SMU. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Boy, that is strange.’ Little did I know.”

Over the years Crutchfield’s responsibilities have expanded, but the heart of the job has remained the same. It’s about the land, says Crutchfield, and about the people.

“It’s kind of like a big family,” he said. “Many of the students have kept up with us, even after they’ve left, and that’s meant a lot. It’s also been rewarding to see how, as time goes on, BFL has become more and more valuable to the university as a resource. I  hope I’ve helped a little bit in keeping it going, giving it a better chance of surviving.”

Gilbert said there is no doubt that Crutchfield has helped. In fact, said Gilbert, he’s been essential.

“Honestly, I don’t think this place would be here without him,” said Gilbert. “We’ll manage without him in the future, but it’s going to be a pretty traumatic shift.”

In order to ease the transition, Crutchfield will work for BFL for a while on a consulting basis. He’ll coordinate contacts with the university physical plant, do some curating of records, and in general offer counsel and wisdom to the new head of facilities and education, who will be assuming some but not all of Crutchfield’s former responsibilities.

For the time being, says Gilbert, there’s no plan to hire a new resident manager.

“I’m not sure we can, or will, find someone who can play the role John has,” said Gilbert.

As for the Crutchfields’ transition out of the full-time Brackenridge life, they intend to enjoy the rather new experience of having a bit more legroom in their lives. They recently bought a home in the Allandale neighborhood of Austin.

“I don’t know the exact square footage,” said Crutchfield, “but it’s a regular sized home.”

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Thursday, 09 February 2023

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