Rex Powell, traveler among the stars, friend to all DNA creatures (and rocks), naturalist, eternal optimist, and beloved by his family and friends, unexpectedly shed his earthly body on π-day (3.14 2019) and is henceforth living among the stars, leaving behind an overly long to-do list—finishing his kid’s book amenable to adults, Mother Gaia; preserving his beloved prairie near Lone Star; seeing Mars (without a dust storm) through his 444 telescope and setting up the 444 in Mexico for the 2024 solar eclipse and possibly, he (averred) to view the 2044 eclipse that would occur ten days after his 102nd birthday. Friends have called him an “artist for science,” an “unforgettable human being,” a real feminist, irrepressible, “as tough as his fossils” (who should have lived much longer)—so true.
A fifth generation Lawrencian, Rex was born to Areta Dorothy (Alford) Powell and Wayne Densmore Powell on August 14, 1942 and grew up on a farm near Lone Star, Kansas. He was fascinated by the “unusual” rocks he found while wandering the nearby fields, which he translated into a life-long love of geology, astronomy, and paleontology. He often walked the two miles from his home to the Weybright one-room schoolhouse taking his time, contemplating the elegant flat-stone walls, blackberry brambles, and wild flowers—whose disappearance later led him to bemoan Douglas County’s remorseless roadside mowing that is rapidly wiping out all of Mother Nature’s beauty and life—and (ultimately) the Kansas sunflowers. His grandma Lola (Powell) would point to the profile of Fraser Hall at KU a dozen miles away in Lawrence and tell him, he would go there one day. He went to Lawrence High and became a chesty lion (graduating in 1960) and made a fateful road trip to the west coast with a group of his buddies, seeing the ocean for the first time.
He studied biology at the University of Kansas and spent the summer of 1964 doing field work in marine biology at Dillon Beach near Bodega Bay (CA) with the University of the Pacific. Rex received his Bachelor’s in Zoology from KU in May 1965 and married Janet Alvey of Kansas City, Kansas that same month (whom he always referred to as his “beloved first wife” a free spirit). With encouragement and help from Professor Charles D. Michener, Rex applied to UWash, Duke, Stanford, and Berkeley, and completed a marine zoology course at Friday Harbor Marine Laboratories, San Juan Island in Washington. In Sept. 1965, he began graduate work in Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, and spent a month in Mexico in the summer of 1967, the first of many extended visits to Central America.
Rex received his Master of Zoology from Berkeley in May 1968 and spent the summer traveling with Janet through England, Scotland, France, Germany, Belgium—they were in Paris and the Latin Quarter during the ’68 student protests. He continued at UC Berkeley in the fall amid the upheavals of the Free Speech Movement memorably seeing Janice Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix in concert at the Fillmore and starting his doctoral research on arthropods—working as a Teaching Assistant and teaching summer courses at the Bodega Marine Laboratory. He was also certified in S.C.U.B.A. after a rigorous U.C. course completed at Monterey Bay.
Nineteen-seventy was a fabulous year starting with a 3000-mile bus trek with Ron Capen in February to Oaxaca, Mexico, to view and photograph his first clear solar eclipse on March 6, 1970. On November 21 his first son Alexis Frederick Leo Alvey Powell was born at the UC Medical Center in San Francisco. Rex received his Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1971 for The Functional Morphology of the Fore-guts of the Thalassinid Crustaceans Callianassa californiensis and Upogebia pugettensis (currently with 98 citations)—the definitive study of the digestive system of the shrimp. Ralph Smith one of his Berkeley professors published it in 1974 without taking the least credit.
Rex and his family returned to Lawrence in August 1971. He worked part-time teaching biology labs at KU and lived in Stull, KS on old Hwy 40. In 1972-73 he was an instructor in Anatomy at Avila University, KCMO and lived in KCK near Janet’s homestead. In late summer 1973, the family moved into a house owned by Florence Bond in Lone Star near where Rex grew up. Inspired by Stewart Brand’s Bay Area Whole Earth Catalogue, Rex purchased a woodland from local farmers and started preparing land for a driveway and house in “Burton’s Hollow,” as 19th century maps designated the area around Little Chicken Creek. After many false starts, Rex settled on a “pole house” design he had seen. The unforgettable Lud Heine carved out the first version of the driveway—and even after fifty years of adding gravel and regrading, “grandpa Rex’s” road, as his granddaughter Pippa calls it, still terrifies many visitors and every delivery truck driver.
Dissatisfied with university teaching, Rex started course work toward a B. S. in Education at KU which he completed in May 1975. Meanwhile his adopted son Damian Edmond Wayne Alvey Powell was born on September 6, 1973 and joined the family in their rustic home. With the help of Rex’s father Wayne, his uncle Alvin Harrell (Aunt Shirley’s husband), and other local skilled construction workers, the house in Burton’s Hollow was completed in November 1974, and Rex and family moved in around Thanksgiving.
Rex did his student teaching at Centennial Elementary and started teaching first grade in the Lawrence Public Schools at Kennedy and then 4th and 5th grades at New York Elementary and Schwegler. He eventually moved to Lawrence High School—mostly teaching Geology, Astronomy, plus a bit of General Biology, and very occasionally Physics and later shuttled between LHS and Free State HS. In his version of a mid-life crisis, in the early 1980s he moved to Mexico for a while and taught science for 4th-6th graders at the American School in Monterrey with Alexis and Damian in tow.
He eventually returned to teaching in Lawrence having, wisely, just taken a leave of absence. He married special-education teacher Valerie Johnson Powell in the 80s and their son, Anthony was born on March 23, 1990. Within fourteen months they all trekked to Baja, Mexico, to experience a second Solar Eclipse ostensibly with Alexis driving, Damian playing shotgun, and Rex, Valerie and baby Anthony in the rear—meeting up with Ron Capen and his clan. Observation was spectacular in Mexico!
Rex retired in July 2003 but kept actively involved in teaching—giving tours of the wetlands for local school children; hosting owl-pellet dissections for Eagle Day and setting up his 13” Dobsonian (a parting gift from Valerie) for observation nights around Lawrence. He met Marie Alice L’Heureux (a Maine (French-Canadian) native) and 2002 PhD Berkeley Architecture Grad) in 2005 and spent the next five years wooing her with his expertise in gluing broken things, building brick patios, doing her dishes, recycling, and being interested in everything architectural. They married on October 9, 2010 in Lawrence and had almost eight-and-a-half very, very, happy-scrappy years together—crisscrossing the US and Canada numerous times for Marie-Alice’s research and visiting Mexico (Cancun), and Lunenberg, Germany, for conferences and Maine, Montreal, and the Maritime Provinces and on their honeymoon carrying back 1200 pounds of rocks and fossils. Rex fell in love with Maine, and Newfoundland was like Maine on steroids—where some of the oldest rocks and fossils on Earth are visible. Rex’s goal was to go back to the Maritimes one more time…alas.
On August 21, 2017 Rex and his Berkeley friend Ron Capen and their respective clans and astronomy buddies converged at Lake Minatare Nebraska/Guernsey State Park Wyoming for what turned out to be Rex’s last total eclipse of the sun. It was fantastic.
In addition to his wife Marie-Alice and Noir, Minou, Dauntless, cats of the home, survivors include Rex’s sons, Alexis F.L.A. Powell of Emporia, KS (ex-wife, Mira Megan Miller), Damian E.W.A Powell, Anthony T.B. Johnson-Powell (Elaine Marie), his sister, Taunya (John) Reusch (all of Lawrence), two step sisters Janet Spring (Dennis) and Pam Hadl both of Eudora, KS; two grandchildren, Eli Seeger Alvey Miller Powell of Emporia, KS and Pippa Hypatia Ella Miller Powell of St. Paul, MN; and two aunts Shirley Harrell of Lawrence and Nell Trefz of Eudora.
Rex donated his body to the KU Medical Center; on-line condolences may be made to Warren-McElwain Mortuary. Memorial contributions are suggested to the Grassland Heritage Foundation, PO Box 394, Shawnee Mission, Kansas.
We invite family and friends to a Celebration of Rex’s Life at the Carnegie Library, 200 W 9th St, Lawrence, KS 66044 on Saturday March 23, 2019, gathering at 6:30 and testimonials and sharing starting at around 7:00 continuing with refreshments and informal sharing until 9:00 PM. Another celebration of Rex’s life is scheduled for August 10, 2019—around 4 PM—midnight in the style of a traditional Burton’s Hollow Party full of music, singing, talking, philosophizing, eating and drinking.
This corrected obituary was originally published in the Lawrence Journal World on Friday, March 22, 2019, p. 2A