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In Memoriam: Roland Roth

Photos courtesy of University of Delaware Archives and Records Management

Campus community remembers professor emeritus, revered mentor and leading bird expert

Roland R. Roth, who played a key role in the development of wildlife conservation and ecology study at the University of Delaware, passed away on June 22, 2024, after several months of hospice care. Professor emeritus of entomology and wildlife ecology, he was 81.

Roland Roth
Dr. Roland Roth in a 2005 photo.

One of the world’s top experts on the wood thrush, Dr. Roth joined the UD faculty in 1971 as an assistant professor, later becoming associate and then full professor in what is now the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He chaired the department from 1987-91. Dr. Roth retired in 2005 but continued to remain active with the department for several years.

His decision in 1973 to conduct a long-term study of the wood thrush in the UD Ecology Woods — a 35-acre forest located on the southern edge of the University’s Newark Farm — resulted in what became the longest running study of the wood thrush anywhere in the world. For 33 years, he worked with countless students to study the breeding ecology and demographics of the color-banded wood thrush, and that study continued even after his retirement.

Throughout his career, Dr. Roth taught numerous courses in ecology, wildlife conservation, avian biology and mammalogy, touching the lives of hundreds of students. He advised and mentored hundreds of undergraduates. Frequently recognized for his excellent teaching and mentoring, he was awarded the University Excellence in Advising Award in 1994. He talked about advising in an article that year in UD’s Messenger magazine: “I like helping students, seeing them find a direction. I see students who don't know what they want to do or, if they do, how to do it. Sometimes I tell them: 'Suppose you have to cross a stream. You know you can't stay where you are. You have to choose what looks like a path across the rocks, and sometimes it won't work and you have to look somewhere else. You might fall into the stream,occasionally, but if you don't jump on some of the rocks, you will never get to the other side.’"

Jake Bowman, professor and chairperson of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, called Dr. Roth “a great mentor,” adding, “When I interviewed in fall 1999, Dr. [Judy Hough-Goldstein], department chair at the time, took me to meet Dr. Roth in the hospital in Wilmington. He was still suffering the paralysis from Guillain-Barre Syndrome; regardless he was upbeat and welcoming.  I later visited him in January 2000 after I started at UD.  He was still in a wheelchair.  I went to talk about the class I needed to design for the spring semester.  We spent only a few minutes on the class.  The rest of the time was talking about the birds coming to the feeder in the snow.  His love of birds and his passion for teaching were always obvious.  I always think of him whenever I hear a wood thrush sing.”

Dr. Roland Roth speaking to a class in an undated photo.
Dr. Roland Roth speaking to a class in an undated photo.

Alumni remember

Many of Dr. Roth’s former students have shared reminiscences with his family:

Rob Pizalla, Class of 1975: “He had such a huge influence on me during my four years at UD when he was my adviser. It was … my freshman year (the fall of 1971). And Ent 201 was my very class that freshman year, with him as my professor. I loved that class and chose Entomology and Ecology as my major, with [Dr. Roth’s] guidance. He touched my life in so many ways.”

Karen Martin Dean, Class of 1996: “I will never hear a wood thrush without thinking of him. The first wood thrush's call of the spring is particularly special. I have many good memories of Dr Roth as a professor and adviser and just a good human being. I did a semester in the Woodlot for a few credits where I essentially spent hours there and wrote a journal about the woodlot and its inhabitants. It remains one of my most treasured experiences at UD.”

Amanda Jacobson, Class of 2009: “The impact [Dr. Roth] had on me and my time in Delaware is one I'll always remember. What a gift to feel like there were people in the world who cared about who I was and how I was doing beyond just my work as a student.”

Karen L. Olmstead, Class of 1981 and 85M: "As a graduate almost 20 years removed from UD, it seems impossible that a meeting with Professor Roland Roth has proven so important. I was a sophomore then, uncertain about a major and hardly thinking about career. It was a routine adviser-student meeting, but I emerged with a sense of direction that steered me into classes and participation in research projects that led to a 15-year-and-counting career as a scientist, and now, a university administrator. Every time I chat with a student, I am aware, as was Professor Roth, of how important these meetings — or any routine day at a university — can be."

Robin Sawyer, Class of 2004: “He made an indelible mark on my life in so many ways. Every time I hear a wood thrush, I think of him. When I find myself telling a student or a young intern the value of networking, I think of him and my first semester at UD. When I encounter anyone who feels lost in this conservation field, I try to help them get out of their own way, much like Dr. Roth did for me.”

Owen Gorman, Class of 1973: “Roland was a profound inspiration to me as an aspiring college student hoping to launch a career studying the natural world — and he gave me my start. I was among the first group of undergraduate and graduate students to work with him as a new professor at UD… ... I got to work on some of the principal projects he initiated or breathed new life in: I worked with grad students that were engaged in studies of wood thrush and effect of habitat structure on the diversity of bird communities. I also worked with a grad student studying the effect of gray squirrels on oak tree regeneration and from that work I developed my own research project addressing how squirrels responded to changing food resources provided by oak trees. Both of these lines of work profoundly influenced my career path in science ... Roland will always have a place in my heart and my family is familiar with his story and how he influenced me to become a professional scientist.  I will continue to visit the Woodlot in my dreams and recall the many stories and experiences from my youth that initiated the first steps in my career in natural sciences.”

About Roland Roth

Born in Arkansas to a hardworking family of rice and soybean farmers, he attended the University of Arkansas, where he majored in zoology and was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. He then earned master’s and doctoral degrees in zoology and ecology at the University of Illinois. 

According to his family, “Birds of all kinds were his love, and he knew every song and every characteristic, always excited to point out a bird he spotted to anyone who was nearby.  He was a wealth of knowledge on all wildlife and would gently explain behavior, identification and the importance of conservation to anyone who would inquire. He was passionate about habitat preservation and did his part by creating native plant gardens and sharing his plants with fellow gardeners.”

To read his complete obituary or leave online condolences, visit Doherty Funeral Homes Inc.

Visitation with the family will be held from 5-7 p.m., Friday, July19, at Doherty Funeral Home, 3200 Limestone Rd., Wilmington, Delaware. A celebration of life will be held at 1 p.m., Saturday, July 20, at the Newark United Methodist Church, 69 East Main St. in Newark, with a reception to follow.

Gifts in Dr. Roth’s memory may be made to the Dr. Roland R. Roth Ecology Woods Fund at the University of Delaware (Please forward donations to Gifts Processing, 83 East Main St., 3rd Floor, Newark, DE 19716. Make checks payable to 'University of Delaware' and include on the memo line "in memory of Dr. Roland R. Roth." Gifts can also be made on UD’s secure website, www.udel.edu/makeagift, and choose “I’d like to search for a different option” and then search for “Roth” or “Ecology Woods.”) or Delaware Hospice (https://delawarehospice.org/donate/memorial-gifts/ or 800-838-9800).

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