Professor, mentor, scientist, and athlete, Steve Arch was a monumental presence in the biology department for four decades. Born in 1942 in Los Angeles, the first of two sons of postmaster Ernest Arch and Elaine Wagner, he grew up in Reno, Nevada. Standing six feet two and weighing in at 255 pounds, he was a natural athlete. He threw shotput and played lineback and fullback for Stanford University in his undergrad years. His prowess on the gridiron drew the attention of professional clubs, and the Chicago Bears invited him to training camp. He decided instead to build on the AB he had earned from Stanford in 1964 and went on to complete a PhD at the University of Chicago. Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, he traveled to Mississippi to register disenfranchised voters. He also stood toe-to-toe with National Guardsmen at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Among his many achievements during this time was his marriage to Elizabeth, his girlfriend from his sophomore year in college, whom he met in biology lab.
At Reed, he specialized in cellular neurophysiology, working primarily with the sea slug Aplysia californica. He lectured widely around the United States and the world, and published and presented many papers. He was appointed the Laurens N. Ruben Professor of Biology in 1995 and served as department chair in 1994–96.
“He had the most elegant scientific mind I have encountered,” wrote Melanie Deal ’87.
Daniel Korenblum ’99 notes, “His honest, empirical approach to research and his aversion to prejudice and over-interpretation, and his insistence on fact-based deductive reasoning were deeply ingrained; this rubbed off on his students and showed in his relationships with other professors, who always seemed to treat him with deep respect, if not reverence.”
“Steve was my academic and thesis adviser,” writes Michael Hoppa ’04, “although it was in his 400 level seminar in neurophysiology and molecular physiology where Steve was really at his best, bringing his vast depth of knowledge to bear on the primary literature with enthusiasm and rigor. He was an expert at prodding everyone in the class to take in the big picture of biology and the intellectual consequences of our statements. This class changed my life, and it is why I study neurobiology. In fact, it was so good I signed up a second time without credit. I will really miss Steve and will always be thankful for his humor, intelligence, and candor.”
“Steve was a kind of second thesis adviser to me as I was writing my thesis in the psych department,” writes David Gatta ’05. “He was more than that to me, though. He was a mentor and an inspiration. I’ll never forget those frank discussions over beer in his office. He is truly one of those professors that I will always remember because I am a better person and a better thinker having known him.”
Arch retired in 2012. “The decision to retire did not come easily. But Arch did not want his love for teaching to cloud the perception of his effectiveness,” wrote Kevin Myers, director of communications, in Arch’s retirement announcement. At his retirement, Prof. Janis Shampay [biology 1990– ] remarked, “He is a larger-than-life figure. He’s the quintessential professor.”
“You never have any doubt where Steve stands on an issue,” said Prof. David Dalton [biology 1987–]. “He has a strong personality that manifests in a strong will when it comes to adherence to high standards.”
Arch kept up his athletic prowess by jogging and playing basketball in the sports center. Some of the Noon Basketballers have been playing together longer than most current students have been alive. Even at the age of 70, he rarely missed a game. “It hasn’t been the same these past few months,” said Myers, who attests to the spirit of camaraderie that prevailed when Arch was on the court. “There are fewer laughs with Steve gone, but also fewer bruises. He had a powerful presence on and off the court.”
Daniel Walker ’07, who ran into Arch’s rampart-like picks on the court more than a few times, remembered that Arch played basketball like he taught—“tough but fair.”
Arch won numerous fellowships, grants, and awards and advised 196 seniors in their thesis work—approximately 50 of whom went on to careers in research and medicine. Oregon Health & Science University’s Medical Research Foundation formally recognized his leadership ability and dedication to mentoring students when it accorded him its Mentor Award in 2008, citing his “rigorous scientific practice, while directly mentoring research students and providing leadership in the biology department’s educational mission.”
At home, he was a master of the kitchen, cooking nightly dinners, baking sourdough, canning and pickling, and brewing beer. He also was a voracious reader and loved spending time outdoors, particularly at the family’s house in Neahkahnie on the Oregon coast.
He is survived by Elizabeth, his wife of 49 years; his daughters, Xan and Tori; his grandson, Leo; his brother, Dennis, and family; and many loving friends.