Byron Shaw: A Life Well Lived

by Nancy Turyk and Bill DeVita, with assistance from Deb Sisk

On October 21, 2016, we lost a rock star in the water resources arena.  Dr. Byron Shaw passed from our world at the age of 73. Although he had retired from UWSP in 2000 at the age of 57, he was actively pursuing multiple passions a woodworker, a farmer, a prairie restoration expert, an environmental advocate, wine maker, and as a husband, father, grandfather, friend and neighbor. He treasured the outdoors and enjoyed canoeing, hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, skiing, and sharing outdoor experiences with others. Byron loved community, and did his part by supporting community activities and gatherings, donating his time and woodenwares, and took steps to further enrich a sense of community near their farm in New Hope.

Byron Shaw loved learning, he loved teaching, and he loved life. Byron and Margaret moved to central Wisconsin in 1968 when he was offered a position as a Water Professor at the budding College of Natural Resources at UW-Stevens Point. This was a time when few regulations protected our water and fish kills in the Wisconsin River were ordinary. At times, the river even had foam floating as high as four-feet on top of the water. In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act. The nation and Wisconsin were hungry for answers about how to fix our water problems and Byron was poised for the challenge.

Byron created courses for natural resource students to learn about water; however, Byron found he could also be helpful and influential beyond the classroom. Byron embraced the Wisconsin Idea, the concept that our university should reach out to all Wisconsinites. His plethora of graduate students worked on scientific studies that sought to answer pressing questions about the health of our groundwater, lakes, and rivers and how we affect them. They were fueled by the idea that knowledge should lead to informed decisions, which ultimately would ensure the people of the state have healthy and plentiful water. Many of his studies were local; our unique sandy aquifer provided an interesting setting to learn about the mechanics behind groundwater flow as well as its chemical composition.

Byron had high expectations of his graduate students. Projects tended to expand, and as one question lead to another; some wondered if they would ever graduate. One student recalled, “Many people joked that by the time Bryon allowed his graduate students to graduate, the rigor of their work should have earned them a PhD instead of Master’s degree.”

A water lab that would produce reliable results was necessary to produce high quality scientific studies. So in 1972, the Environmental Task Force Lab (now known as the Water and Environmental Analysis Lab) was initiated as a teaching and research lab on campus. This venture began with a few dollars from the state legislature and some rudimentary pieces of glassware. One of his first projects sought to learn about the water quality in 30 of Portage County's lakes. He was able to garner modest funding for sampling and analysis from 1973 to 1981. No other county in Wisconsin has this level of historic data; today this information is still critical in understanding our lakes and informing decisions about how to keep them in good condition. During his career, Byron studied many lakes and rivers locally and across the state, including the Tomorrow/Waupaca River.

In the 1980s, he and his undergraduate students had discovered aldicarb, an agricultural herbicide, in Central Wisconsin groundwater. This was the first time pesticide residues had ever been detected in the state’s groundwater and it was met with skepticism and even some threats.  Professional and political struggles ensued as a result of that discovery, but Byron stuck to his guns, which in every case Byron argued, were in the form of data. In 1984, his work lead to passage of the first groundwater legislation in Wisconsin, and provided a model for other states to follow. Byron shared his expertise on many other committees and at public hearings, influencing water quality policy in the state, and after retirement, nationally.

Bryon’s ability to take on and balance many roles led to his assignment of a “split appointment” which allowed him to continue to teach, direct the lab at UWSP, and share his expertise by serving citizens as a UW Extension Water Quality Specialist. The Central Wisconsin Groundwater Center was founded to address emerging concerns about our groundwater and provide information to the public. Since 1972, the students and staff at the water lab have tested many thousands of private well samples across the state, and provided opportunities for citizens and communities state to learn about their drinking water. Byron worked with communities interested in siting and protecting their public water supply wells to avoid costly treatment that would be necessary to remove contaminants.

Byron had a tremendous amount of energy that focused on improving water conditions in the state and country and he eagerly mentored students and professionals while having an insatiable thirst for learning. When Byron “retired” from UWSP, at least five people took on some of Bryon’s work. Although great strides have been made with water quality since the time that Byron arrived in Central Wisconsin, we still have much to do. Byron had high expectations for everyone and he lead by example. Although he worked on many difficult challenges over the years, his positive attitude and unwavering commitment was cloaked in love and hope and camaraderie. Byron sought better conditions for all. Many of us touched by Byron recognize we are better people for knowing him and are further motivated to carry on his legacy, taking steps to make our world a better place.

Even after retirement, Byron and Margaret continue their generosity and support for students. They provided financial support for the construction of a cabin at the UWSP Central Wisconsin Environmental Station, located on the shores of Sunset Lake. The Shaw Cabin provides sleeping accommodations for youth during summer camp and serves as a classroom for the Tomorrow River Community Charter School during the school year. They also initiated funding for the Byron Shaw Student Scholarship, which annually provides scholarship funds for a student working in the UWSP WEAL lab. To contribute to the scholarship fund go to https://give.uwsp.edu/give-now, Designation: Other Specific Fund, then type Byron Shaw Scholarship Fund. Donations may also be made over the phone by calling 800-858-5267, and by mail to the UWSP.

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1 Response

  1. Thank you sincerely for this beautiful tribute. We will most certainly contribute to this honorable scholarship in Byron’s memory. Jeff and Lisa Helmuth

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