Wesley Dempsey

Wesley Hugh Dempsey

1926 - 2022

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Obituary of Wesley Hugh Dempsey

Wesley Hugh Dempsey (December 2, 1926–May 1, 2022)

Born Dec. 2, 1926 in Waltham, Massachusetts, Wesley Hugh Dempsey was the fifth of six children of Paul and Marjorie Dempsey. His Bostonian father and Maine-born mother gave him "a curious accent that I've been trying for 80 years to overcome." Garden and livestock on their 30-acre farm gave the self-sustaining family great pride. Inspired by his father’s professorship at the University of Massachusetts, Wes pursued higher education at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. 

In 1945, Wes joined the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division as a paratrooper, one of his proudest achievements. With postwar GI Bill financial support, he enrolled in Cornell University and obtained a bachelor's degree in plant science in 1949. For graduate studies, he moved west to UC Davis to take a master's in plant science in 1951, and a genetics doctorate in 1954. While there he met Phyllis Burr, a UC Davis home economics major from Woodland. They married on June 10, 1951. 

Wes accepted a position in 1954 as the second agriculture professor at Chico State. The Dempseys started a family and bought a home in a new Chico subdivision, within easy reach of good fishing and backpacking.

After two years of coping with a heavy teaching load, he exclaimed, "No human being knows enough to teach 22 courses." Recalls Phyllis: "He was two pages ahead of his students. He was never home." Wes eventually switched to the Biological Sciences Department. 

His 38-year career as a professor included several sabbaticals: a National Science Foundation genetics fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1963; research at Pennsylvania State University in 1970-71; plus visiting professorships at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand in 1981 and the University of Western Australia at Perth in 1987. In Lassen County, he taught summer courses in field biology at the University's Eagle Lake Field Station from 1979–1991. He retired from CSU Chico in 1992. 

Wes helped develop the campus arboretum and its guide to trees and led hundreds of popular "tree tours." With infectious enthusiasm, he shared his love and knowledge of natural environments by leading hundreds of field trips featuring wildflowers, vernal pools, Native American use of local plants, and local ecology, for a variety of community organizations. 

In 2004, the Chico News and Review named Wes one of its “local heroes” for his decades of volunteer service in educating and exciting people about nature: “When it comes to local plant and tree life, it’s safe to say that Wes Dempsey is one of the most important local figures since, well, John Bidwell himself.”

For many years, Wes led classes in the California deserts, which became annual family pilgrimages to experience desert wildflowers. Wes enjoyed extensive botanizing, backpacking, and world travel with family and friends. 

In 2008, Wes was honored as a distinguished professor emeritus and was inducted into the Emeritus and Retired Faculty Association’s Hall of Honor at Chico State for his dedication to the university and community.

His generosity to family and community was a hallmark of his personality, and has left a lasting legacy on many fronts. Most notably, “The Wesley and Phyllis Dempsey Family Endowment in memory of David P. Dempsey” supports environmental research and education within the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve (BCCER). Wes also funded the “Dempsey Field Research Award” through the Department of Biological Sciences at CSU Chico.

Wes’ love of nature informed all aspects of his life: professional, friends, and family alike, leaving a lasting legacy of nature lovers among the many people he touched.

After seven weeks of hospice care and a gentle decline, Wesley H. Dempsey (95) drew his last breath on Sunday, May 1, 2022 in Chico. He and Phyllis Dempsey had been married for nearly 71 years. Phyllis (92) continues to live in Chico. 

Wes’ descendants are David (d. 2020) (Rebecca Douglass) and sons Kylan and Griffen; Thomas (Carol); Paul (Leslie) and his sons Ian, Tristan, and Duncan; and James (Sally Martin).

A memorial reception will be held May 27, 2-4 p.m. at The Lodge at The Terraces in Chico.

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