On Oct. 22 2016, Vassar College lost a beloved educator, scientist and community member when Professor of Biology Alexander Marshall Pregnall passed away. Pregnall was unexpectedly struck by cancer early in September, but lived his entire life to the fullest, and was peacefully with his family when he died. There will be a memorial celebration of Pregnall’s life on Saturday, Nov. 5 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. in the Vassar Chapel, and a reception will follow in the Alumnae/i house.
Pregnall had worked for Vassar’s Biology Department since 1986, serving as Department Chair during his time and also teaching within the environmental sciences. He taught a wide array of subjects during his academic career, from courses like Plant Physiology and Aquatic Ecology to The Biology of Salmon.
Students who took classes with Pregnall often reference his infectious enthusiasm for the subjects he taught. David Won ’18 took Plant Physiology with him, and explained how he maintained student interest during the more challenging and tedious topics. “Pregnall was amazing. He was just such a caring guy who was passionate about his work. I just remember being in class…and there were some times when it was really dry, but he would get so excited about it that got me to pay attention.” Shigeru Kaneki ’18, who was also in the class with Won, corroborated, “I think everyone in the class could tell how much he loved plants.”
In addition to this charisma in the classroom, Pregnall’s influence on Vassar and the scientific community extended far beyond campus. His research focused on the ecology of coastal algae and sea grasses, but he was currently working on the conservation of threatened Blanding’s turtles in the Poughkeepsie area. He also worked with faculty and students on intersectional local watersheds within Vassar’s Environmental Research Institute, served on the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at Vassar Brothers Hospital and was also a member of the New England Estuarine Research Society (NEERS) for many years.
Through all of his different involvements, Pregnall focused on relationships and collaborations with members of the Vassar community. In addition to collaborating with students on Casperkill and Fonteynkill Watershed research with Vassar’s Environmental Research institute, he also often brought undergraduates to the semi-annual NEERS meetings. Pregnall’s commitment to sharing his excitement about research and discovery did not stop there. He also led Alumnae/i trips to Iceland, Patagonia and Easter Island.
Associate Professor of Biology Jodi Schwarz spoke to this culture of collaboration that Pregnall fostered. “Marshall was passionate about the oceans and nature and he lived for sharing the natural world with everyone in his life, students and friends and family. He was also a kind and enthusiastic colleague,” she wrote in an email.
A Tribute to Pregnall from Poughkeepsie-based Timothy P. Doyle Funeral Home demonstrated that Pregnall shared his commitment to exploration and engagement with the natural world with his wife Maribel and their two children: “Marshall was always an explorer, a climber and a fighter. He inspired and encouraged his family of four up all 46 high peaks of the Adirondacks. He started their 46er quest when Hali was five and Drake was 11, and they achieved their goal nine years later. It was an incredible journey and a testimony to Marshall’s drive and vision. He was their navigator, counselor, father, and the love of their lives.”
Pregnall’s infectious enthusiasm for adventure was present until the very end of his life.
Jon Alperstein ’18 recounted, “I was enrolled this year in his aquatic ecology seminar, we were planning on going to a trip to Upton Lake and he was getting a canoe ready for a class just before we heard the news of his health.”
Appropriately, there is currently an interactive memorial display in the atrium of Olmsted that features a canoe filled with objects of relevance to Pregnall’s life and work, including a underwater camera case, a laboratory notebook, flippers and a net among other objects indicative of his love of aquatic research. A sign above the canoe encourages the addition of meaningful objects and cards to celebrate Dr. Pregnall’s life. The sign also includes a picture of Pregnall with his students and a quote from Rachel Carson, part of which reads, “Eventually, man, too, found his way back to the sea.”
Marshall Pregnall’s life brought so much positivity to Vassar College as an institution, and while the entire community will miss him dearly, it will never lose the valuable lessons he taught.