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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Obituary for Dr. Larry Orsak

Dr. Larry Joe Orsak

15 October 1953, (USA) - 6 July 2017 (Lae, Papua New Guinea)

(An in Memoriam blog has been set up at https://lifeworklarry.wordpress.com/)

Since 2012, Associate Professor Dr. Larry Orsak has been the Head of Department of Forestry of the Papua New Guinea University of Technology (UNITECH). With the permission of his brother and family in the USA, he was laid to rest in Baitabag, Madang Province, Papua New Guinea, a place he did some of his most significant work, in a country which he unconditionally loved.


In his role as Head of Department during the last few years, the Forestry Department achieved two major milestones. First, under Larry's leadership it managed to transform the departments from a narrow tree and forestry centred department, to a broad based environmental science and studies department. Since the Forestry graduates employment ratio has been below average, a new strategy was required, which allowed for the development of a broad range of competences and skills. Secondly, it managed to re-open the Bulolo University College (BUC) diploma program, thus ensuring the College would again have its own students after more than 20 years.

Larry obtained his PhD in entomology in 1988 from the University of California Berkeley, (Sexual behavior in Teleogryllus field crickets (Orthoptera: Gryllidae): Elicitation in the laboratory and in nature by Orsak, Larry Joe, University of California, Berkeley, 1988, 286 pages). His PhD research brought him to Hawai, French Polynesia and Australia. This trip proved to be life altering. It was only a later extension of this research trip that brought him to PNG, which is where he fell in love its nature and its people.

Larry's almost boundless energy and creativity, and his care for his students and friends, made him well known and much beloved in our UNITECH community and beyond. He led an extra-ordinary rich life, and my obituary is largely based on the stories Larry told me, and what various people at the haus krai and funeral shared publicly. The Haus Krai was held for 10 days on UNITECH's main Taraka campus, and his funeral was held on 22 July in Baitabag village.

Larry loved PNG, though he was well aware of the some of the self-destructive tendencies, and at times unacceptable complacency, which continues to unfortunately prevent many positive developments in this society. He wanted to become citizen of PNG, or at least acquire permanent residency, but hesitated because he knew his adversaries would use this opportunity to tarnish his reputation, or get him deported. Like other lecturers, with his students in 2013 for example he was instrumental in having a new legitimate University Council installed, and ending the exile of the Vice Chancellor.

He arrived in PNG in 1985 still a PhD student, travelling as a backpacker doing his PhD research. He came back volunteering at the Wau Ecology Institute, which years earlier had been founded in 1963 by the Bishop Museum in Hawai. In those days, it was a thriving institution and mentioned in many tourist guides as a must-see for the extraordinary ecology and presence of butterflies.

One of the projects at the WEI was butterfly farming. Regrettably, at the time this project, and the institute itself were grossly mismanaged by a few individuals, with the result that some alleged landowners took over WEI's governing board and dismantled the infrastructure. Settlers subsequently destroyed the installations and the forest, and the butterflies disappeared. Larry was heartbroken about this loss, and refused ever to go back.

The conflict at WEI escalated to such a point that a driver of one of the foreign researchers was murdered, allegedly with the intent to terrorise all foreigners. Larry hated corruption and was object of personal threats. He did not leave, however, and persisted. As a result, spurious allegations against him were used to try to deport him for the country. Larry's friends however took hid him from the police, and Larry stayed. During his trips collecting insects in the highlands, his party was held up on the road three times, but Larry remained unfased. Later he would even laughingly praise the raskals for leaving everybody with K10 so they could take a PMV home.

After WEI, he moved to Madang in 1993, where he worked as Director of the Christensen Research Institute, and oversaw a strong growth in the number of sponsors and size of the grant funding. He engaged deeply with local communities and trained local school drop outs as insect collectors. These activities later led to the creation of the Binatang Centre, with which Larry collaborated closely as Head of Department. This Centre is now managed by Charles University in Prague, and is one of the leading tropical insect research centers in the world. In 1997 he joined the World Wildlife Fund in Papua New Guinea.

Larry started working for UNITECH only in 2011, first at BUC then on the main campus. At UNITECH, he started working as a volunteer at the Bulolo University College, mixing cement and finding an ingenious solution for a drainage problem. Soon he managed to obtain a grant for another Faculty member to do his PhD in the USA. This prompted him to start his career as a Faculty member by taking over the teaching duties of this Faculty member.

In this role as lecturer, he loved doing science and working with the students, but at times he needed and we offered some help for the simple administrative and managerial duties, which he found challenging. Occasionally, he would get in trouble with management when he bought out of his own pocket books and computers. It was also difficult to allow him to regularly sleep in his office, on the floor of course without a mattress. None of these transgressions were however to further his own private interests.

These few negatives where more than off-set by all the positive contributions he made and his cheerful nature which gave us all so much joy. He was extra-ordinarily generous to those who really needed help. In his apartment, he would put up some self-funded students from remote areas who struggled paying tuition and accommodation costs. In total, he must have brought over two dozen students the USA, several of them he drove around visiting 48 states. His purpose was to educate them more widely through exposure to different realities, but also make them aware that “the West” is not a single monolithic culture.

In the last years as Head of Department what took the heaviest toll out of him, was when small minded and self-interested colleagues would cause conflicts in the department. He confided in me that his students had never disappointed him, while some of his colleagues unfortunately frequently did. Larry however was very forgiving to the point of cancelling himself out. He never developed a healthy life style, did not take time to exercise. He slept little and kept irregular hours. His great passion for his mission in PNG combined with his disregard for his health, is what caused eventually his untimely death.

I would like to close my short eulogy by highlighting three key values which Larry embodied in all his action and his being.

First, Larry had a true appreciation of the value and beauty of nature. In his teens already he started to focus on insects, with butterflies later becoming his true passion. The study of insects, or entomology, is what initially drew him to Papua New Guinea. Like many other scientist, however, later his focus of interest shifted to the people of PNG and their plight.

He never used his knowledge to puff himself up or position himself above others. Although unassuming in appearance and humble in demeanour, he willingly shared his knowledge with others. He had worked hard for his PhD at the University of California Berkeley and published two articles in the process. He education did not define his identity, but when he knew that he knew more than others, and was always willing to share and teach.

Secondly, he was always learning, or mentoring other learners. Sometimes he saw talent in the most unlikely places, and sometimes he was right. He took on as many Masters students as he could, and helped them to develop their research. Some of them went on to work at the Binatang Centre, or got a scholarship to study abroad.

Although he loved books, and has so many sent to PNG, his way of acquiring new knowledge was characterised by great persistence and testing of hypothesis in the field. For him a field experiment with a student was just as important as an article in a top scientific journal.

Thirdly, he valued and practised honesty and social engagement. He hated corruption, racism, bigotry and negative attitudes, in any form or shape. Through his actions and speech he reminded everybody that we have two eyes to see, two ears to hear, and what it is wrong is wrong, and what is right is right. In this sense, he embodied very American values of individual responsibility, and the UC Berkeley tradition of social activism.

Another example of his social engagement was his adoption by Baitabag village. As a result of befriending Karthik the traditional Chief of Baitabag village in Madang province, he applied on the village behalf for a grant to construct a village museum cum lodge. In his vision, visiting researchers and tourist could come share the unique primary forest and learn about the villages history. When the Chief died, however, this plan took a different turn, but he accepted the changes. The partnership with Baitabag continues until today, and the Forestry students continue to visit the unique Kau conservation area.

Larry left us too soon. He still had so many plans. It seems he almost intentionally left some work unfinished, for us to complete. Each and everyone of us, therefore, should ask ourselves therefore what is the best way to honour this remarkable and multi-faceted man? Nothing stops us from pick up those pieces of Larry's work, own them, and develop them further. Ask yourself “what can I do in PNG to promote conservation, advance learning, and contribute to a more just society in which democracy, peace and prosperity prevail?”. Examples are to catalogue his personal library which he left to the University, to help establish the forestry nursery and creek rehabilitation on campus, to develop the Rainforest Habitat and assure the tree kangaroos receive a safe and healthy home where they can breed, to re-establish the PNG Insect Trading Agency and the Herbarium, and so many other projects.

Our University will support these initiatives as tangible signs of his legacy. In addition, our alumni association will attempt to establish a scholarship in his name to support needy students and allow PNG students to be exposed to educational experiences in the USA.

Baitabag village has built a beautiful shrine to honour him, and their traditional chiefs. Let is be a place where we can remember him, and plan to more completely realise his vision for PNG as a country where democracy, peace and prosperity reign and nature is cherished and protected. At his funeral, someone said Larry was the last of the true originals. Whether the last or not, he certainly was one of them.

Dr. Orsak's Principal Scholarly Work

A Comparison of Price, Rarity and Cost of Butterfly Specimens: Implications for the insect trade and for habitat conservation by Slone, Thomas H; Orsak, Larry J; Malver, Olaf
Ecological Economics, 1997, Volume 21, Issue 1

A Tephritid Fly Mimics the Territorial Displays of its Jumping Spider Predators
Erick Greene, Larry J. Orsak and Douglas W. Whitman
Science New Series, Vol. 236, No. 4799 (Apr. 17, 1987), pp. 310-312

Circadian Patterns of Premating Behavior in Teleogryllus oceanicus Le Guillou under Laboratory and Field Conditions by Werner Loher; Larry J. Orsak
Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 01/1985, Volume 16, Issue 3




5 comments:

  1. Thank you, VC; Dr. Albert Schram, Two days before Dr. L.Orsak left us. We were together at the Ag. Conference room and he calming enjoyed all our discussions about the students Exams marks.he never complain, the only thing I heard him said was "I am under lots of stress." Dr Orsak was truly an extraordinary man and I salute him.I am putting my hands up to help in anyway to help continue his work.I am interested in the tree kangaroo and insect trade if nobody is continuing. Thank you VC for your challenge. William Nano

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    1. Thank you for your comment. We are sorry that Dr. Orsak put himself under so much stress. We advised Dr. Orsak in December and in March to take some necessary rest and recreation, but he ignored all our pleas. We must all learn from this, take our rest and be mindful of our health.

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