Deceased April 18, 2014

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In Memory

Don Alstad died April 18 at his home in Roseville, Minn., of lymphoma.

Don grew up in Wayland, Mass., the only piano-playing tight end on his high school football team. At Amherst, he majored in biology.

Steve Neel ’69 wrote, “He was enthusiastic about everything, and his enthusiasms were catching.” Don volunteered to teach Steve how to ski. “[He] kept me mostly upright on the slopes, except for my face-plant in a ditch on my first black-diamond trail.” Toby Webb ’69 was another of Don’s skiing students: “The equipment and the student were hopeless—but Don got me up and successfully going, which I have always appreciated.”

Greg Thalmann ’69 wrote, “It’s his sense of humor I remember best, and the seriousness underlying it. He had a deep interest in biology, and his eagerness to share it must have made him a devoted teacher.”

Don taught high school physics and biology in Marengo, Iowa, for two years and earned a master’s in civil engineering and a Ph.D. in biology. He joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota department of ecology, evolution and behavior in 1982. His research recently centered on European corn borers, and on manipulations designed to slow the evolution of insect resistance to genetically modified maize.

He was awarded a Morse-Alumni Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education in 2009. He developed a widely used teaching software, Populus. He’d memorize the names of the students in his large ecology course and could identify them all by the first day of class.

Don is survived by his wife, Karen, and daughters Amy and Leah. Don and his family spent hundreds of weekend at their hobby farm in Wisconsin. “Don restored and maintained 32 acres of prairies, cultivated a small apple orchard, hunted deer and observed the flora, fauna and changing seasons,” his family wrote.

David L. Michelmore ’69


This is from Don's wife and daughters:


Don Alstad was born in Waltham Massachusetts on March 8, 1947. He spent most of childhood in Wayland MA, where his parents continued to live in the house they built themselves (with the help of two-year old Don) for over 60 years. He began a life-long love of music and the piano as a young child, and played the Schumann Piano Concerto accompanied by full orchestra when he was in high school. He joked that he was the only piano-playing tight end on his football team.


Don graduated from Amherst College in 1969 with a degree in biology, and then taught high school biology and physics in Marengo Iowa for two years. He received an MS in civil engineering from the University of Iowa, and then a PhD in biology from the University of Utah. At Utah, he began a career focused on the ecology and evolution of insects with studies of net-spinning caddisflies and black pineleaf scale insects.


Don joined the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota in 1982, and would have taught his last Ecology class this spring. While he enjoyed research, his passion was undergraduate teaching. This passion was recognized by the Horace T. Morse-University of Minnesota Alumni Association Award, the highest award given by the University to recognize outstanding contributions to undergraduate education. He memorized the names of every single student in his ~125-student ecology classes, and greeted all of them by name on the first day of class. His weekly coffee hours provided a venue for students to delve more deeply into the week’s material. Through his teaching and his computer program Populus, Don worked to make mathematically difficult concepts digestible to students. More than 600 universities on six continents use Populus to teach ecology and evolution.


Don had a series of passions outside of work. He rebuilt a 1958 Ford Tractor in the mid-1990’s, kept bees for over a decade until he was put out of business by a marauding black bear, trained three amazing golden retrievers, and got a pilot’s license and purchased a small airplane in the early 2000’s. But most of all, Don was passionate about his family. Don married Karen Oberhauser in 1985, and Amy and Leah were born in 1987 and 1989. We spent hundreds of weekends at our Wisconsin hobby-farm, where Don restored and maintained 32 acres of prairies, cultivated a small apple orchard, hunted deer, and observed the flora, fauna, and changing seasons. He was thrilled to be well enough to attend Amy’s wedding to Eric Udelhofen last August (on Karen and Don’s 28th wedding anniversary), and to have a son-in-law who shares his passions for tractors, bees, hunting, coffee, and, most importantly, family.


Don was looking forward to retirement, and had a long bucket list of things he planned to do. While we all, including Don, were devastated about the things that he won't have the chance to check off this list, we are very grateful for the time we had together, and the opportunity to reflect together on a full life during Don’s two year journey with lymphoma.