Dick White put off retiring as an astronomy professor at Smith College so he could organize a yearlong celebration called Galileo at the Millennium, including a musical called Star Messenger and seminars on the scientist who dared to uphold a controversial theory that Earth revolved around the sun in defiance of church orthodoxy.
On Tuesday, Durango will get another Galileo as its mayor when the gavel is passed to White. He is not afraid to tell it like it is.
Its not that White, 69, is brash or rude, but in a big-budget movie, he would be the scientist who goes into the Oval Office to warn the president about a looming disaster.
As a climate change activist, he is increasingly concerned that were cooked.
People are so passionately concerned about the budget deficits were bequeathing to our children, but I dont think anybody has really begun to judge the costs of what climate change is going to do to those generations, White said.
It wouldnt be shocking to me if the last winter and this winter are just the beginning of a really bad drought in the Rocky Mountains. If you have a multiyear drought on the Great Plains, world food prices are going to go through the ceiling. Then youre talking about billions of people who wont be able to eat.
Youre going to have food riots. Youre going to have all sorts of consequences. People dont want to talk about it.
He worries about the consequences of new pipelines and newer forms of energy extraction.
The reason the Keystone Pipeline is so controversial and (climatologist Jim) Hansen has been very outspoken about this, is that if we take all that stuff out of the ground and burn it, we are finished in terms of climate change, White said.
Theres no way you can stop climate change if you burn all that stuff. I think the same thing is true of all the natural gas, the shale gas that is being produced. You cant stop climate change and keep burning fossil fuels at an accelerating rate.
If this sounds blunt, his wife, Faye Schrater, explained that I dont think the man knows any weasel words.
Schrater knows how to bring it, too.
Put off by the rhetoric of the Republican candidates for president, Schrater wrote a letter to the editor in which she said, I find it noteworthy that although the candidates urge abstinence as the premier method of birth control, and aim their tactics at women, none advocate that men keep their instruments of insemination tucked demurely in their trousers. Perhaps, in their anti-science, anti-woman world, they do not realize that pregnancy is not a result of parthenogenesis, the reproductive act by which an unfertilized egg develops into a new individual. Wake up, women, lest you, your daughters and granddaughters find yourselves barefoot, pregnant and disenfranchised.
Schrater is a microbiologist and immunologist who met White as a fellow professor at Smith College in Massachusetts.
Because White is a hard-core scientist he did his thesis at Columbia University on interstellar formaldehyde Schrater said she would have been surprised if anyone had told her he would become the mayor of Durango, but she said White was talented at organizing the science department and managing diverse interests.
White and Schrater were so busy with their careers that their relationship did not take off until they took a break in Wyoming, Schraters home state. Schrater was working as both a researcher and a short-order cook when White later joined her to take a sabbatical at the University of Wyoming.
While they went back to Massachusetts, she eventually told White that she prefers the West to the East Coast.
I told Dick Im moving to Durango. I hope you will join me soon, she said.
Theyre celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary this year. As academics, they wanted to live in a college town with a good bookstore as well as good restaurants. They like that the farmers market offers organic meat, too.
Residents since 2003, they drive a black pickup and a sage green Prius hybrid.
In some ways, White has not stopped being a college professor. Councilor Christina Rinderle talked about the rigor he takes to his job as councilor.
Dick really digs into the minutes of the council meetings. I look at the gist of it, but hes correcting grammar. Wow, I do not have time to do that, but Im glad hes doing it, Rinderle said.
As mayor, White would like to emphasize the citys sustainability plans.
In terms of climate change, the most significant thing we can do is to get our buildings retrofitted for energy efficiency, he said.
White noted that some cities require buildings to have an energy audit before theyre sold, which has resulted in upgraded buildings. People living in energy-efficient homes, he said, also have a good record of making their mortgage payments.
To make it work, he said, the city probably would have to set up a revolving-loan program so property owners could afford the energy audits.
But White is aware too that he cannot simply dictate new programs. Being mayor is mostly a ceremonial job in Durango. He leads the meetings, but is basically one voice among five councilors.
The mayors gavel is rotated annually based on the vote count in the popular election.
Like a provocative professor leading a seminar, White said he sees his role as beginning a conversation with the community.