Many of us remember a teacher who had a particular influence on our careers or lives. But how many continue leaving an imprint on students 30 years after dying, more than 80 years after retiring, more than 100 years after earning a college degree?
Meta Hellwig was one of those teachers.
After receiving a biology degree in 1913 from Eastern (then called Michigan Normal College), she brought her love of the natural world to Southern California classrooms. She gained her knowledge first-hand by hiking local foothills, carefully studying plants and animals, and exploring the grand vistas of America’s recently created national park system. In retirement, Meta became one with the land, living among the hills and continuing to widen young eyes at the wonders of nature.
Today, her legacy lives on through Meta Hellwig Biology Scholarships at Eastern. The awards fuel the aspirations of students—a new generation of teachers, researchers and entrepreneurs who fell under nature’s spell, just as Meta did a century ago.
Meta (pronounced ME-tah) was born in February 1892 in Arbela Township, Michigan, about 25 miles north of Flint. She was the second of two daughters born to William Daniel (a Canadian immigrant) and his wife Elizabeth. Meta grew up in nearby Millington, where she likely spent countless hours observing plants and animals on her father’s farm.
After completing high school, Meta enrolled at Michigan Normal College, then an institution primarily devoted to training teachers. She remained in Ypsilanti after earning her degree through at least 1916, working at the college as a teaching assistant.
By 1918, Meta had moved to Santa Ana, California, where she began her long career teaching biology, botany and science at Santa Ana High School. The school was known for its progressive method of handling student conduct. A 1922 Santa Ana Daily Register article notes parents were upset with the school’s “student self-government” system. Perhaps to appease the parents, the school offered tours of its science departments, including Meta’s biological laboratory displaying numerous student exhibits.
Meta went beyond textbooks to engage her students, encouraging them to bring biological specimens to class for study. According to a 1927 Santa Ana Daily Register article, a student caught an eight-inch snake and proudly presented it to Meta and the class in a tin can. She removed the snake and let it crawl on her hand and arm—until venom fell from its mouth. After further examination at a safe distance, she identified it for the class as a small rattlesnake.
Meta devoted many hours to hiking and other outdoor activities at a time when young women were starting to abandon the Victorian era’s constricting traditions. In 1926, she joined the Sierra Club, visited Yellowstone National Park and delivered a lecture about her trip to the club’s Los Angeles chapter. In 1928, she co-led a survey of rare trees in Santa Ana’s Birch Park. The following year, Meta traveled with Sierra Club members to Yosemite National Park. The group hiked about 200 miles, camping at various sites including Huntington Lake. In 1930, Meta hiked Trabuco Canyon in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains; delivered a lecture about birds, using mounted specimens, at a local YMCA; and hosted a 15-minute radio program called “Local Bird Life” on station KREG.
Throughout this busy period of her life, Meta maintained strong connections with the Santa Ana community. She was very active in the First Presbyterian Church and hosted church gatherings in her marigold-filled apartment.
At one point, Meta interrupted her career to pursue additional studies at Stanford University before returning to Santa Ana. She continued teaching at the high school through 1935.
After retiring, Meta moved north to Los Gatos, a small town near San Jose, 50 miles south of San Francisco. She married Harold Hellwig, who managed and later owned a prosperous ironworks in San Jose. The couple lived in a small one-bedroom cottage outside Los Gatos on just over 45 acres of hilly, undeveloped land originally part of an 1840 Mexican land grant. They had no children.
Meta led a quiet existence for the next four decades, tending to a small garden and apricot orchard, observing native plants and animals, and hiking her property with her dog Skipper. Although her husband was distant and often away from home, Meta didn’t join social groups or entertain many visitors—except for three lonely, impressionable young siblings.
Always a Teacher
“My family moved to Los Gatos when I was in the third grade,” says one of them, Geri Sorich-Teese, now 72, a retired registered nurse who now lives in Cameron Park, California. “We lived about two miles from town up in the hills, across the road from Mrs. Hellwig. We had no other playmates but discovered a fun opportunity close by.
“We saw Mrs. Hellwig about three times a week during the school year and almost every day in the summer. She was very welcoming and spent a lot of time teaching us about plants and taking us on little hikes on her property. She taught us about different animals like rattlesnakes and the importance of appreciating and not bothering them. She’d give us quizzes about what we learned the day before. She was pleased when we asked questions and showed how much we learned. I still remember many of the Latin names for the plants. She had a great sense of humor and always made us laugh.”
Meta, who was in her 60s, took the solitary children under her wing, sharing her love for nature as well as stories and photographs of her life in Michigan.
“I was fascinated by the clothing she and her friends wore in the old photographs,” Sorich-Teese says. “She told us about the history of our area and how important it is. When I had a homework problem, I always felt I could go to her for help. She was good at making life more special, learning about botany, biology—even formal etiquette and how to properly set a dinner table. It was more than most kids our age ever had. Everything was an educational experience with Mrs. Hellwig, but we never felt like we were visiting a teacher. She treated us as equals and made us feel very important.”
Meta also gave the kids lessons in off tackles and forward passes.
“She often talked about Stanford, which made it a special school for us,” Sorich-Teese says. “She loved Stanford football. During the season, she’d set her TV near her bed and had us climb up with her to watch the Stanford game. She taught us about the sport and made the games fun, offering popcorn and little glass bottles of Coca-Cola. My family wasn’t sports-oriented, so football was a fascinating new thing for us.”
In those days, Meta mostly wore gardener’s clothes and heavy boots and used a hoe as a walking stick. But once a week, she transformed herself into a vision of a highly cultivated woman.
“Each Wednesday, Mrs. Hellwig would take the train from Los Gatos to San Francisco for a spa day at Elizabeth Arden,” Sorich-Teese says. “She would wear a beautiful suit and lovely jewelry on her special day. The change was amazing to us kids. The next day, she’d be back in her beat-up gardening clothes. She was fascinating—not like any other adult we knew.”
The deep appreciation of the natural world Meta instilled in the young children remains today.
“I took an interest in science and loved biology in school,” Sorich-Teese says. “I got a nursing degree at San Jose State and spent most of my career as a cardiac nurse at Stanford. I often thought of Mrs. Hellwig while I was there. My sister has many memories of her and can recall plant names. And for the longest time, my brother kept pots full of plants. Today, he’s a super gardener.”
Meta continued to live on her property after her husband’s death from cancer in 1962 at age 65. She became increasingly frail in the early 1980s and moved to a skilled nursing home in San Jose. She lived there for five years until her death in October 1987 at age 95.
“Visiting Mrs. Hellwig in the nursing home was sad,” Sorich-Teese says. “The home was lovely and well-furnished, but she didn’t have her outdoors anymore. It just wasn’t her. I wish she could have lived out her life in her little cottage.
“Nature was the strongest focus of Mrs. Hellwig’s life. She didn’t care much for elegant social life, even though she could well afford that lifestyle. She was also ahead of her time. There are many environmentalists today, but back then there was no strong drive to preserve nature. She instilled in three lonely children something to care about, something of beauty that we might not have picked up on otherwise. I never forgot the things she taught me. When I take a walk and look at plants, shrubs and other natural things, she comes right to mind. I think of Mrs. Hellwig every day and can’t look at a plant without thinking of her. She was always a teacher—she never got tired of it.”
From Apricots to Vineyards
With no heirs, Meta’s estate was put into probate. Many of her belongings—furniture, notebooks, letters, photo albums and other ephemera—remained in her small cottage and a larger unfinished home near a creek on the property.
By 1988, Meta’s estate had fallen into decay when San Jose natives Marilyn and Frank Dorsa were seeking land in the hills for a getaway home. After seven years of searching, they had just about given up when their real estate agent called with some news.
“We had just visited our son, who was studying art in Assisi, Italy,” Marilyn says. “Our agent called right after we returned and said we’d better look at this important property that had just come on the market. We drove up a dirt road and saw a tiny cabin off a dirt driveway. We continued making our way up the path and reached a terrain at the top. What we saw was breathtaking—it looked just like Assisi. We didn’t know exactly what we would do with the land, but we wanted to buy it.”
Struck by the beauty of Meta’s property, the Dorsas made the purchase for just over $1 million. The terms of Meta’s will stipulated that funds from the sale be divided equally. Half went to EMU for biology student scholarships; the other half went to the California Institute of Technology (which Harold Hellwig attended in the 1920s) for structural engineering student scholarships. Meta’s bequest of nearly $565,000 to Eastern was the largest gift the university had ever received at that time.
The Dorsas, who own a chain of car washes in Silicon Valley, visited the property every weekend for a year, basking in the beauty of the land and discussing how to use it. They also began learning more about Meta as they combed through the belongings she left behind, mainly in the unfinished home she and her husband never occupied.
“We found old photographs from her travels, notebooks filled with plant sketches, and many love letters between Meta and Harold,” Marilyn says. “In letters to her sister, Meta expressed her love of the land and saw it as nature’s expression of love. By all accounts she was an extremely kind and intelligent lady. And someone way ahead of her time.”
As the Dorsas planned to build a new 2,100-square-foot home on the foundation of the larger, unfinished structure, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that hit San Francisco also knocked Meta’s cottage off its foundation. The Dorsas cleared away the cottage remains, removed the overgrown brush and renovated the property into La Rusticana d’Orsa Vineyards. In addition to the main home, the property includes an art studio, a second smaller residence, a barn and a waterwheel.
Visitors to the site today experience what the San Jose Mercury News described as a “40-acre Tuscan technicolor dream.” The terraced landscape features statues and ponds, grassy areas and gardens, cypress trees and seating areas within hidden bowers. The vineyard produces wine for the gift shop. A lower area of the property remains undeveloped.
“We tried to honor Meta’s respect for nature by keeping land development to a minimum,” Marilyn says. “Besides the vineyard, we planted more than 250 olive trees for the olive oil we sell. We also host cooking classes and painting workshops, so the purpose of the land remains agricultural and educational.”
In homage to Meta, the Dorsas saved and restored the furniture she left behind. A photo portrait of Meta remains on display.
“Meta’s photo will always be in this house,” Marilyn says. “She’s very much a part of this property. I wish I had met her—she was such a special woman.”
Meet Some of Meta's Scholars
Meta Hellwig’s gift to Eastern to support biology scholarships has benefitted hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students over nearly three decades. The original bequest is now worth more than $850,000 and it awards $34,000 annually. It remains one of the largest scholarships at EMU.
Three past Hellwig award recipients share details about their current activities, which mirror Meta’s passion for science and the natural world:
Stefan Schnitzer (MS95)
Schnitzer is Mellon Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at Marquette University in Wisconsin. Between four and five months each year, he’s in Panama with his graduate students investigating the ecology of tropical forests.
“We’re testing theories about what allows various plant species to co-exist without one becoming dominant and displacing others,” says Schnitzer, 53, whose work relates to carbon dynamics and climate change.
Schnitzer’s Hellwig scholarship allowed him to purchase equipment to perform field work in wetland areas and complete his master’s research on plant decay.
“Meta Hellwig left a great legacy,” he says. “I’d like to see more people follow her lead and donate funds to support student research. Those projects could ultimately lead to some of the most important things we discover about how the world works.”
Priya Gogoi (MS09)
“All sciences have some relation to biology,” says Gogoi, 34. “I also love biology because it’s a perfect mixture of science and art.”
After emigrating with her family from India in 2005 and earning her master’s degree in cell and molecular biology, Gogoi worked for several months at a cardiovascular drug manufacturer. Then she leveraged her entrepreneurial skills by co-founding Celsee Diagnostics, a Plymouth-based developer of products in the emerging field of liquid biopsy.
“About 90 of cancers are detected by performing a tissue biopsy,” Gogoi says. “We’re creating a new biopsy method that traps cancer cells in filtered blood from patients. It can be applied to all carcinomas, not just blood cancers. We want to achieve our goal of making a difference in the lives of cancer patients.”
Quentin Turner (BS14)
As a native Detroiter who didn’t go camping or summer at a northern Michigan cottage, Turner’s exposure to biological diversity was limited. Now, he’s seeking to bring nature to Detroit’s underserved.
“My passions lie in outreach and education,” says Turner, 28, who works for Vanguard Community Development and as an educator at the Michigan Science Center. “I want to excite people in urban environments about complex biology topics by making them accessible.”
Turner is one of 24 Creative Community Fellows for 2017-18, a program organized by National Arts Strategies. His proposed project involves launching a native plant nursery in a low-income Detroit neighborhood.
“The goal is to expose people to ecological diversity and supply plants to reduce stormwater runoff,” Turner says. “It’s a great way to make biology part of community consciousness.”
Contact Darcy Gifford, firstname.lastname@example.org, 734.487.5375