[Wed Feb 12 2003]

When Southern Illinois Normal University professor Mary Minerva Steagall used to make field trips to study plant life in this area in the days before hard roads had been built, she used to carry a loaded pistol.

Steagall fired it only once, when she heard a noise that might have been moonshiners in the woods.

Steagall started teaching at SINU in 1910 and she was transferred from the mathematics department to biology, where she continued to teach from 1913 until her retirement in 1938.

Her students will never forget the vigor with which she led her field trips. They will always remember Steagall in her suede jacket, tan knickers, high-top boots, maroon helmet with a feather and carrying a knapsack.

She could easily outwalk any of the students. Coming to a barbed-wire fence that could not be climbed easily, she would lie on the ground to roll under the fence.

Steagall was born on Nov. 2, 1867, and it was on her walks to and from school in Hodgeville in Pope County that she developed her love for wildlife. After four years of teaching in Pope County, she enrolled at Illinois State Normal University.

She was engaged to be married to Loren Hodge, when he completed his medical studies in Philadelphia. However, he took off for the Klondike to search for gold and never returned.

It was Steagall's last chance at romance.

Before joining the SINU faculty, she taught in Southern Illinois schools and at the Normal School in Ypsilanti, Mich.

Her many years at SINU resulted in finding some former students in almost every Southern Illinois town. They are among the most successful doctors, businessmen and teachers.

Steagall's interests were not only in the classroom. She became a charter member of he Carbondale Park Board. She was chairwoman of the committee to lay out nature trails in Giant City State Park.

As a member of the National Committee on Conservation and Preservation of Natural Areas, Steagall helped the Ecological Society of America set aside many undisturbed areas valuable for scientific study.

Another of Steagall's hobbies was gardening. Everywhere she traveled she carried a trowel and a camera.

It was just one day after she was seen working and daydreaming in her garden that she died, on March 27, 1945.

BEN GELMAN is the former Sunday news editor for The Southern Illinoisan and is an avid bird watcher.

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