The bear is one thing Tom Furrer will miss about teaching wildlife biology at Petaluma's Casa Grande High and advising the students who operate the creek restoration and fish hatchery project that's drawn acclaim from the White House, anthropologist Jane Goodall and people around the world.
The bear is Furrer's alter ego. Every year he concludes his biology class with an obstacle-course sort of test that tasks students with pretending they're doing field work in Alaska and completing several challenges — a key one being to avoid encountering and perhaps being eaten by a resident grizzly, played by Furrer.
"The kids call it a rite of passage at Casa," he said with a half-sad smile.
Just last Friday, Furrer informed Principal Linda Scheele he must retire. He's leaving the faculty at Casa after almost 30 years of encouraging, instructing and occasionally growling at the students who brought steelhead trout back to once-dry Adobe Creek and who continually upgrade the sophistication and scientific value of their school's rare if not unique $500,000 Chinook salmon hatchery.
Decades of toiling alongside students in the campus' United Anglers of Casa Grande project, lugging rubbish from the creek and capturing egg-laden salmon from the Petaluma River have played havoc with Furrer's knees and back. He's been on medical leave this entire school year, bearing up to a regimen of surgeries and physical therapy.
His retirement announcement didn't exactly surprise the United Anglers members and biology-class students who've forged on without him this school year. Still, sophomore Marisa Watland said the revelation has brought sorrow to Casa.
"Mr. Furrer is an amazing teacher," said a 16-year-old grateful for a high-school experience that includes collecting 25,000 eggs from salmon returning to the Petaluma River to spawn, then practically living at the on-campus hatchery while closely tending the incubation trays.
Watland and other Casa students and parents said Furrer's vision and leadership in the creek and hatchery project have produced astonishing results for the region's fishery resource, but equally remarkable is what he's done for the participating teens.
"He teaches these kids values," said Mike Smith, a retired county employee who supervised the inmate crews that helped build the United Anglers hatchery in the early 1990s. "When you go into that hatchery, these kids introduce themselves to you and shake your hand."
Parent Mike Aughney, a lifelong outdoorsman who operates usafishing.com, said Furrer is old school.
"And I don't mean old-fashioned," he said, explaining that what he's always seen in Furrer is a teacher who enforces high standards of personal conduct and respect.
"If he sees you lighting up your tires leaving the campus, you're out," Aughney said.
The older of his two sons, Jake, graduated from Casa and from United Anglers last year. Jake appreciates Furrer for helping him line up work on the Kenai River in Alaska this summer, and for bringing the hammer down when his performance at Casa slipped badly.
"My grades in two classes fell to F's and he kicked me out until I picked them up," Jake said. "You want to meet his expectations."
Ken Blum of the Dean Witter Foundation, which has granted the hatchery project operating funds totaling about $250,000, said, "Tom is the most low-key guy, and he's done things completely for the benefit of the kids. He just exemplifies what public education can do."