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Dr. Tom Buchanan and his three grandchildren

Dr. Tom Buchanan and his three grandchildren

Arts and Sciences | Lion VoicesMay 03, 2024

UAFS Faculty Member to Retire After More Than 50 Years

Written By: Ian Silvester

The end of the semester not only means the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith will celebrate a new class of graduates and certificate recipients, but it will also mark the conclusion of 53 years of service for biology professor Dr. Tom Buchanan.

Buchanan, who was raised in eastern Arkansas, graduated from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology before heading to the University of Texas at Austin for his Ph.D. He knew he wanted to study biology, but it wasn’t until his time on The Hill that Buchanan discovered his passion for ichthyology, or the study of fish.

During Buchanan’s studies, he worked on research projects with his professors, graduate students, and Arkansas Game and Fish, to name a few. But as his doctoral program neared an end, he knew he needed to find a job. After searching job records at UT-Austin, a position at UAFS, then Westark Community College, sparked his interest.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’ve never heard of Westark, but I wanted a job, and I wanted to get married, and I needed a job to get married,’” he said, laughing fondly at the memory. “All I knew about Fort Smith was from driving through, and I could just envision Westark as being in one of those old buildings on Garrison Avenue. I was pleasantly surprised when I came and saw the campus.”

During his interview, Buchanan learned that the college had been denied accreditation, with a main criticism being that the Dr. Tom Buchanan circa 1972 UAFS yearbook, The Numa“science faculty lacked proper credentials.” Buchanan had the needed credentials, and he and the university had a mutual interest in bringing him aboard.

That was in 1971.

What Buchanan admitted to thinking would only be a job for two or three years turned into a decade, 20, 30, 40, and now 53 years later. With a background primarily in research, teaching was new for Buchanan when he arrived, and looking back at those early years, he jokingly asked for forgiveness from his first students.

“I did want to teach, but I hadn’t had any experience, not a lick,” he emphasized. “I had always had research assistantships, so I had never taught in my life. I hadn’t even been a TA in college when I came here. I would like to go back and apologize to every student I ever had that first year I was learning how to teach. My students today wouldn’t recognize me if they could see what I was like then.”

So, what were UAFS and the world like back in 1971? Thanks to Buchanan’s memory and a quick internet search, here are some highlights.

Starting with UAFS, Buchanan said that every building on campus when he arrived is still here today, apart from the Holt Building, which was the old library. The Vines building had recently opened, and Gardner was next in line to be built. In the classroom, a handheld calculator was all the rage, allowing students and faculty to solve mathematical equations without needing a slide rule.

Outside of campus, “bad” meant something was “great,” a dozen eggs cost a quarter, and Richard Nixon was president. For sports buffs, the Baltimore Colts won Super Bowl V after defeating the Dallas Cowboys 16-13, the Pittsburgh Pirates won their fourth World Series, and in the Great White North, the Montreal Canadians clinched the Stanley Cup. In 1971, the first Starbucks opened in Seattle, Disney World opened in Orlando, and close to home, FedEx was founded in Little Rock.

In the five-plus decades since Buchanan started his one and only job as a professor here at UAFS, he has witnessed many things happen and change. But what has remained a constant has been the people who make UAFS the place to be.

“It’s the faculty and how they realize what we have to do to help our students,” he said proudly. “We have good, promising students that can go almost anywhere. … I think the future looks promising, and we will continue to grow.”

Working in one place for your entire career isn’t as common as it once was. However, Buchanan said he wouldn’t trade his 53 years at UAFS for the world. The university allowed him to grow as a professor and gave him the freedom to work on researching the fish of Arkansas. His work proved the existence of the bigscale logperch in Arkansas – a freshwater fish that previously was not native to the state – and is credited with classifying 230 species of fish swimming in Arkansas waters.

His colleague, Dr. Ragupathy Kannan, a fellow biology professor, said his work in the classroom and the field has made a lasting impression.

“(Buchanan) has been the face of scholarly activities and research in this department for 50 years. He has influenced countless careers for the better,” Kannan wrote. “As he heads off into retirement, his legacy will live on forever via the scientists and conservationists he helped create.”

Buchanan officially retires on May 14, shortly after tassels are moved and “Pomp and Circumstance” plays throughout the Stubblefield Center. It will be his last graduation at UAFS, but he said reality hasn’t sunk in yet.

“I don’t think it will until the fall semester starts,” he said.

For now, he plans to do what he has always done during the summer months: enjoy spending time with his wife, daughter, and three grandchildren, hopefully even taking a vacation or two. Beyond that, only time will tell.

  • Tags:
  • Biology
  • College of Arts and Sciences

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