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Retired professor keeps history alive

Wes Dempsey, 82, director of the Chico State's arboretum
Wes Dempsey, 82, Chico State’s arboretum guide, excitedly explains the magnolia flower to the audience.Photo credit: Maisee Lee


With more than 200 different trees on Chico State’s campus, it’s hard for a person to keep track. Except for one man.

Wes Dempsey, 87, has led campus arboretum tours for more than 30 years and is the guide to all things green at Chico State. His passion and advocacy for the campus arboretum has helped nourish the grounds with people still referring to his expertise.

“They call me the arboretum director,” Dempsey said. “What that is, I have no idea. With 200 different types of plants, all kinds of problems can come up, so I’m here to help.”

He had about 10,000 students during his 40-year teaching career as an agriculture and biology professor at Chico State. Even though he retired in 1992, he’s still gaining more. More than 30 people huddled outside of Bidwell Mansion for his most recent tour on Thursday, waiting for Dempsey to lead them through a tour of green history and offer quick suggestions for people’s own lawns.

“It’s fun to diagnose what’s wrong with trees and how we can remedy it,” he said.

Dempsey has deeper roots in Chico than some of the trees. He was the second professor in the agriculture department in 1954 and was instrumental in laying the foundation for one of Chico State’s
top programs.

“I put in the first orchard in 1956 at the University Farm,” he said. “The first professor took all the animal courses and I took all the plant courses. I taught 22 courses in my first two years.”

More than 200 different types of trees, shrubs and vines from all over the world grace the campus, Dempsey said. Most any tree will grow at Chico State because of the campus’ pristine condition.

“We’re very lucky, we have one of the best soils in the world,” he said. “You dig down five feet and there’s water. The trees grow very well.”

Dempsey attributes Chico State’s green beauty to the foundation that John Bidwell planted in town. Bidwell traded seeds with botanists and nurserymen from all over the world. Some of Bidwell’s trees, including American chestnuts, a tulip tree, a Turkey oak and a monkey puzzle tree, still grace the grounds and Bidwell Mansion.

“He started planting trees in 1870,” Dempsey said. “A lot of our trees go back to his nursery.”

Bidwell’s foundation is what makes Chico State a unique beauty among California universities, Dempsey said.

“A lot of the colleges in our system, most of them, they clear the land then build a university and put in rows of trees from a nursery,” he said. “This is quite different.”

Dempsey said he’ll keep preserving history for as long as he can walk.

“We’re creatures of our history and our education,” he said. “If I can, I’ll leave the world a little better than I found it, so that’s what I’m doing in my own way. What I can do is spread my knowledge of the history of this place and my knowledge of the living creatures around us.”

Ernesto Rivera can be reached at [email protected] or @ernestorivera on Twitter.

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