Obituary: William DeWitt Andrus

Devoted family man, scientist and outdoorsman


William “Bill” DeWitt Andrus, a longtime Claremont resident, died peacefully on August 9, 2016 following a courageous battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 87.

He was born in Cincinnati in 1928, the eldest son of Dr. William DeWitt Andrus and Lucy Huber Andrus, and raised in Bronxville, New York. During his summers as an undergraduate at Oberlin College, he worked with his major professor at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. He often spoke of good times there, participating in Gilbert and Sullivan productions and singing in the Oberlin chorus.

This love of music continued throughout his life. Mr. Andrus later participated in choral productions at the Claremont Colleges and sang in the choir at the United Church of Christ. He had a wide range of musical interests, from Tom Lear to Pete Seeger, and particularly loved the Baroque period of early music. Up until a few months before he died, he continued to go to the Disney Concert Hall for choral and Baroque performances.

After graduation from Oberlin he taught math and science at the Buxton School in Williamstown, Massachusetts for two years. The school was on the grounds of an old chicken ranch, and he joked that the classroom was in an old chicken coop. Following this teaching experience, Bill entered the graduate program of biology at Stanford University. While at Stanford, he was awarded a National Heart Institute Predoctoral Fellowship to support his PhD research on cell permeability. It was during this time that he met Georgeann, a fellow graduate student and his wife of nearly 60 years. They shared the same major professor and their lifelong love of biology.

In 1960 Mr. Andrus joined the faculty at Pomona College, where he was the William Atwood Hilton Professor of Zoology. He won National Science Foundation research grants to study the properties of hibernator heart cells in tissue culture, spending two sabbaticals in that research at the Pasadena Medical Research Foundation. This focus continued in 1974 when he spent six months with his family in Amsterdam, studying the effects of low temperature and freezing at the Research Foundation of the Central Laboratory of the Netherlands. 

For several years, he headed Pomona’s National Science Foundation-funded summer research program for outstanding undergraduates. These were some of his happiest teaching times, mentoring students while they problem-solved and designed experiments. Quotes from students reflected his love of lab teaching and his wit.

“In addition to teaching us so many of the important and basic principles of biology and science, you also showed us science can be fun,” one shared. Another said, “Your dry sense of humor often served as welcome punctuation in the midst of long hours in the laboratory.” One student spoke of how Bill not only modeled scholarly pursuit of the scientific method, but also managed to pass on an understanding of the beauty and complexity of nature.

Mr. Andrus loved the outdoors and in the summer of 1947 worked on a fire maintenance crew in Yellowstone, spending weeks clearing out fallen trees and brush in the Plumas National Forest of California while living out of a backpack. There were many family camping and backpacking adventures, often associated with cross-country trips to the family property in northern Vermont. The most extensive family camping experience was following the spring of 1974 when living in Amsterdam and getting to know the art and history of the Netherlands. For five weeks the family traveled in their VW bus, towing their tent trailer from Denmark to Italy and back to the Netherlands, enjoying remarkable folks in campgrounds along the way.

Family camping trips in the Southwest sparked Bill’s interest in rock art. He and Georgeann designed a number of rock art trips, including time with friends exploring caves in the Dordogne and De L-Ardeche in France and a rock art UNESCO site reached by a mule ride into a canyon in Southern Baja. Over three years in the late 1980s, Mr. Andrus participated in the East Mojave Rock Art Recording Project, hiking to identify and record petroglyphs on the Bureau of Land Management land in the East Mojave Desert. These records are now on file at the San Bernardino County Museum and with the Bureau of Land Management Antiquities Project.

After retiring from Pomona in 1991, Mr. Andrus pursued different interests and talents. One of his first volunteer efforts included working several days a week at the Paige Museum of the La Brea Tar Pits, where he became adept at reconstructing mammoth femurs out of plaster of Paris and bone fragments. Mr. Andrus also continued his lifelong passion for woodworking at Habitat for Humanity, where he helped build more than 25 homes and served on the building committee for several years. His love of history and woodworking stimulated his interest in early woodworking tools. From many visits to old barns and workshops, particularly in the Northeast, he amassed an impressive collection, with some tools from the mid-1800s.

Bill and Georgeann’s travels included time in Patagonia, the Queen Charlotte Islands, Europe, Japan and New Zealand. The place on the planet Bill most adored and felt most at home, however, was the small island near the Quebec border in northern Vermont that was shared with his extended family. There was always a project to do, repair or build. Early morning, midday or at sundown, he was often in a canoe over one of his favorite reefs, fly rod in hand, casting for bass. According to his wishes, Bill’s ashes will be spread over some of those treasured spots.

Bill will be forever loved and is survived by his wife Georgeann, his brother Carl Andrus, his sister Anne Grady, his children Bryan Andrus, Susan Andrus and Peter Andrus, his daughters-in-law Diana Andrus and Aimee Rousey, his son-in-law Joseph Keene and his grandchildren Torey Andrus, Mason Andrus, Isabel Keene and Evan Keene. He also leaves his brothers-in-law Fritz Henry and George Grady, his sisters-in-law Noelle Andrus and Mary Louise Sigtenhorst and many nieces, nephews and great-nieces and nephews. His sister Peggy Henry predeceased him.

Bill’s family would like to thank the staff at the Harrison Villa at Mt. San Antonio Gardens, who lovingly cared for him over the past two years.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, September 24 at 3 p.m. at Kingman Chapel at UCC, 233 W. Harrison Ave. in Claremont, with a reception following. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Pomona Valley Chapter of Habitat for Humanity, 2111 Bonita Ave., La Verne CA 91750, or Mt. San Antonio Gardens, 900 E. Harrison Ave., Pomona, CA 91767.


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