By Joseph Robertia
Change comes at a slower pace to the Kenai-Soldotna area, but even here things can’t stay the same forever, and Kenai Peninsula College will soon adjust to the loss of one of its longest-serving professors.
“I’m going to miss the teaching part and seeing students move on to bigger things,” said David Wartinbee, professor of biology, who has taught human anatomy, microbiology and numerous other science classes at the college for the past 18 years.
Wartinbee has decided that this will be his last semester teaching full time, but said he is not reconsidering his long-ago decision to settle and work in this area. He and his wife first visited Alaska in the early 1980s and, like many seduced on a vacation, they decided they should move to the Last Frontier.
“My wife and I drove up on the Alcan, which was gravel and pretty rigorous back then, but we fell in love with Alaska — the mountains, everything about this place,” he said.
At the time, Wartinbee was teaching in the Lower 48. After earning his doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh in 1975, and following that up with a Juris Doctor degree to practice law in 1993, he began teaching and earned a professorship at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania.
Though they had lost their hearts in Alaska, they couldn’t bring the rest of themselves north at the time.
“We looked for jobs, but didn’t find any right away, at least none that appealed to us. I was offered a biologist position with (the Alaska Department of) Fish and Game, but it was down in Ketchikan and it rains too much there for us,” he said.
They refused to give up on their northern dream, though, so while Wartinbee continued teaching in Pennsylvania, and even retired after 22 years of it, they continued making annual sojourns to Alaska, looking for work and land.
“We kept coming back for 14 years, exploring different parts of the state. If you can drive there, we’ve been there. We wanted to get the flavor of each part of the state to find where would be right for us,” he said.
Wartinbee says he hasn’t tired of teaching, just is looking for more time for other pursuits. He’s been teaching 80 students a year the last few years at KPC, and has taught anatomy for 40 years.
They narrowed it down to three places — the Matanuska Susitna Borough, which Wartinbee said he is glad they didn’t choose, considering the tremendous population growth and urban sprawl that has consumed the area since then. The other two choices were Homer and the Kenai-Soldotna area. A position finally opened up at Kenai Peninsula College.
“In terms of the things I like to do — flying, fishing, camping — they’re all right outside the door, and once retired I’m looking forward to doing more of those things, since we’ll be staying here, but I will miss teaching because I really enjoy it,” he said.
Since Wartinbee started at the college, KPC has grown from just a handful of small buildings and degree programs into a much larger school with a diverse degree program, drawing a student body from around the state and even Outside. Wartinbee has been paramount in making some of those changes.
“I worked hard to bring in and get started the nursing and X-ray tech programs, and a fun part of my job these last few years has been advising for all the nursing and medical-related fields. In terms of the things I’m most proud of, it’s the students themselves. It’s the nurses and techs and dental hygienists that are out there everywhere. I can’t go to the hospital without seeing a former student somewhere, and that’s kind of neat,” he said.
Since many of the science classes Wartinbee taught were part of the core curriculum, he has seen numerous students come through on their way to getting degrees in other areas.
“My classes are the largest on the campus. The last few years I’ve taught 80 students a year, and combined with my time in Pennsylvania, I’ve taught anatomy for 40 years. But I’ve never burned out on it. I really enjoy teaching, and explaining and presenting information in a way students can understand. It’s one of the parts of the job that was fun and it will be a hard change to not do it anymore,” he said.
His final day hasn’t been set yet, but Wartinbee will teach to the last day of this semester, then finish up any final exit paperwork. While he will be retiring as professor, he is still hoping to come back occasionally for some of the specialty courses offered at KPC.
“I’ll continue to teach at the (Kenai River) Guide Academy, and we have a summer program that we do with Brown University, where we bring in talented high school students and give them insight into environmental issues so they can weigh both sides and compare values, and I’ll continue to help teach that,” he said.
Wartinbee said he will also pursue conducting private research. His master’s and doctorate degrees were in stream ecology and aquatic insects. At one time, his survey of aquatic midges raised the known specimens from 14 to 88, and he’d like to continue fieldwork in his retirement.
“I’m hoping to conduct the kind of research work that I wanted to do and started, but haven’t completed,” he said.
Wartinbee’s sucessor has already been hired. Cadie Buckley, originally from Juneau, received her doctorate in molecular bioscience and bioengineering from the University of Hawaii in 2011. She has taught courses in algology, marine ecology and zoology, as well as anatomy and physiology. Prior to graduate school she worked on projects with the University of Alaska Southeast and NOAA, involving seaweed nutrient allocation, habitat ecology and food webs.