VIMS mourns passing of Van Engel

  • honorary_doctorate.jpg
     Dr. Willard van Engel receives his honorary doctorate from W&M Chancellor Sandra Day O'Connor.  Photo by Steve Salpukas.
  • crab_pot.jpg
     Van deploys a crab pot from the VIMS Ferry Pier. Undated photo.  
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     Van and an unidentified student study blue crabs in the early 1950s.  
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     Dr. Willard Van Engel (3rd from L; middle row) joins with other VIMS faculty and staff in this photo from the 1970s.  
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Dr. Willard A. Van Engel (known as "Van"), VIMS professor emeritus, died December 25, 2009 at the age of 94. Van was a leader in Chesapeake Bay research and is credited with being one of the individuals responsible for the creation of VIMS in the late 1940s.

A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Dr. Van Engel received his bachelor's and master's degrees in the late 1930s from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Van was stationed in Europe during World War II, where he served as a meteorologist in the U.S. Army Air Forces. In 1946 Dr. Van Engel and fellow student Jay D. Andrews attended a fisheries meeting in St. Louis where they met the Director of the Virginia Fisheries Laboratory (the precursor of VIMS), who offered them jobs that they both accepted.

Dr. Willard A. Van Engel (1915-2009).At a time when calculations were done with slide rules and adding machines, Van and his colleagues were on the cutting edge of research in Chesapeake Bay. Van's early papers on the blue crab fishery formed the fundamental nucleus of work in the field.

In the late 1940s, Van and his colleagues at the Virginia Fisheries Laboratory had the great foresight to create what has grown to be the diverse academic community of VIMS today. In 1947 Van accurately predicted the need for keeping duplicates and reprints of scientific papers and reports in a centralized location, thus becoming the founder of the VIMS Library.

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in 1948 Van and others, who at the time called themselves the "Brackish Boys," created what later became known as the Atlantic Estuarine Research Society, of which Van was the first Secretary-Treasurer.

Besides his key relationships with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, industry, and watermen, Van also foresaw the need for a fisheries survey for the blue crab, which has become the longest ongoing data set for the blue crab, or any other Portunid (swimming) crab worldwide. Van's varied research interests included many pioneering areas now taken for granted, such as the relationship between recruitment dynamics and environmental parameters.

William W. Warner, the author of Beautiful Swimmers, called Van "the complete estuaries biologist, as much at home in theoretical discussions with his scientist colleagues as he is in meeting with watermen throughout the Bay... "

On retirement from VIMS in 1985 at the age of 70, Van was the longest serving employee at almost 39 years. A year later, he created a fellowship to support graduate student research on crustaceans.

In recent years Van received two significant recognitions. In 2003, VIMS presented Dr. Van Engel its inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding academic and scientific research contributions and continued support to VIMS. In 2006, the College of William and Mary presented him an honorary doctorate of science. After retirement he enjoyed riding his horses, sharing with his friends and being an active member of the Gloucester Point Rotary Club.

At his request, services will be private and to continue the legacy he established for students, memorial contributions may be made to: The Willard A. Van Engel Fellowship, Inc., VIMS, c/o Robert Harris, Jr., Treasurer, P. O. Box 1346, Gloucester Point, Virginia 23062-1346.