By David Van Lear
Photography by Cole Myers & Jane Myers
David Van Lear, professor emeritus of forestry, never thought he would fish again. But with the help of a couple of former students, he found his way back to a river of his childhood.
Thomas Wolfe, the famous author of the early 20th century, titled one of his novels You Can’t Go Home Again, meaning, in simple terms, that everything will have changed so much over time that home won’t be the same if you return. Although I had never thought too much about that axiom, I guess I believed it to be true. However, I found out that it may not always hold true. I learned that maybe you can go home again.
In September 2019, two of my former graduate students, Rick Myers ’79, M ’82, Ph.D. ’96 and Jud Alden ’79, M ’91, invited me to come to Virginia and fish in the Calfpasture River over the Columbus Day weekend.
I initially declined because I was concerned that my wife, Carolyn, who was in health care at Clemson Downs, would worry too much about me. But then our caregiver of seven years, a wonderful woman named Diane, told me in no uncertain terms that I was going on this fishing trip. She would take care of Carolyn and our little dog, Dolly. She said I had worked too hard over the past year to improve my physical condition not to go. She thought I could withstand the rigors of walking and wading the rocky shoreline of a small Virginia river for six to seven hours. This may sound like a rather easy task for a young man, but I wasn’t so sure for me — I was almost 80.
But my urge to fish was strong. Fishing had been in my blood from my earliest years growing up in Clifton Forge, a small mountain town in western Virginia where, during my teenage years, I became an avid angler. The primary river I fished was a beautiful cool-water stream, the Cowpasture River in Alleghany County, where my quarries were smallmouth bass, rock bass and bluegills. Occasionally, my uncle Earl would take me to the Calfpasture River, a nearby stream similar to the Cowpasture but smaller. I considered both streams to be my home waters growing up.
Over the past year, I worked hard to improve my physical health so I could fish again, but I had a lot to overcome. The year I retired from Clemson at age 65, I was diagnosed with diabetes. When I turned 70, my health took another nosedive. First, I had kidney cancer, which required the removal of my left kidney. Then I had brain surgery to correct a condition called hydrocephalus, or fluid on the brain, which was causing me to stumble and fall after walking short distances. Soon, I was stumbling again — this time because of pain in my back. Surgery provided short-term relief, and further testing revealed a slipped disc.
Damn. I was getting a little depressed. Would I ever be able to fish again?
After studying the spinal tests, the surgeon who did my brain surgery recommended against further surgery and instead sent me to a pain management doctor, who injected steroids into my spine. Within days, my pain was gone. I began to exercise five days a week and, as I gained core strength, walked farther and more frequently without pain.
My good fortune didn’t last very long. About two years ago, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Thankfully, this cancer hasn’t been a big problem so far, and I am still able to go on weekend hikes with my hiking group at the Downs. And my little 14-year-old Shih Tzu Dolly takes me on about five short walks each day.
But it had been almost 10 years since I had seriously wet a line. Would the fire I had for fishing still burn in my veins? And if I went back to the Calfpasture, would the land still be as I remembered it? It had been about 60 years since I had been back, and just about everything in my world had dramatically changed during that time. It was hard to imagine the Calfpasture had not changed too. I would soon find out.
Rick’s home was in Mechanicsville, about 20 miles from Richmond and 300 miles from Clemson. Jud, who lives just outside Atlanta, picked me up on the Saturday morning of Columbus Day weekend and drove me to Virginia. We spent the night at Rick’s house, got up early on Sunday and drove the three hours to the Calfpasture.
The experience of fishing again where I had fished 60 years ago with old friends has rejuvenated me physically and mentally, making me think I could go on to 90.
The Calfpasture is a small river that is almost like a creek when the water is low. Virginia had been in a severe drought that summer, and the river was low and clear, making the fish wary and difficult to catch — at least for me, but not so much for Rick, Jud and Cole, Rick’s son. I started fishing with my fly rod, but my casting was so rusty and my vision so poor that often I couldn’t detect strikes. I did manage to catch a few fish on my fly rod but soon saw the wisdom of Cole’s suggestion that I might catch more fish if I switched to one of their spinning outfits.
Thankfully, Cole took me under his wing, and I began to catch fish at a faster rate. Although my numbers were not impressive — neither was the size of the fish I caught — I did manage to catch a “Calfpasture Grand Slam,” as my companions called it: four species, including smallmouth bass, rock bass or redeye, redbreast sunfish and fallfish. The fallfish is actually a minnow that grows up to 20 inches in Virginia and is a hard fighter.
The real fishermen, Rick, Jud and Cole, far out-fished this old man. But I enjoyed the companionship and the beautiful environment immensely. I was fishing with two of my favorite former students from 30 years ago, who still thought enough of me to invite me to go fishing with them. Rick earned his Ph.D. and Jud his master’s degree under my direction.
What more could I have asked for? The weather was gorgeous, the land hardly changed from how I remembered it. Wildlife was abundant — two bald eagles, a coyote, many songbirds and lots of deer — and the river had plenty of fish. Here, along the Calfpasture, man and nature were in complete harmony. It was just as I remembered it when I was a teenager.
Yes, I guess I did go home again, if only for a short time. The experience of fishing again where I had fished 60 years ago with old friends has rejuvenated me physically and mentally, making me think I could go on to 90 — at least.
David Van Lear is a professor emeritus of forestry of Clemson University.
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Enjoyed this story very much – took me back to my younger days in the low- country of SC hunting and fishing with my Dad. Being 80 now makes me think never again, but this story has encouraged me. I may not get to hunt or fish again but it sure brings up fond memories of SC and Clemson – Go Tigers!
I don’t think you will remember me but I do remember you! We met on our summer camp run when you first came Clemson .
You were driving a van full of us gruby old forestry students when you cut the corner a little sharp and dropped in the cut and gave us a jolt. I believe it was Jim Degesio popped off with “Keep on the road cowboy”! We had not yet been introduced to our new instructor! You were always a fountain of knowledge!
God bless you stay healthy and Tight Lines!
Bill Walker ‘79
Dr. VanLear was always a gentleman. I am not sure he quite knew what to make of those summer forestry students at first. That was a big hole you drove into Bill. Just glad we can still remember what fun it was.
Thanks Dr VanLear for sharing your journey with us. Very special. Stay well. Phil Richardson’74
Lovely story! Keep fishing and stay young.
Dr. Van Lear was one of the most impactful professors I had while at Clemson. He was the quintessential southern gentlemen and professor; kind, approachable, wise, humble, stern, and earnest. Thank you Dr. Van Lear for sharing your story. It brings such a smile to my face to think of you wading your home waters. Truly inspirational.
I stumbled upon this site and while searching for water resource stories in my new home state of SC. I have known David Van Lear for over 65 years. He was a year ahead of me at Clifton Forge High School. Reunited with him several years ago when my then son-in-law was earning a Ph.D under his direction. It’s refreshing in many ways to learn he was able to Go Home Again. We have lived in VA, FL, GA, NC and now Lancaster SC. No regrets from any of those residences but the clear waters of the Cow and Calfpastures are like magnets as David so beautifully described. All the best to you again, my friend. Around 5 today I’ll raise a glass….cheers.
Thank you, Dr. Van Lear, for sharing the story. I never had the pleasure of being in your classroom but remember you well along with most of the characters in this play. You are an inspiration and have made an indelible mark on our school. Again, thank you for your service to Clemson Forestry.
Class of ’84
Dr. Van Lear used to make wild trout wood carvings, painted and so realistic. His passion for pursuit of trout got me interested in the sport. An excellent forestry professor indeed and a true gentleman. Glad to see this article.
Thank You Dr. Van Lear.
class of 2005
Well Dave, a lot of water has gone under the Cowpasture River Bridges since I completed my Ph.D. in Forestry under your guidance, among other fine professors. I will always appreciate your patience, kindness, compassion, and wisdom when I was in grad school. Yes, I too remember your passion for fishing. You’re the only man I’ve known who could tie and create his own flies. I admire your perseverance, wish you continued strength, and will pray for your continued good health. I’d love to watch you blow out those 90 candles! Maybe I’ll be able to see the fireworks all the way from where I am now, in Georgia. And it doesn’t much matter, as you learned preparing to go home again to your river, about the struggle. It’s the climb. Much love …
Class of ’98
Dave and I were bellhops in Yellowstone National Park
during the summers of 1959, 60, and 61. Great
memories of fishing trips on the Yellowstone, Firehole, Madison, and Galliton rivers.