For Jerry Freilich, it all started when he was a child. The 65-year-old’s love of science and the natural world started at the age of 8 after a visit to Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, the oldest natural sciences research institution and museum in the U.S.
“I have been a nut about biodiversity since I was a little tyke,” Freilich said in a recent interview.
“Why is that? I don’t know why.”
The son of a physician father and a physics teacher mother, Freilich grew up in a decidedly science-friendly home, though he said his parents never really took him on trips into the natural world.
But something clicked for Freilich that first time he walked into the Philadelphia academy with his parents.
Freilich said he knew he had a love of the natural world inside him somehow, and the institution, with its myriad exhibits, displays and collections stoked it into an everlasting flame.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, this is everything to me,’” Freilich said of visiting the museum.
Fifty-eight years, a master’s degree in environmental education and a Ph.D. in aquatic ecology later, that same passion still pervades Freilich’s work as research coordinator at Olympic National Park and director of the North Coast and Cascades Science Learning Network.
“The burning intensity of that is exactly the same as it was when I was 8 years old as it is [sitting] here talking in 2014,” Freilich said.
It’s also that love of science education that is bringing Freilich to the Jefferson County Library this Wednesday, July 9, for the library’s “Science Cafes” lecture series.
The free lectures, the first of which was held June 25, are geared toward adults and teenagers and offer the chance to hear from local experts about science-oriented subjects, said Brwyn Griffin, the library’s administrative services manager.
Freilich’s presentation, “Science in Paradise: Using Science in the National Parks,” will feature several short films about what kind of research goes on inside national parks, including Olympic National Park, and the scientists involved explaining in their own words what they do, Griffin explained.
Freilich’s talk is set to go from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the library, 620 Cedar Ave., in Port Hadlock.
Freilich’s first visit to the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1956 was far from his last.
Two years later, a 10-year-old Freilich would return for three summers in a row as a student in the museum’s “Junior Curators” course.
These classes exposed students to different aspects of natural history and introduced them to the research scientists working in the back rooms of the academy.
Freilich was hooked.
“I am a product of the Academy of Natural Sciences as completely as if I sprang from the brick and mortar of the building,” Freilich said.
“Like Pallas Athena springing fully armored from the forehead of Zeus.”
The drawers upon drawers of meticulously cataloged specimens at the academy, particularly the sea shells, opened up for Freilich the immensity of the natural world and the interconnectedness of all life.
“We live in an ecosystem [connected] to us through this fabric of interconnected plants and animals,” Freilich said.
“It’s not hypothetical; this is reality.”
Freilich would eventually land work at the academy, first as a part-time specimen cataloger while he attended Temple University in Philadelphia and later as the academy’s live animal program coordinator from 1971 to 1976.
Freilich would also meet his wife, Helen, now recycling coordinator with the city of Port Angeles, through his passion for nature as a counselor at an outdoor education center in New York state’s Adirondack Mountains in 1977.
Now married for 29 years, the couple has two boys: Alex, 22, who graduated from The Evergreen State College last year, and Ben, 19, who graduated in 2013 from Port Angeles High School.
After earning his master’s degree in environmental education from Cornell University in 1979, Freilich would begin a nearly three-decade love affair with the National Park Service that would take him to six national parks around the country.
“I cannot think of another organization that I could work for,” Freilich said.
“If I get cut, I bleed gray and green.”
Freilich came with his family to Port Angeles in 2002 to become research coordinator at Olympic National Park, where he helps organize the numerous research projects scientists from all over the country have going on in the park and ensures all research work has the proper permissions and permits.
Freilich was also key in securing $1 million in National Science Foundation grants spread over four years — $500,000 for Peninsula College and $500,000 for Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment — to fund Elwha River restoration research.
The money allowed students to work alongside researchers in the field, Freilich explained, and helped scientists from many different state and federal agencies collaborate on projects.
Freilich’s Olympic National Park business card is two-sided to reflect the other hat he wears as the director of the North Coast and Cascades Science Learning Network, a consortium of park staff and scientists from the eight Park Service areas in Western Washington with a mission to make more of the public aware of the research going on in their national parks.
As part of Freilich’s education role, he recently played tour guide to a pair of staff members from the burgeoning Mongolian national park service who were interested in seeing how American national parks are run.
Freilich led them to some of Olympic National Park’s best known spots and fielded questions both complex and simple, ranging from how the park began to how trail signage is made.
Freilich has also led teams to produce 17 science videos for the learning network that showcase the research national park scientists are doing every day.
Through these videos, available to watch at www.nwparkscience.org, Freilich said he hopes to inform generations to come of the interconnectivity and fragility of the natural world.
“Our failure to understand the complexity of life will mean our certain doom,” Freilich said.
The most recent video, “Tides of Change,” follows Olympic National Park marine ecologist Steve Fradkin as he studies the changing rocky intertidal zone of the Olympic coast and how the looming threat of global climate change could affect this ecosystem.
“The best available science says this terrible thing is going to happen, and if people don’t believe it, then our job is not done,” Freilich said.
“The whole idea of science is to be of service to humanity.”
Bill Baccus, a physical scientist with Olympic National Park also featured in the video, said Freilich has been nothing but a stalwart naturalist and science promoter in the 12 years the two have worked together at the park.
At the same time, though, Baccus said he’s known Freilich to have a childlike wonder for the natural world.
Baccus recalled one of the first times he was out in the field with Freilich, showing him a research site of Baccus’ that involved a trip to the Hoh Rain Forest.
In a moment both endearing and a tad frustrating, Baccus said Freilich spent a fair amount of time flitting from place to place along the trail, naming this or that species of plant or insect, rather than focusing on the reason Baccus had brought him.
“He’s just super enthusiastic and has this real incredible energy that he puts into things,” Baccus said.
“It’s almost frenetic at times.”
In another moment some years later, Baccus went with Freilich up to Hurricane Ridge to explain an issue Baccus was having with a piece of electronic monitoring equipment.
Baccus remembers trying to explain the problem to Freilich and looking behind him, only to find Freilich on his hands and knees marveling at a gathering of winged insects on the ground.
“That’s the thing about Jerry, he’s like a kid in a candy store,” Baccus said.
Baccus also praised Freilich as a top-notch science educator with an impressive ability to make scientific research projects accessible to the public.
“He can always give a great talk, even when he’s presenting your information,” Baccus said.
“He’s just a very well-spoken guy, and he’s very interesting to listen to.”
But what does Freilich do for fun?
Well, you might guess it also has to do with nature.
“That’s my major hobby, is birding,” Freilich said. “I’m just an insane birder.”
On a recent stroll along a trail in the wooded area just to the east of the Peninsula College campus — a favorite walking spot for Freilich and his dog, Toby — Freilich pointed and gasped at the sight of a cedar waxwing as it flitted by and alighted on a tree branch.
As if an extension of his hand, Freilich’s binoculars quickly rose to his eyes so he could better see the roughly-robin-sized bird, sporting an overall tan color and a deep black band across its eyes.
Freilich’s passion for birding became even more clear later during the walk as he identified numerous kinds of birds after only hearing a few notes of their songs.
Bob Boekelheide, former director of the Dungeness Audubon Center in Sequim and one of the North Olympic Peninsula’s most accomplished birders, said he remembers meeting Freilich about 10 years ago during a bird count in the Sequim area.
Since then, the two have worked on numerous annual bird counts together through the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society and team up whenever they can to enjoy each other’s company and that of their feathered friends.
“We go out and we just have a great time,” said Boekelheide. “We try to see all the birds we can.”
During birding excursions, Boekelheide said he can always count on Freilich’s childlike enjoyment of all things birding and thoughtful conversations about the natural world in general.
“Everyone he meets, everyone he has contact with feels his passion and his love of nature,” Boekelheide said.
“I think everyone he meets is drawn into that.”
To Boekelheide, Freilich is a consummate naturalist with equal parts knowledge and passion.
“The natural world needs salespeople, people willing to go out on a limb and say this is the way it is as far as nature goes, and Jerry is one of those people,” Boekelheide said.
“He just exudes that enthusiasm about nature.”
For Freilich, his work with the National Park Service promoting science education and preserving natural resources for future generations is more than just a job.
It’s a personal mission he feels he shares with the Park Service itself, one that Freilich has devoted his life to so far and has no intention of giving up.
“Until the last breath I take, I’m going to be doing the same thing,” Freilich said.
________Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at [email protected]