Holding a magnifying glass, the youngest son of Martin
and Edna McCabe's six children spent hours staring at
the frogs and worms in the garden pond. Living in the
semi-rural outskirts of Athlone in central Ireland, Declan
McCabe would ask "Who made the trees? Why is the
grass green?" Taught to fish by his father, who loved the
nearby river, he would spend all day catching fish and then
returning them to water.
Fast-forward four decades and as an adult, Declan
gently humorous and bespectacled with a wide
grin and an Irish brogue, remains on happy terms with
nature and inquisitiveness. As a professor of biology,
McCabe is known by his Saint Michael's colleagues and
students for his mild demeanor and easy way with a laugh,
as well as his exuberant insistence on bringing biology
students directly to the woods and waterways. "You've got
to make a mess to teach science sometimes," he says.
To understand how the hyper-curious Irish boy found
his way to a PhD and a small liberal arts college in
Vermont, it helps to know something about orienteering, a
popular hobby in Europe. First as a Boy Scout (his father
was his troop leader) and later in Ireland's equivalent of
the National Guard, McCabe became accomplished at
orienteering, a challenging activity that demands alert
perception, common sense and good use of basic resources
like a map and compass to navigate from point to point in
diverse and usually unfamiliar terrain. The goal is to arrive
most efficiently at one's desired endpoint. McCabe got so
good at it that his military unit sent him all around Ireland
to represent them in competitions.
"My father's theory was, there was something for every kid, whatever they were destined for, and he was open to letting you try whatever you wanted to try," McCabe says. "He'd say, 'You've gotta do what makes you happy..."
The best orienteers know that the best route from Point
A to Point B isn't always a straight line. So it has been in
the life and career of Declan McCabe, moving through
a series of intermediate landmarks before improvising
opportune routes toward his ultimate life goal: getting
paid to study nature and be outdoors while passing on his
passion to others.
His youthful years of earnest nature-discovery in
Ireland's wilds and waters landed McCabe a summer job in
the U.S. at age 19 as a nature expert at Camp Neumann,
a youth camp run by the Philadelphia Archdiocese. He'd
seen a flyer advertising the opportunity on a cafeteria floor
at the technical college in Athlone where he was studying
biology. The first person he met at Camp Neumann was
Margaret Vizzard, an American and fellow camp counselor.
"I remember she was wearing a t-shirt with a cell membrane
and nucleus on it. I saw that shirt and thought, 'All right,
I think I can talk to her!'" he says.
Back in Ireland after the first summer, he spent many
evenings feeding huge stacks
of coins into public pay phones
to talk briefly with Margaret,
a biology student at Temple
University. Once he determined
she'd be back for another camp
summer, McCabe had all the
incentive he needed to return for
the next year.
After his second summer,
connections from Camp Neumann
allowed McCabe to obtain
sponsorship for a student visa so
he could enroll at Philadelphia's
St. Joseph University to study
biology. Not long after his 1990 graduation from St.
Joseph's, he married Vizzard and made the United States
his permanent home, far away
from his "small Irish family," as
he jokingly describes them.
McCabe's academic specialty
is ecology, which he pursued in
master's studies at University
of Pittsburgh while Vizzard was
doing post-doctoral studies
in neurological science, her
specialty. All through undergrad
and grad school, McCabe says,
he got by on a shoe-string
budget with the help of teaching
assistantships or odd jobs. In his
undergrad days in Philadelphia, McCabe took night classes because they were considerably
cheaper. He offset expenses further by working day jobs
that included lab technician, house-painter, deli-meat
slicer and plumber's assistant,
a job he found through a
remarkable Irish connection:
"I was serving food at the
summer camp, and a visiting
lady in my line told me I talked
exactly like a friend of hers, so
to humor her I asked his name,
and it turns out it was a guy
from Athlone. I'd been his kids'
Cub Scout leader!" he recalls.
McCabe decided to surprise
the man, a plumber named
Sweeney, that very evening with
a drop-by visit. One of the boys
answered the door, and called out, "Mommy, there's a man
at the door who looks just like Declan McCabe!"
Now with his own three kids at ages that keep them on the
go (Heather 15, Ethan, 12 and Lauren, 7) he tries to model
his father's examples in the time he spends with them.
His dad, an enthusiastic scouting leader, was also a
boxing trainer, and a career non-commissioned company
sergeant in the Irish Army. Martin saw the sport as an
excellent way to keep boys out of trouble, so he helped run
the local boxing club in a parish hall. When young Declan
became keen to try it out however, Martin knew what had
to be done, "otherwise he knew he'd never hear the end of
it," Declan recalls. Martin asked one of his gym's regulars
with some boxing skills to get in the ring with his son and
"let him know what it feels like to get hit, but don't hurt
him," as Declan remembers it. The experience had its
Instead, his dad steered his youngest boy toward the
more peaceful activities that he knew better suited him.
"His theory was, there was something for every kid,
whatever they were destined for, and he was open to
letting you try whatever you wanted to try," McCabe says.
"He'd say, 'You've gotta do what makes you happy,' because
he'd been dumped into the butcher trade as a young man
and got out of it as fast as he could. Then he worked
for the postal service and stayed in the Army after 'The
Emergency,' as Irish call World War II."
Declan's childhood allergies kept him out of the 100-
bird aviary his father built at their home. The notion to
build an aviary was not as unusual in Ireland as it might
seem in the U.S., McCabe says. "You know how you
have dog shows in the U.S.? In Ireland they have bird
shows," he explains, remembering trips south to Cork
or across on a ferry to England for bird shows with the
family, or buying bird shampoo, or "lamping" eggs to see
the heartbeat of developing chicks, all good background
for later lab activities or genetics studies. To keep Declan
occupied, Martin built the pond at the bottom of the
family garden, and Declan began his exploration of water
His family's modest post-war row-house in Athlone
was urban in style and packed in among many others, but
located in the outskirts, which had a mostly rural feel, with
fields and woods extending far out back. They heated the
home with peat cut from a bog, fed coins into an electric
meter to keep the power on and ate potatoes with every
meal. "We didn't have a car till I was maybe 14 but that
wasn't unusual because nobody else on the street had one
either," says McCabe. "I never had the remotest sense of
any hardship." His days were spent finding bugs in ponds
and bogs, sneaking out to sit in trees with friends to watch
nocturnal creatures and camping and fishing.
Declan fondly remembers a beautiful wooden rowboat
that his father built with help from a nearby technical
school, making those long days fishing more interesting
and far-flung. Today, he says, one of his dreams for biology
instruction at Saint Michael's would be to have a research
boat for the college so that professors could take students
out on Lake Champlain.
In recent years, one of McCabe's signature activities is
his leading role in the Vermont EpScor Streams Project,
which brings students from U.S. colleges and high schools
and from Puerto Rico to Vermont for the summer to do
biology research and lab testing in streams, based at Saint
Michael's. "A lot of northern states have failed in the
mission to increase diversity in science," he says, "and
Epscor was having the same problem. But then when we
formed relationships with Puerto Rico, it turns out they
have the same problem. Puerto Rico is full of Puerto
Ricans, sort of like Ireland is full of Irish! But now we sent
occasional students down there, and they sent a lot up
here and in that way each of us has increased diversity in
our own area. It's a beautiful thing."
He enjoys showing off an ever-growing collection of
animal skulls that he uses for his course on evolution,
everything from small mammals to bears and alligators.
He's also a big proponent of parents buying good
microscopes for their young kids and just letting them look at things found in surrounding nature. He enjoys teaching
biology to education majors. "We'd go to local schools,
students would create a set of six science-based activities
based on what teachers wanted and kids would rotate
through the stations," he explains.
Other favorite activities include field trips to the
Champlain islands to find Ordovician fossils, or having
students gather wildlife footprints using little trays of
black chalk. "You put in a dog biscuit so your raccoon,
fisher, or mink will come in, and you have forensic quality
Professor of biology Donna Bozzone, McCabe's
colleague, was delighted to hire McCabe in 2001, "I
know the things that promise success are that you're
both smart and really, really nice, and that's Declan. He
really is so student-centered, and it's a real way of caring
in that he just loves them, but he holds them to high
standards. He sees them as people and isn't judgmental.
He's very much someone who understands that the way
we measure how well we do is how much we've helped an
individual student." Bozzone finds McCabe as a colleague
to be "proactive about finding ways to help people out.
He's kind of old-school about that, and really does more
than his share. And he does it cheerfully. He'll always be
saying, 'Oh, it's all good!' even if something goes wrong
occasionally. It's really quite a tonic to see somebody who
can do that so skillfully and authentically."
McCabe knows that there's only so many ways to keep
students' attention, citing studies that show the average
adult attention span is approximately 10 minutes. So,
he breaks up his science lectures with strategic personal
digressions so students will stay engaged. "In my St. Mike's
classes, students know me for my 'unsolicited McCabe
advice for life,'" he says. "I tell them, 'This isn't a dress
rehearsal. You have to make the most of opportunities
when then come along.'"