Dr. E. Lendell Cockrum. Tucson Sun. Kim Matas

Life stories: Bat expert, longtime UA zoology prof even had two critters named for him

By: Kimberly Matas

Publication Date: January 24, 2010  Page: B6  Section: TUCSON/REGION  Edition: FINAL

For more than three decades, E. Lendell Cockrum was Tucson’s resident bat man.

Not to mention shrew man, pack rat man and, generally, the go-to guy for information on the region’s mammals.

Cockrum taught zoology courses at the University of Arizona for more than 30 years, wrote several books and established himself as a world-renowned expert on bat population dynamics and migration.

He retired in 1985 after eight years as head of the UA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, but Cockrum maintained contact with many of his former graduate students until his death Nov. 22 at age 89.

He was living in Sedona, near one of his sons, when he died. Cockrum moved there after the 2008 death of Irma, his wife of 63 years.

Cockrum was the oldest of four children born to Illinois sharecroppers, and he was the first in his family to attend college. To earn money for school, he plowed fields for 75 cents a day and picked peaches. He saved some of his earnings for tuition and gave the rest to his mother. In the autumn of 1938, Cockrum enrolled at Southern Illinois Normal University and took a job at the school’s small natural-science museum.

It was at the university that Cockrum made two life-changing discoveries: his wife-to-be and his fascination with bats, which he gathered as specimens for the museum.

After a stint in the Navy following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Cockrum joined the Ph.D. program at the University of Kansas, where he wrote “The Mammals of Kansas” as his dissertation. (The school had allowed him to skip the master’s level classes.)

After graduating, Cockrum accepted an assistant professorship in zoology at the UA and moved to Tucson in 1952 with his wife and their sons, David and Ward. While at the UA, and aided by his wife, Cockrum wrote “The Mammals of Arizona.”

Irma Cockrum helped her husband with his field research, too, recording the serial numbers for the bats he banded. Between 1952 and 1966, Cockrum, with the help of graduate students, volunteers and his sons, banded more than 200,000 bats, primarily Mexican free-tails.

The Cockrums’ daughter, Sandra Sue, was born in 1957, and her death nine years later from a then-unnamed syndrome prompted the couple to embark on a different kind of research. Sandra Sue was 6 when she suffered the first of what Cockrum called “syncope attacks” that caused her breathing to stop and her heart rate to drop below a detectable level, followed by a spontaneous recovery.

For the next three years he and his wife consulted pediatric cardiologists in Tucson and Boston, trying to find an answer for the condition. After Sandra Sue died in her sleep, a name was given to the disorder — Lange-Nielsen Syndrome, a condition thought to be inherited.

Concerned about what it could mean for their sons, Cockrum took a sabbatical from the university. Armed with a portable EKG recorder, he and his wife traveled to Illinois to interview family members, take EKG readings and research their family trees, looking for genealogical evidence of other incidents of early childhood deaths. They found nothing to suggest the condition existed in their families.

Instead of returning to his bat studies following the sabbatical, Cockrum turned his attention to Africa in the mid-1970s, conducting a survey of animals in Tunisia under a grant from the Smithsonian Institution, and participating in a United Nations project to study potential solutions to the severe drought in West Africa.

Robert Baker, a Ph.D. student at the UA from 1965 to ’67, had researched potential advisers and sought out Cockrum.

“Dr. Cockrum did a lot for me. He helped me sort out directions for how to succeed. He gave me some really good advice. He was fatherly as well,” Baker said.

Grateful for Cockrum’s guidance, Baker in 2003 named a new species of desert shrew for his friend and teacher. Baker had discovered the creature in the Santa Rita Mountains in 1966, but it took modern DNA techniques to prove Notiosorex cockrumi was unique.

“I thought it was cool that it was from Arizona and he wrote ‘The Mammals of Arizona,’ ” Baker said. “I thought it was a good gift back to him for what he had done for me.”

Cockrum was honored by the recognition.

“As long as he didn’t name a skunk after me, it’s an ego trip all right to have a species named after you,” Cockrum said in a 2004 Arizona Daily Star article. A Kansas pocket mouse also bears his name.

It was Baker, now a Texas Tech professor, who encouraged Burhan Gharaibeh, to work with Cockrum in 1995. Though retired for a decade by then, Cockrum encouraged the zoology grad student’s interest in mammals of North Africa and the Middle East.

“He was one of the most down-to-earth, low-key instructors ever. He was excellent at mentoring. He did not force his opinion on you. He did not force you to adopt his line of thinking,” Gharaibeh said.

Added Mary Price, a grad student in 1971: “He was a very hands-off but encouraging mentor. He had an open-door policy. You could walk in and talk to him anytime. He was very supportive.”

Gharaibeh, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, remains grateful for Cockrum’s support.

“It’s really such a loss that a person of this knowledge would disappear. Luckily there are others who were trained by him — and in my case trained by somebody who was trained by him — and we are still carrying on in the same school,” he said. “It makes you feel proud that you are carrying on.”

To suggest someone for Life Stories, contact reporter Kimberly Matas at kmatas@azstarnet.com or at 573-4191.

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