Kate Mawdsley: A tireless volunteer and a fan of flora

Kate Mawdsley stopped earning a paycheck from UC Davis nine years ago. But the former librarian has never really left campus service.

Since taking early retirement in the campus belt-tightening year of 1993, Mawdsley has volunteered between 10 to 15 hours a week in the UC Davis Herbarium, a research collection of pressed plants in Robbins Hall. In the herbarium, she organizes the library, files specimens and even peers under the microscope from time to time to identify plants, usually California wildflowers, for visitors and researchers.

"It's an avocation after a vocation," she said.

Since her childhood in Wilmington, Del., Mawdsley has loved wildflowers. She recalls taking walks in wooded parks near her home, then heading to the library to identify the flora she found.

After coming to California in 1965 to begin work at UC Davis, she rekindled her love of greenery.

"The trails were a lot rougher than they were in the east," Mawdsley recalled. "Rather than looking up at the birds, I would look down at the wildflowers."

While still working at the library, she began volunteering for the Davis Botanical Society. After Mawdsley retired, it made sense to expand her responsibilities with the group, which helps support the herbarium.

To further her floral knowledge, she's taken courses with UC Extension and the California Academy of Sciences. At UC Davis she sits in on classes like environmental horticulture professor Michael Barbour's "Survey of Plant Communities of California."

"I don't take exams," she said, "which is really quite wonderful."

Mawdsley also puts her botanical knowledge to use as a volunteer coordinator at Jepson Prairie Natural Reserve in Solano County, which UC helps manage. During the spring when vernal pools of flowers fill the prairie, she leads school tours around the reserve.

Mawdlsey also takes time to serve on the board of UC Davis' chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the academic honor society. And until last fall Mawdsley helped out in Shields Library, assisting patrons with the computers in the lobby.

Despite her busy schedule, she does take time in her retirement to get away. She and husband Bill McCoy, who volunteers as the Arboretum's librarian, enjoy traveling.

In 1998 the couple journeyed to the ancient Incan city of Machu Pichu in Peru. Mawdsley noted the ruined temples, baths and palace, but she also took time to note the vegetation on the cloud-shrouded mountain site.

"We were there in December, and the flowers were beautiful," she said.

What's changed the most about campus since you arrived?

The ubiquity of computers in the way we work and communicate. (In the library) the transition from 'Why do I have to use this machine instead of the familiar card catalog?' to 'I'm only interested in finding references to articles I can print out right here or e-mail to myself,' when the bound journal was two floors away, has been profound.

What's your favorite place on campus? How to choose … I suppose it's the Mary Wattis Brown Garden in the Arboretum. It's California native plants chosen for their particular beauty. There are half a dozen varieties of coral bells; there's a great variety of ceanothus specimens that bloom March through April. And right now the lupine is in bloom.

What's the best part of your job? It would be a tie between the people I get to interact with and the opportunity to learn about plants in California and elsewhere.

What's the worst part? If it's really bad, as a volunteer, I don't have to do it. Actually, the worst part of the job is that we need space so badly. I find myself trying to file specimens in overcrowded cases or books in the overcrowded library.

What's your perfect weekend? Being some place in California where the flowers are at their peak, the weather is cool and clean, and you can spend all day looking at plants and come back to a good meal.

Is there a particular flower you can't wait to see for the first time? There are some that I greet with great expressions of joy every time I encounter them - the mariposa lily, fritillaries and the downingeas out at Jepson Prairie. California has an abundance of plants in the lily family, and they are gorgeous.

What good book have you read lately? Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. One of the reasons that I like it, and one of the reasons that it was recommended to me is that Kingsolver has training as a biologist. She does a great job of describing the plants growing in the Appalachians. •

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