Last Lectures

Arch de Triomphe

Photo by Leah Nash

Professor Steve Arch [biology 1972-2012] retires.

By Kevin Myers

After teaching at Reed for a full 40 years, professor Steve Arch will enter the fall semester with emeritus status.

The decision to retire did not come easily. But Arch did not want his love for teaching to cloud the perception of his effectiveness. “I didn’t want to die in my office, literally or intellectually,” he says.

Arch advised more than 170 thesis students, roughly 50 of whom went on to earn PhDs or to hold research positions as MDs. “The best feeling is knowing when you’ve been instrumental in turning somebody’s intellectual light on,” he says. The most rewarding part of retiring for Arch has been the messages from former students. He said he comes close to tears when he receives letters and comments saying that a student discovered the interest of a lifetime in his class. Arch adds with a grin, “It’s special, knowing that you’ve touched a life in a permanent, and, hopefully, not a damaging way.”

“Spending time with the students becomes the reason you’re here,” he says with conviction and a hint of mourning. He warns new professors; especially those who come from other institutions, to guard their time and not fall prey to the addictive side effect that accompanies extended office hours. “It’s attractive and compelling to open minds to intense intellectual experiences . . . It’s the reason to come to Reed, but it will take all of your time if you let it.”

Arch has had a colorful career. Standing six-foot-two and weighing 255 pounds, he went to Stanford in 1960 to study biology and play linebacker and fullback for the Cardinals. After graduating, he was drafted by the Chicago Bears, but decided instead to get his PhD at University of Chicago. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, he traveled to Mississippi to register disenfranchised voters. In 1968, he was at the legendary Democratic National Convention in Chicago, standing toe-to-toe with National Guardsmen who were deployed to help the police “preserve disorder,” as Mayor Daley infamously stated.

“He is a larger-than-life figure,” says his colleague Janis Shampay [biology 1990–]. “He’s the quintessential professor.”

“You never have any doubt where Steve stands on an issue,” says colleague David Dalton [biology 1987–]. “He has a strong personality that manifests in a strong will when it comes to adherence to high standards.” 

Arch's legacy at Reed will be defined by what he loved doing most—mentoring students. His dedication was recognized in 2008, when he won the mentor award from Oregon Health & Science University’s Medical Research Foundation, which declared, “Professor Arch has demonstrated rigorous scientific practice, while directly mentoring research students and providing leadership in the biology department’s educational mission.”

Meanwhile, Arch plans to write a textbook on physiology and keep shooting hoops at the Reed gym, where the noon basketballers will enjoy the privilege of dodging his elbows.