Former Winthrop professor known for conservation efforts leaves legacy for students

Richard Duncan “Dick” Houk
Richard Duncan “Dick” Houk

The wetlands at Winthrop University’s lake, biological succession plots at Winthrop and endangered sunflowers all have one thing in common, Richard Duncan “Dick” Houk.

Born on June 13, 1933, in Hobart, Okla., Houk died Nov. 26 at Spring Arbor Assisted Living Center.

Houk was a professor of botany and biology at Winthrop for 30 years and remained involved in the Rock Hill community after he retired.

It was because of Houk’s passion for nature and education that Winthrop now has educational tools that will last many years to come, said Dwight Dimaculangan, professor and chairman of Winthrop’s biology department.

Dimaculangan came to Winthrop 24 years ago, when Houk was retiring. He said Houk continued being actively involved with Winthrop for years.

“He leaves a strong legacy in the biology department, Rock Hill and Winthrop University,” Dimaculangan said.

Houk helped lead the Piedmont Wetlands Project in 2004 in partnership with the Rock Hill school district. The 1.1-acre wetlands area sits next to Winthrop Lake and is used for research and as a teaching tool. The area is also home to birds such as the great blue heron and Canada geese.

Houk also helped create Winthrop’s biological succession plots, a section of Winthrop’s farm area that is set aside for the growth of vegetation after a disturbance such as fire, cultivation or logging.

“Those are another great resource for the biology department for both teaching and research,” Dimaculangan said. “(Houk) has had an impact that will last many years down the road ... especially as those natural resources become more scarce.”

Houk also led a research project on the Schweinitz's sunflower and ensured that any of the endangered flowers present in development areas were relocated, Dimaculangan said.

Houk was the type of teacher who pushed his students, Dimaculangan said. He would not accept late work or late comers.

“He is known as an inspiring teacher and someone who held students to really high standards,” Dimaculangan said.

Houk was ahead of his time with educating the university’s biology students, Dimaculangan said. He said Houk was engaging students in research long before it became a focus for higher education in the sciences.

Winthrop’s biology 300 class was inspired by Houk’s teachings years ago, Dimaculangan said.

Houk also often took children on nature walks with the Boys and Girls Club in Rock Hill.

Houk, a charter member of the Winthrop Eagle Club, was a big supporter of Winthrop athletics and would hand out toys and teddy bears to children during men’s and women’s basketball games, said Nate Brinkley, philanthropic adviser at Winthrop. Brinkley had known Houk since 2004.

“Dick wholeheartedly wanted nothing but the best for the kids,” Brinkley said.

In 2007, Houk created the Janice Chastain Houk Award for Undergraduate Research, named for his late wife. Janice was a political science Winthrop graduate.

Houk also served in the U.S. Navy. Brinkley said Houk one time handed copies of the national anthem to members of the Winthrop athletic department.

“He was very proud of his country and to have served,” Brinkley said.

Dimaculangan describes Houk as an adventurous person with a good sense of humor.

“He was a great person,” Dimaculangan said. “He was well loved here and we miss him.”

Amanda Harris: 803-329-4082

Want to pay respects?

From 2 to 3 p.m. Friday, friends and family can honor Houk’s memory at Winthrop Coliseum. A service will follow at 3 p.m.