John Maurice Tucker, a UC Davis professor emeritus of botany and world-renowned oak specialist and plant expert, died July 5 from a stroke. He was 92.
During his tenure at UC Davis, Tucker served as director of both the UC Davis Arboretum and of the J.M. Tucker Herbarium, now part of the UC Davis Center for Plant Diversity Herbarium.
“John played a very important role in shaping the arboretum through his research which led to the establishment of the Shields Oak Grove and through his vision and leadership as director of the arboretum,” said Kathleen Socolofsky, director of the UC Davis Arboretum. “[He] was committed to the educational mission of the arboretum and excited about our plans for the future. He was always so generous – sharing his time and expertise, and funding an endowment to support the oak grove.“
Tucker’s interest in nature began as a child growing up in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“My father enjoyed camping and hiking with siblings and friends through the Santa Inez Mountains,” said Tucker’s son, Peter Tucker in an e-mail interview.
The trips led him to spend several years as a Boy Scout, which continued to fuel his passion for the great outdoors.
As a young child, he also frequented the Natural History Museum and would question the curator about where a particular plant could be found so he could go out and look for them. After a while, the curator referred him to Director Maunsell Van Rensselaer of the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens, who became Tucker’s employer and mentor.
After his high school graduation in 1934, Tucker pursued a career in forestry. However, after spending several years working as a research assistant at the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens, Van Rensselaer encouraged Tucker to pursue botany instead. He took the director’s advice and decided to study botany at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1940 and his doctorate in 1950.
While still a graduate student, Tucker was hired as the director of the Botany Department Herbarium at UC Davis in 1947, a position he held for 39 years.
He began an exchange program that allowed him to collect a vast amount of plants and put the Botany Department Herbarium on the map.
During his tenure as director, the plant archive at the herbarium increased from 9,400 to more than 250,000 mounted and unmounted specimens.
Tucker also increased the stature and importance of the arboretum during his time. He spent 12 years as director of the arboretum, from 1972 to 1984.
Warren Roberts, superintendent of the UC Davis Arboretum, said Tucker was thoroughly dedicated to the arboretum. When he wasn’t a director, Tucker was an active member of the arboretum committee and a volunteer.
“He always held a strong vision for the arboretum and never lost faith in it even during difficult times,“ Roberts said. ” His was the calm and sure hand of leadership rebuilding the arboretum‘s programs, maintaining the integrity of the plant collection and its records, and reestablishing collaborations across the Davis campus and into the community.… During his tenure, our powerful volunteer support was established and nurtured.“
“He truly laid the foundation for the current and continuing growth and excellence of the UC Davis Arboretum,” Roberts said.
Although a plant specialist, Tucker was mostly interested in the hybridization between oak tree species.
In 1962, he planted his international collection of acorns which grew into the most diverse oak tree collection in the world. Today, that collection stands in the arboretum as the Peter J. Shields Oak Grove. In 2007, the grove was added to the new Oak Group of the North American Plant Collections Consortium.
The arboretum today consists of 574 oak trees, including 17 oak tree specimens that are not found in any other oak tree collection.
Tucker officially retired in 1986, and as a gift, the Botany Department Herbarium was officially renamed as the J.M. Tucker Herbarium.
“Very few people are the director of a campus research unit or museum for 39 years,” said Ellen Dean, curator of the UC Davis Center for Plant Diversity. “The department felt that they wanted to do something to honor such a long term as director.“
Even after retirement, Tucker kept close ties with UC Davis. In 2001, he gave a generous donation of $500,000 to ensure the maintenance of the herbarium and arboretum.
In addition to his efforts spent in establishing the UC Davis Herbarium and Arboretum, Tucker was also a professor who taught a wide array of graduate and undergraduate courses on botany.
Tucker received many honors and awards for his work. He was the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955 and he was chosen as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the California Academy of Sciences.
In his personal life, Tucker was the proud father of three. He met his future wife Katrine “June” Peterson during his senior year at UC Berkeley. It was their mutual love of swing dance and jazz that brought the two together; they married in 1942.
His children remember him as a man full of stories about his travels and work who wanted to share his passion for plants with his family.
“Botany was his first love and primary interest throughout his life and he always shared it with us,” said his son Peter. “Some of my earliest memories are of touring through greenhouses. I was always shown the venus flytrap [and the] sensitive plant. I remember being 6 [years old] and having fun using microscopes in the lab to watch amoebas and other microscopic life.“
A memorial service will be held for Tucker at the UC Davis University Club on Old Davis Road. It is set to take place Aug. 9 at 10 a.m.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to either the UC Davis Foundation Herbarium Endowment in support of the J.M. Tucker Herbarium or to the UC Regents J.M. Tucker Endowment in Support of the Arboretum‘s oak collection. Donations may be sent to Allison Chilcott, CAES Dean‘s Office, 150 Mrak Hall, One Shields Ave., UC Davis, Davis, CA 95616.
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