Winter 2021 Newsletter
Tom Kwak passed away unexpectedly on November 19, 2021.
The reflections, memories, and pictures that follow are a reminder of the influence he had on our personal and professional lives.
I was deeply saddened upon hearing of the sudden death of my friend and mentor, Dr. Tom Kwak. Since his passing, I’ve had many people reach out and tell me how much his friendship and mentorship meant to them. I owe much of my personal life and professional accomplishments to Tom, and I literally cannot imagine what my life would look like today without his mentorship. I never would have met my wife, raised my two amazing daughters, nor had a rich professional career in fisheries. I’m truly grateful. So, I was honored to be asked to share a few of my memories about being one of his first two graduate students.
My first memory of Tom was my interview for graduate school. He took me on a trout fishing trip to the White River, AR, below Beaver Dam. I was more than favorably impressed by how much time he was willing to spend showing me the study sites. Tom exhibited traits that are a hallmark of a good mentor: he was available and willing to invest time in my development. He didn’t want to have more than 4 graduate students because he believed in spending enough quality time with us both in the field and the office. He also insisted that our thesis objectives be aligned with those of our grant funding to ensure we would give it 100% of our effort and finish on time. These were valuable lessons about setting priorities.
Tom wanted our research to increase our understanding of ecological relationships and be important to applied managers. He also wanted to address some of the greatest management issues of our time. He was a regular reader of Science and Ecology journals, and our lab read and discussed every issue of Transactions of the American Fisheries Society for the year. Tom stressed good writing and we were asked to study the writing style of his mentors: Drs. Weldon Larimore and Tom Waters. He taught me that every word counts, and we need to be concise so we don’t waste the time of our peers. He was always very concerned about being very respectful of others time. Tom showed through action that publishing was not the end of our work, and he regularly reached out to make sure professional colleagues and managers were aware of his research and it was incorporated into conservation decisions.
I took time to reflect upon his many professional accomplishments, so I scrolled through his publications online. He recently wrote a masterpiece of an article in 2020 that I encourage everyone to look up and read, “Being Led and Leading in Science and Life: an Index of Mentor Quality.” Tom wrote, “There is much more to be learned from a mentor who has strong enthusiasm, sensitivity, and respect for others and practices generosity and open-mindedness than those with opposing traits. And further, being around people with these leadership qualities makes learning and work more enjoyable and effortless.” Tom embodied those traits. He will be sorely missed, but his legacy of mentorship, friendship, and scientific achievement endures.
Dr. Kwak was more than a professor and mentor to me, he was my friend. He was the first professor during my undergrad who believed in me and gave me a chance. He paved the road to my success and changed my life. Without him I wouldn’t be the fisheries scientist I am today. As a first-generation Hmong American, he impacted not only my life, but also generations to come. I am so blessed to have known Dr. Kwak and I’m grateful to have worked with him. Thank you Dr. Kwak for everything and getting me into graduate school. Sib ntsib dua (We will meet again).
After several years of research in the reservoirs of Puerto Rico, with the help of Dr. Richard Noble, Tim Churchill and others, I figured it was time to start the first ever major research project into the Puerto Rico river fish and their habitat. This must have been around 2010. My supervisor at the time, the Bureau Director at the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources was not convinced it was a good idea. I insisted, and 3 years later, in 2013, the project was approved. Dr. Noble had recommended that we contract with Dr. Tom Kwak — he gave Tom his highest recommendation. That’s how Tom started in Puerto Rico, and with his help and the help of his first rate students, we completely changed the status of our knowledge of the riverine systems of the island. Before he started work here, we had a basic list of native species from inland waters, and the most rudimentary information possible about their biology, migrations and movements, preferred habitats, abundance and so forth. Almost nothing. The little that was known dated from many decades ago. Tom, and his NCSU students brought our knowledge of Puerto Rico river fish into the present century in 8 years.
One of the main projects that took advantage of his studies was an effort to remove obstacles to stream fish migrations, since now it is easily justified. The first dam was removed shortly before the pandemic struck. More removals are planned. The other main result of his years of work is a book on the inland fish of Puerto Rico, which Tom was helping to coordinate, and which is almost completed.
The quality of his personality and the quality of his work in Puerto Rico earned him many friends, all of whom I’m sure consider themselves, as I do, lucky to have known him.
Rest in peace, Tom. You are missed.
He was definitely one of the great guys that everyone I knew completely adored. My favorite memories of him were our hunts we had when I was in North Carolina. As a young professional, Tom always made sure to include me in many of his hunting exploits. This included wood duck hunts around Jordan Lake for several years with our chocolate labs who were brothers, Diesel and Casey. Tom also hosted me on many deer hunts on their leased ground and always made sure I was placed in one of the better stands. Finally, the annual swan hunt was one of the highlights of the year and getting to spend all of that time with Tom and the rest of the crew are memories I will never forget. Tom really made my time in North Carolina something I will always cherish, and I will forever miss his guidance and friendship.
I’ve had the honor of having Tom as my advisor, mentor, and friend for almost 20 years. I have found it difficult to put into words what that relationship has meant to me, it’s like trying to shove an elephant into a smart car. His accomplishments as a fisheries scientist span the globe and his countless contributions to the fisheries profession will continue to make impacts for years to come. As great as his professional achievements were, it was the impact he made on the lives of those around him that made him incredibly special. He was the constant cheerleader who always had your back and made sure you understood your value not only as a professional, but as a human being. I’m very thankful to call myself a Kwak Kid! He was always just a text, call, or drop in away from helping you solve the problems of the world. He never missed an opportunity to let you (and everyone around you) know that he was proud of you. You didn’t even have to know Tom for long to be included in his circle of support. He was the model of inclusiveness and had a mission for everyone to be given the same opportunities to thrive. I was lucky enough to be a part of that mission with SDAFS! I will miss many things about Tom, but I will miss his jovial spirit, encouragement, and support the most!
When approached by the Catfish 2020 Steering Committee about editing the proceedings for the Third International Catfish Symposium, we both knew it was a huge undertaking and neither of us really had the time to dedicate a couple years of evenings and weekends to the effort. I knew that Tom’s life had gotten incredibly busy since our last collaboration. Additional responsibilities to the Unit, University, AFS leadership roles and the growing flurry of activities typical of a family with kids in the “tweens”, was compounded by his already overfull slate of high-quality grad students. There is no way he could fit this in I thought, and besides he really didn’t need it as his CV was already well garnished (not that it was ever a focus for him). When he told the organizers that the only way he would consider it is if he could work with me again, I was a bit baffled. Not to his response, but because I was planning to tell them “hell no” until I heard his response, then I was “all in”.
Upon reflection, it really was a moment that typified the Tom I knew. Selfless and focused on others. He wouldn’t hesitate to jump into a pit of danger (insert your personal version, “snakes” for me), ready to stand back-to-back and face any challenge with you. He made everyone around him better, by being better. His love of the natural world was only eclipsed by his service to mankind, all mankind. It didn’t matter who you were, where you came from or even if the ideology you held was different, he was always willing to help. This world benefited greatly by Tom’s time here, and will for years to come because of him and his legacy. When we finished wrapping up the Catfish 2020 special issue, we joked about what project we’d tackle next in 10 years. I’m not sure where or what that will be, but because it’s Tom, sign me up.
Tom was on my MS committee and was such a valuable committee member. He was always generous with his time and thoughtful with his input. He was also just a kind and pleasant person. While he died too young, it’s obvious he had an admirable impact on his students and fellow researchers. He will be missed, but his legacy will live on through generations of biologists he mentored.
Dr. Kwak, or Tom, as he quickly had me call him, was more than my graduate advisor and professor; he was a true friend and colleague. I met Tom at the 2012 National AFS meeting in St. Paul, MN as a nervous undergraduate who knew (maybe) 2 people at the meeting. Tom immediately made me feel at ease and introduced me to more people than I could ever keep track of. Tom had the ability to make everyone feel included and important- and that truly is one of the best qualities in a human- and a mentor.
Tom was an amazing fisheries professional- I feel like anyone who has read any of his publications, or has seen him present, already knows this- but even more than that, he cared about his students and colleagues. I was lucky enough to become one of his graduate students in 2014. During graduate school I went through my own ups and downs and Tom was always there to ask how I was doing, ask about my family, and make sure I was doing ok, both professionally and personally. His caring nature, and encouragement, allowed me to grow as a student and human.
When I decided to do a solo backpacking trip in the Sierra Mountains right after defending my Master’s thesis, Tom was more than a little concerned. A few weeks before I was to leave for the hike Tom asked me to meet with him- I thought I was going to get grilled on last minute thesis edits; however, he spent the next hour asking me every question imaginable about my hike- what equipment I had, if I had all the safety gear I needed, what my itinerary was, etc. It was times like these Tom felt more like a caring parent than my graduate advisor. Tom was even the first one to notice when my GPS track (which he was monitoring from his office computer in Raleigh) deviated off my planned trail and he messaged to make sure I was ok. He always was looking out for his friends and that was one of the things I appreciated most about him.
Even before Tom’s passing, I would think of him often when I was out in the field. His reminders would pop up in my mind- “Make sure you take pictures!!” and “Record better data and notes than you think you need—because you WILL need them.” I know that years from now I will still be taking my phone out to take pictures of our field work, or an interesting fish we catch, and will think of Tom- and will maybe take one or two more pictures- just in case.
I know that my career as a fisheries biologist, and my life outside of fisheries, will forever be impacted by Tom’s presence in my life and I am forever grateful for that. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and all those who were fortunate enough to have Tom’s influence in their lives.
Tom was such a great mentor and advisor. I was fortunate to have met him. Tom served on my dissertation committee, and we worked together through the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program. Tom always went above and beyond to guide the students he worked with. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family.
There’s so much to be said about Tom: his character, his contributions to the fisheries profession, his abilities as a mentor—words really don’t do him justice. What sticks with me was his kindness and generosity, from bringing in donuts every Halloween to the way he served his NCSU and Raleigh communities. He had a way of delivering critiques that left you empowered and energized to make the change. You could tell that he wanted to teach and build up his students, not just get another paper published. Tom was a great scientist, mentor, and friend. He’s already missed.
One Tom-ism you may hear multiple times from people is some version of his common adage, that ‘a day spent afield is always better than a day in the office or classroom.‘ By that, he meant more than just enjoying fieldwork or being outdoors – Tom talked about how we learn from the field, how by observing habitats and animals in their habitats, and by having field experience, we often learn much more than can be absorbed from a lesson or by reading an article. He certainly wasn’t discounting the value of coursework or data analysis, but was reveling in the power that nature has to teach us.
I first remember spending lots of time with Tom in the summer of 2004, when he taught ‘fish week’ at NC State’s Wildlife Summer Camp program. I had already decided to pursue dual concentrations in Wildlife and Fisheries by then and was nearly done with my BS. Tom’s teaching, knowledge, and enthusiasm were contagious, and I can still vividly remember some of those experiences.
When I decided to pursue a Master’s degree after 5+ years in environmental consulting and doing mostly terrestrial field work or wetland regulatory work, with a taste of aquatic work here and there, I was ready to change focus to aquatics and learn something new. The first opportunity I found that fit my interest was a project at NC State with Greg Cope and Tom, focused on freshwater mussel thermal ecology. It seemed perfect – aquatic focus, imperiled species focus, mussels (I had an interest in opening that door), relevant to climate change (which had interested me from a wildlife perspective since undergrad), and local (my personal family life wouldn’t be disrupted). So, I didn’t get my hopes up – it was the first thing I saw, landed in my inbox from a friend, and I thought probably too perfect to work out. I was wrong! I had a great interview getting reacquainted with Tom and meeting Greg, got a good feeling from their other students, and ultimately was selected for that position.
Upon starting at NC State in the summer of 2010, Tom became a constant fixture in my professional life. In the decade I spent studying and working as research staff, Tom was right down the hall and we talked regularly, even during the years when I wasn’t working on projects directly with him. As an advisor, Tom was conscientious in his advising, and sometimes even paternal – in good ways. He didn’t manage or advise with the air of a boss; his paternal nature came out in the way he delivered gentle reminders of deadlines or how to do something. He took the time to teach, recognizing his grad students were indeed students, and by explaining things as a teacher, he reinforced the application of methods/concepts directly related to our work that may have been less clear in a more abstract/classroom context. While I had spent several years as a working professional before graduate school, there was still plenty to learn (and always is!); Tom made time and space for teaching and learning…for ensuring his students were confident in the skills they needed to accomplish their work. Even if it was something already known, a refresher with Tom always helped.
He was dedicated to his students’ success. Few things illustrate that more clearly than when he (and Greg both) showed up for me at the lab late one evening when the first of my MS experiments went horribly wrong. I had designed experimental chambers to expose juvenile mussels to heat stress while in sediment. Delays in getting mussels before that precluded being able to pilot them ahead of a planned summer full of weekly testing. But it turned out to be impossible to recover baby mussels from all that sediment (they weren’t much bigger than the grains) or possibly losing them over the edge of the mesh. My tech and I spent all day unsuccessfully trying to recover hundreds of baby mussels from sandy beakers. When I finally called in a panic about how this research was not going to work out, Tom and Greg finished dinner with their families, and came right to the lab to see what was going wrong and to brainstorm solutions. More than just figuring out how to press forward with the work, they reassured me that things would be OK, that these things happen in research, and that I wasn’t alone in working it out.
I valued Tom’s mentorship and friendship immensely, and it’s very difficult to reconcile in my mind that he really is gone. There are innumerable little interactions that fostered our connection along the way. In the last year & a half since I departed NC State for the USFWS, it has been great to continue engaging as colleagues on common work interests, from specific projects of his, like continuing Carolina Madtom genetic studies to his USGS unit helping to facilitate the USFWS funding of Neuse River Waterdog research by others at NC State. Just a few weeks before his passing, we had a meeting about Carolina Madtom that included Greg, Tom, Michael Fisk (also a former student in Tom’s lab), and me. Tom remarked how great it was to be working together and that the meeting was like a family reunion. I think we all valued that continued and enduring connection.
My sincerest condolences to the Kwak family. Tom was a dedicated mentor, collaborator, and friend to me as to so many others. His legacy and impact on our field are astounding and will live on through his mentees and colleagues. Still, I grieve the loss of continuing to work with Tom and enjoy his friendship. In processing my own grief, I keep coming back to something that Tom wrote to me not long ago. It provides me some consolation to know Tom lived a fulfilled life and I share it here if it may help others. In providing me professional guidance, he said “I started pursuing the activities that would have an impact and be most fun, and the job became tremendously more rewarding all-around.” I feel fortunate to have been able to personally participate in some of those activities with him. I strive to emulate his professional outlook and hope to make some small contribution to his impressive legacy. Thank you, Tom.
We always looked forward to helping out with the fish population estimate that is part of Tom’s fish week at the NCSU Fisheries and Wildlife summer camp. This was a fun time our families had while fishing together.
Tom and I worked together in the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit for 15 years, and I always felt fortunate to have such a good and pleasant colleague. One of the things I remember most about Tom was that, despite being a great Coop Unit leader, he did not care for the administrative duties. He always waited until the last minute (or longer) to do performance evaluations or other federal boxes that we were required to check. The parts of Tom’s job that he did enjoy were working with students and being in the field. Whether electrofishing for big bass, working with students from the 2014 Small Impoundment Management class, or just using angling in a 2004 pond mark-recapture study, Tom loved being outdoors. And when he wasn’t outdoors for professional reasons, he was out there to hunt or fish. Even when the weather was unpleasant and the fishing was slow, Tom was always a cheerful participant. I am grateful for Tom’s friendship but deeply saddened by his passing.
I was saddened to hear of Tom’s passing. I am very grateful to have had him as my grad school advisor. He was an excellent mentor, and I certainly learned a lot from him. Communication is a key skill for scientists and for life in general. I admired his presentation and writing skills, and always benefited from his input and guidance.
Tom played a key role steering me in the right direction and helping me get my career started. He connected me to a lot of resources and helped with my professional growth. I was fortunate to get to catch up a while with Tom at the Reno AFS, having graduated a decade ago it had been a while since I’ve been able to visit with him. He will be greatly missed.
I was very saddened to hear this news. Tom understood work-life balance. He was compassionate to his grad students’ personal situations and our mental health, and he worked with us to accommodate it all, while producing quality research and encouraging successful studentship. He also demonstrated this balance, himself, by being a family-man first, but making himself available to edit abstracts on a Sunday night if one of his students (me) procrastinated until the deadline. Tom fostered a cordial atmosphere in his lab. I was friends with all of my colleagues. Tom demonstrated this atmosphere by encouraging teamwork among his students, insisting that we all participate in professional activities, and by facilitating lab-group-activities (such as the annual Christmas lunch). He also demonstrated equity among his team and instilled his expectations on how we should interact.
Tom was a champion for Lake Raleigh, the on-campus pond and fishery at NCSU. Through the years, Tom spent more time thinking about how to improve this resource than any other single person. This is a testament to his character of acting locally and thinking globally. Tom was also passionate about the conservation of species that have otherwise “slipped through the cracks.” Sicklefin Redhorse, Robust Redhorse, Puerto Rico amphidromous fishes, Carolina Madtom (to name a few!).
Tom was very enthusiastic about innovations in science. During the planning phases of my graduate research on larval Sicklefin Redhorse, he insisted that we use DNA barcoding techniques. Why? Because it was a novel technique that had applicability.
Tom relished in his time with others, and he was so friendly. He was always so excited about spending time with me and his other students: joining us for fieldwork, sharing his passion for the outdoors via a shared fishing trip or swan hunt, or just travelling in a vehicle with us and talking.
Tom’s laugh was infectious!
Ten years ago, Tom Kwak began mentoring me when I was a student at NCSU. He would continue to mentor me and countless others throughout our careers in the fisheries profession. I cannot forget feeling so very surprised and honored the first time he asked me to instruct the backpack electrofishing summer class a few years ago and of course he always insisted I stay for dinner with his family. Tom always made the effort to get to know people on a person level and he enjoyed having his family around as much as possible. I am truly thankful for Tom’s service and dedication to mentoring and inspiring those around him in all walks of life.
The Tom Kwak Model of Mentorship in Science: Put people first and great science will follow. Build friendship, trust, and mutual respect with a person, teach them to believe in themselves, and give them the freedom to excel in their own way. If your mentee knows that you value them as a person and not just for the work that they do, then they will produce to their maximum potential.
To anyone who serves as a mentor, supervisor, or any sort of a leader in science, Tom Kwak’s mentorship style was a model for how it is done right. Every single meeting that I had with Tom as his PhD student, post-doc, and eventually, faculty collaborator started with a check-in on personal life. Whether it was “how is your deer season going?”, “are your parents healthy?”, or “how is your partner doing?”, we often spent more time talking about these ‘real life’ questions than science in his office. By starting, and often ending, every ‘work’ meeting with a chat about our lives Tom was helping remind me to keep my priorities straight; things like health, family, and happiness are paramount to scientific production.
You might think that a professor who tells his PhD students things like: “When you’re old you are going to care more about the number of days you spent hunting than the number of journal articles you wrote” would not be very productive. However, Tom’s publication record–over 100 articles that have been cited over 4,000 times–says the opposite. Tom’s model proves to us that when we keep our priorities straight we can produce to our maximum potential and live full, satisfying lives.
Tom’s loss has left a giant void in the realm of fisheries science and the lives of everyone who knew him. However, if we all do a little more to follow his model in our relationships with our students, employees, colleagues, and friends and family then great science will happen and the world will be a better place.
My condolences to Tom’s family and his close ones. I am sad to hear the news about him—he was a great and wonderful guy. My first encounter with Tom was exchanging emails trying to get my foot into fisheries jobs and meeting him for the first time at NCAFS 2020 in New Bern. Tom was very understanding and willing to help in any way he could. As we all know, Tom inspired and touched many in their personal and professional lives. My great condolences.
Many folks were witness to the wonderful research and teaching that Tom and his students completed in North Carolina. However, because of the geographic distance, many folks were unable to directly witness the incredible work done by Tom and his students in Puerto Rico. Without question, the impact of Dr. Kwak’s research program in Puerto Rico will be felt for decades. Tom’s team mapped the distribution of the native freshwater fish and shrimp of every major river in Puerto Rico. They discovered previously unknown life-history traits of these incredible creatures and uncovered long forgotten fish migration barriers that were needlessly restricting native fish movements. Tom and his team developed deep relationships with leading Puerto Rico aquatic scientists that will continue to benefit Puerto Ricans and aquatic organisms across the island. His leadership and team research will continue to drive habitat conservation, dam removals, and fish consumption advisories long into the future. Importantly, Tom always set aside time to take students from Puerto Rican Universities into the field for unique electrofishing experiences while also presenting important findings to local decision makers so that research findings could be integrated into watershed planning. Most importantly, Tom always took the time to share a Mofongo meal (mashed plantains) and a ginger mojito with those on his team while discussing the importance of elevating the focus and care for what he called the “jewels of Puerto Rico’s rivers and streams…the beautiful fish.” From the entire Puerto Rico research team, Tom, you will be deeply missed.
The passing of Tom remains hard to comprehend not only because of its suddenness, but because Tom’s generosity of kindness, spirit, and intellect seemed like a force field around which bad things could not penetrate. I can’t count the number times that I learned from Tom in the field, in the lab, and in the classroom—often all within the same week. As a student of his it always felt like his lessons were about more than just the task at hand, and that feeling remains strong as I reflect on how I am a better scientist—and person—because I was lucky enough to spend time with Tom.
I worked for Tom in every which way you could from volunteer, seasonal technician, Coop technician, research scientist, graduate student, and everything in between from 2003–2012. I’m not entirely sure why (maybe it was the ponytail) but he took a chance on me in bringing me into the Coop and for that I am eternally grateful. During my time there we had some great crews comprised of graduate students, technicians, and staff. Nothing against the folks that came before or after us but in my opinion I’m pretty sure we were his “best” cohort, hands down. A few of us joked with him about what he would do if one of us left the Coop, how each of us was an integral cog in the Kwak machine, and without us it would all come tumbling down. He would simply say “no matter how good you are, in the end, you are replaceable, all of us are, including me.” This has been a long-standing joke among us and comes up in conversation to this day. Yes, all of us can make significant contributions but in the end we can all be replaced. There are others, equally talented and curious about the critters around us, with strong work ethics who can just as easily do what you do, if not more. Since my time with the Coop, I have seen these words play out countless times within the NC Wildlife Resources Commission and realize I learned just as much from him in the moments in-between work and school as I did on the projects I was part of. But looking back on those words and all the other lessons he passed on, I realize that he was not right about everything. I must disagree with him here. No Tom, some of us are not replaceable.
One of my fondest memories of Tom occurred on the banks of Shelton Creek in Granville County, NC. It was July 14th, 2010, and I had recently started working for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission as the Eastern Region Aquatic Wildlife Diversity Biologist. At the time, I did not know Tom beyond citing his publications in my M.S. thesis and recognizing him from Southern Division AFS meetings. On this day we gathered at Shelton Creek to begin a collaborative climate change project to assess impacts to federally listed mussels. The survey crew consisted of Tom Kwak, Tamara Pandolfo, Rob Nichols, Ryan Heise, Brena Jones, Jennifer Archambault, Dan Weaver, Van Loftis, Jessica Griffin, and me.
As trucks rolled into the parking area, we began the exchange of pleasantries associated with friends reuniting to conduct fieldwork, introductions, and general safety considerations. Eventually, the conversations converged to discuss the project, who would be doing what, and what species we could expect to collect and identification characteristics. Then Tom asked the question, “Will we see a Fat Pocketbook today?”. To which Dr. Heise swiftly retorts, “That might be something that a USGS employee has, but you definitely won’t see a state employee with one of those!”. As you can imagine, the crew erupted with laughter, including Tom’s infectious laugh. Being fisheries biologists, we couldn’t let this go and continued to crack sporadic jokes about it for quite some time, which always elicited a laugh from Tom.
For those that don’t know, the Fat Pocketbook (Potamilus capax) is a federally listed mussel that occurs in Mississippi River drainages. To this day, I still don’t know why the Fat Pocketbook was the species of choice to ask about given that it does not occur in any of the Atlantic Slope drainages, but I am truly grateful to have experienced this moment with Tom and the crew. Little humorous moments like this forged the foundation of my relationship with Tom and I am forever grateful for his mentorship, friendship, and many shared laughs.
Tom was dedicated not just to his work, but to our fisheries profession and its future. It was evident in his enthusiasm for all things AFS, his hands-on teaching during fisheries week at NCSU’s Fisheries and Wildlife Summer Camp, his graduate student mentoring, how he welcomed Hutton Scholars into his lab, his support and encouragement for our colleagues and fisheries students in Puerto Rico, and his encouragement of our NCAFS Student Subunit. His love for our aquatic resources and his passion for protecting them were evident in his actions, whether speaking before the Raleigh City Council against development proposals that would damage local streams, or enthusiastically showing kids fish and other aquatic critters.
It was always fun to go afield with Tom, whether it was a research sampling trip or to wet a line or sit in a duck blind. He loved the tradition of annual trips that brought friends and colleagues together. I think if Tom had a tail, during those times it would be wagging constantly!
For Tom, who brings to mind the words of Beryl Markham, who wrote in “West With The Night”,
“There is respect for a heart like yours, and if its beating stop, the spirit lives to guard the ways you wandered.”
I have known Tom for nearly all of my 16 years working in NC. If I made a list of all the things I liked & valued about him, I just might wear out this keyboard, so I will try to pick a few personal highlights. Despite Tom’s breadth of experience & list of credentials, he never took himself too seriously, never fell into the trap of pretension. His quick grin & quiet chuckle could just as easily be directed at himself, as at whatever goofy situation might have arisen, and that blend of humor & humility, that embrace of being just as human as the rest of us, made Tom a delightful person to be around. On top of this, he always made me feel respected & valued from the very beginning – not only did he listen, but he actually sought out what I had to say, making clear that in his view, my thoughts & experience mattered, which had a profound impact on me. If ever I wanted to bounce a question or an idea off another researcher, he always played along, never begrudging me the time, never patronizing, never blowing me off, even if it was outside his own area of interest (although an argument could be made that such a thing did not exist). His unerring gift for thoughtfully pushing the boundaries & questioning the question (even if he was the one who asked the original question) enriched any project and, by extension, the people working on it.
Tom also had a deep well of compassion & kindness, all the more noteworthy because these are not as common in the world as they should be. He was a generous friend when I struggled with difficult issues in my own life, lending his supportive light in dark places, which to me was valued beyond measure. Tom cared deeply about people – he cared about creating more opportunities, about amplifying more voices, about challenging more of us to think bigger and dig deeper and enjoy it all. If you were talking to him about anything, you always felt like he was really listening & he really cared about whatever it was because he really cared about YOU. That in itself is truly a gift given.
There is no navigational chart for grief, even though it is a nearly universal human experience. All we can do is keep an eye out for the occasional port of solace, places to take a breath amidst the storms. For me, there is a moment of calm water in the thought that Tom showed me a humanity to aspire to. I can take a step back & examine the areas where I can work on being a better biologist, a better mentor, a better human, and I can pass that on. That is a gift I will carry close to my heart and one that makes my life that much richer for his being a part of it.
Dr. Tom Kwak was born to be a mentor and leader. There was never a student who didn’t learn something new, after having just one conservation with Tom. He was a constant inspiration and motivator to every student who crossed his path. We believe one of Tom’s greatest professional accomplishments will be the impacts he made on his students’ lives—those he advised, those he taught, and those he worked with. The Student Fisheries Society at NC State will forever be grateful to Tom for his encouragement and support. He will have an everlasting impact to past, present, and future Student Fisheries Society students and alumni.
Tom was the driving force behind the NCSU Student Fisheries Society; always looking for new student leaders and motivating and supporting us through every new project we set out to do. Advising a student-led society is a thankless job, but Tom did it without hesitation or reservation. Tom’s easy demeanor and consummate professionalism made working together a joy. His enthusiasm for fostering the next generation of fisheries scientists was evident to all involved and promises to be a lasting legacy in the chapter. His thoughtful and careful leadership of the Student Fisheries Society was a reflection of his personality: always a tour guide, never a puppeteer, and ready with advice whenever asked. Tom was also a strong force of change and inclusion in fisheries ecology. He was a prime example of what it meant to work and collaborate with others. All in all, Tom embodied the meaning of leading with humility and empathy. We are all better people and professionals for knowing Tom.
—Ambar Torres Molinari and the Student Fisheries Society at NC State
When I was growing up it was a Christmas tradition at our house for my father to purchase a jar of pickled herring to eat on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Several years after I had met Tom, he shared with me his recipe for making pickled fish. I made it and I have never consumed store-bought pickled herring since then. I continue to make this holiday staple and every year hence forth when making it, I will fondly think of Tom. Here is the recipe in Tom’s words:
Kwak’s Amazing Minnesota Hammer-Handle Pickling Recipe
Excellent with small Northern Pike (or most freshwater fish species, even bream). Y-bones dissolve in the brine, but best to remove any vertebrae or ribs.
- 2 quarts cubed fish or strips
- 1 cup pickling salt
- 2 quarts cold water
Put all ingredients in a gallon earthen or glass jar and place in the refrigerator for 48 hours. Then wash fish real well in cold water. Cut into bite-sized pieces, wash again, and dry on paper towels. In the gallon jar, put
- 5 cups white sugar
- 3 teaspoons pickling spices
- 3 medium onions, sliced
Add the fish and cover with white vinegar. Place in the refrigerator for 48 hours. Fish is now ready to eat and may be put in smaller jars and covered with white vinegar (make sure to include some of the onions and pickling spices in each jar). Keep refrigerated – and Enjoy!
The Newsletter Committee is grateful for the shared memories of Tom. It is difficult to attribute many of the pictures as they have been widely dispersed; however, we would be remiss if we did not recognize Jim Rice, Joe Hightower, Jess Baumann, Abby Lynch, and Bonnie Myers for archiving and sharing so many pictures.
You are welcome to share additional memories, thoughts, or tributes to Tom in the comments to this post.
Thank you all so much for sharing. I think Tom’s family will find comfort in all of these kind and thoughtful tributes. Tom and I were friends from high school at Bishop McNamara Catholic School in Kankakee, Il. He truly lived the values instilled in us there throughout his too brief life. As my husband and I were driving home from Tom’s wake, we pondered how many PhDs Tom had launched into this world. Reading through these testaments shows his impact was ever wider than we thought. To paraphrase Warren Zevon, I think we’ll all ‘keep Tom in our hearts for a while’. It’s comforting to know that his impact on people was greater than imagined, and that so many people will continue his research and embody his example in mentorship and kind consideration of others. If we all just try to be a little more like Tom, this world will be a better place.
When Tom first came to NC State, I didn’t know him or know of him. It was Wilson Laney who introduced us, and immediately I liked the guy. At meetings it seemed like he always had a cadre of students following him around! I could tell he was a real sparkplug for the NCSU Student Fisheries Society. I would talk about him in my fisheries classes, and at professional meetings introduce our students to him and his students. Our last interaction revolved around COVID. I had wanted a fishy-type person for our Biology Thursday seminars, and so the in the fall of 2019 we agreed on a mid-March date. It was just after the Southern Division meeting, and people were starting to hear about this new disease and how it was starting to spread in the US. At that time, we didn’t even think that future face-to-face seminars would be cancelled. The ECU Biology Department got all the colored flyers up, and Thursday after Tom showed up, but he pulled me aside and whispered, “This will be the last live seminar this semester”, and he was right! Everyone thoroughly enjoyed his talk about Puerto Rico and a small and beautiful fish species. Great photos in his talk, and so easy to listen to. Such a great and gentle leader of adults and kids. We will miss him.
Tommy is the best of us. i love you