Twenty-three years after it opened, the Life Sciences Building has been renamed Melvin M. and Kathleen C. Green Hall, honoring the late pioneering biology faculty member and his late wife.
“Green” Hall, fittingly, is the home of the College of Biological Sciences, with research laboratories, faculty offices and the administration. A 50-foot-tall DNA sculpture hangs in the stairwell.
“I think he’d be tickled,” Ken Burtis said about his friend and mentor, Mel, on the naming honor. “He’d really get a charge out of it.”
Burtis retired in June after a career as a professor, dean of the College of Biological Sciences and faculty advisor to the chancellor and provost. Before all that, he was a staff researcher who worked in a laboratory directly under Mel’s from 1976 to 1979. Then, when Burtis joined the faculty in 1988 (after graduate school elsewhere), he became Mel’s officemate.
‘Incredibly valuable resource’
Joking about sharing an office with someone who was hard of hearing and a bit of a curmudgeon, Burtis admitted that Mel “turned out to be an incredibly valuable resource” for generations of biology faculty and students.
“He had two passions,” Burtis said: “Listening to what was going on now (in biology fields), and making sure people remembered the old days.”
Added Professor Dan Starr, “He cared about students more than anybody, (and) even in his 90s, he cared about all of his colleagues. He wanted all of his colleagues to be successful.”
As a graduate student working with fruit flies, Starr knew of Professor Green but he did not meet him until 2003, at his first faculty reception, long after Green had retired.
Starr said he admired how the senior biologist put in the effort to get to know people. “He walked around the offices and showed us journals (relating to our research),” he said. “His engagement with science was so genuine.”
Burtis agreed. “The amazing thing is he never lost his curiosity after retirement.”
2 biologists in the family
Kathleen was a biologist, too. Mel would say she was smarter than he and would have made a better scientist, according to Starr.
But, Burtis said, “Most germane to her story, Kathleen was part of a generation of women who were good scientists in their own right but subordinated their careers” to those of their spouses. Which, Burtis added, made her very supportive of young women pursuing science.
In fact, after her death in 2002, when Burtis was dean of the College of Biological Sciences, Mel approached him with his idea to endow a scholarship for women in science in Kathleen’s name. The Kathleen C. Green Scholarship in Biology recognizes the outstanding academic achievements of female biology students.
Kathleen’s influence was especially large in the city of Davis, “when the city was more university-centric,” Burtis said. In 1958, she was the first woman to ever run for City Council, winning a seat and serving until 1962.
She was charter member of the League of Women Voters in Davis, as well as its president; served on the Sutter Davis Hospital board of directors; and received the Covell Award as Davis’ citizen of the year in 1971.
A fitting honor
Starr offered a couple of reasons of why the naming makes sense.
“Mel grew up in the Jewish ghetto in Minneapolis during the Depression,” Starr said. Pre-World War II, he explained, antisemitism was rampant, and finding success was not predestined. “His experience is very parallel to what first-generation immigrants are going through now.”
Mel became a “war hero who took his service to the country very seriously,” working his way up to medical service in France and Belgium.
Then came his 60-year career, during which he earned induction into the National Academy of Sciences and received two Guggenheim fellowships. He died in 2017 at age 101.
“To me, it’s more what these two did in their careers: Mel working out of the Jewish ghetto, becoming a war hero, then scientist, and Kathleen becoming a great politician,” Starr said, praising the long-term impacts both made on the campus and city.
As well, Starr said, “He is UC Davis. I think the faculty will be thrilled.”
“I think of him as someone who epitomized a lot of the qualities that we most treasure in faculty,” with his deep commitment to research and to mentoring the next generation of scientists, Burtis said. “He came to the lab every day until he was physically unable.”
And while there are many “faculty who were worthy” of having a UC Davis building named for them, Burtis added, “You know, Mel, you’re representing ’em all.”