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Cecil (on ornithology)


It’s possible to be around someone for years, to live with them for decades in fact, and still not know them very well. That is, not fully understand the way their mind works. I knew Cecil Elliott for twenty years but wonder now whether I knew him at all.

Elliott’s ability to identify an issue, a problem, was quick and usually spot on. He arrived at NDSU mid-year, for example, in the middle of a three-day January blizzard that trapped him in his North Broadway apartment with a partial fifth of rum and a can of minced clams. He always hoped for a cookbook that worked backwards: recipes didn’t send you to the store with a long and complex list of ingredients; the ingredients in your cupboard led to a dish that could be crafted from them. Now there’s probably something on-line for exactly such dilemmas.

If Elliott had chosen medicine, he might be my personal doctor. But his talents would actually far better serve the emergency room. For he had the innate ability to triage a la M.A.S.H.; to immediately assess a crisis, prioritize its elements and address them in an order that would allow optimal resolution of the situation. He arrived at NDSU, for example, after years of our department taking in more and more students with little or no increase in resources—budget, faculty positions or space. Previous chairs hoped for benevolence from above, but it was not forthcoming. Old Main saw nothing but increased efficiency. One can imagine conversations about us: “They did even better this year than last with what we gave them. Let’s see if productivity can increase next year within the status quo!” Cecil immediately saw the pattern in effect by default and proposed selective admissions. If we can’t have increased resources (for whatever reasons), then we have to narrow the entryway and offer the best service within what is available. If the department has survived, succeeded, thrived, it is based on that fundamental strategy.


One afternoon in the break room at the end of the long faculty corridor, we had a conversation about birds. I think Cecil liked our feathered friends, saw them as more than part of our diet, but also felt that science had overly complicated the world of animated flight. “There are really only two kinds of birds,” he said. “Little ones that sing; they’re canaries. And big ones that don’t; they’re ducks.” I’ve never been able to visit the poultry exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair and ignore this ornithological perspective. Whatever species occupies the rank and file of cages arrayed before me, to Elliott it would have been a room full of ducks.

On one of his nearly annual winter retreats to Mexico, his car broke down in a remote village, where the sole mechanic spoke no English. Anxious to convey an accurate assessment of the problem, in faulty Spanish Cecil said, “sings like a canary.” The mechanic smiled,

Problem solved.

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