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Shared Passion for the Natural World

Prof. Bertram G. Brehm Jr. [biology ’62–93]

March 21, 2023, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Bert Brehm, professor emeritus in biology, was someone with whom you couldn’t take just one class. Decades of students were hooked on his knowledgeable and enthusiastic teachings of biology, botany, and evolution. “Who could forget his lilting voice, his unforgettable lecture on why fig fruit is crunchy (pollinating insects inside!), the warmth of his home with Dorothy . . . and his kindness as we stressed over the senior thesis,” wrote student George Weiblen ’92.

Born on November 26, 1926, to Bert and Lucille Brehm of Cleveland, Ohio, Brehm grew up fishing, hunting, and tending to the family garden. He graduated from Mayfield High School in 1944. After serving in the U.S. Merchant Marine during WWII, Brehm returned to Cleveland and graduated from Adelbert College at Western Reserve University. He studied botany at  the University of Texas at Austin in their doctoral program.

Brehm met Dorothy Prosinski at a Catholic social gathering in Cleveland, and the two married in 1950. Dorothy had a gift for listening and making everyone feel special. When Bert, out of an abundance of enthusiasm, veered from conversation into lecture, Dorothy would bring him back to Earth with a nudge or change of subject. Dorothy had a long, rewarding career in adult basic education and tutoring. The couple welcomed countless students into their home for warm meals and conversation. Brehm and Dorothy were an inseparable team for 72 years; she passed away just five months prior to his death.

In 1962, Brehm accepted a position in the biology department at Reed, where he stayed for the rest of his career.

Brehm’s studies of plant biology and evolution included class field trips to gather native plants in the wild areas of the Oregon coast, the Columbia River Gorge, and the Sandy River, where he helped create an ongoing field study experience and the Sandy River database of plants. He was also involved with the Berry Botanic Garden, and the Oregon chapter of the Nature Conservancy and its first project at Cascade Head. His children remember many camping and road trips with abrupt stops for their father to gather plant specimens for his classes. Many of those specimens are now preserved in the Brehm Biodiversity Center at Reed.

Brehm’s passion for the natural world was woven into much of his life, and he shared that with his children—instilling in them an appreciation for the outdoors and its bounty. He was a dedicated angler, pursuing salmon and steelhead in the rivers and bays of Oregon, often with his three sons. His three daughters loved being outside, hiking and gardening. Brehm maintained multiple gardens overflowing with flowers and vegetables, many of which he served for dinner or delivered to friends and family, occasionally accompanied by a fresh filet of salmon.

After retiring, Bert and Dorothy spent many wonderful days with their family at their beach cabin in Nedonna, where Brehm kept a garden and a fishing boat. It was a peaceful place that gave them the time and space to focus on grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Everyone remembers the special books Brehm picked out as gifts and read to them.

Brehm was a teacher by nature. His lectures made a lasting impact on his students, who continued to visit and write to him from across the globe. A recently discovered fossil from eastern Oregon was given the name Meliosma brehmii by one of his former thesis students. When asked about this distinction, Brehm remarked that “one old fossil has now been named after another one.”

Brehm’s lifelong dedication to the pursuit of knowledge and teaching made a huge impression on loved ones, students, and colleagues—many of whom will further his legacy with the work he inspired. He continued to spend time in his office at Reed and kept up with his colleagues well into his 80s.

Prof. Bertram Brehm is survived by his children, Bert G. Brehm III, Chris Brehm, Theresa Enderle, Steve Brehm, Lucy Brehm, and Mary Behrendt.

Appeared in Reed magazine: Fall 2023

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