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Published: Thursday, 9/29/2011

Lake Erie ambassador hooked on Stone Laboratory

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE COMMENTARY WRITER

THE first night I spent with big, burly John Hageman ended in a decrepit Put-in-Bay tavern, with the two of us in a friendly arm-wrestling match for the joint's last bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

That was in the early 1990s, just before last call. I couldn't get the word limnology -- the study of lakes -- out of my head.

I had been put through the rigors of my first intensive study of Lake Erie by Ohio State University's revered Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island, one of the smallest Lake Erie islands. Stone Lab is the older of only two college Great Lakes laboratories anchored on an island. The other is Central Michigan University's biological field station on Lake Michigan's Beaver Island.

Experts introduced as limnologists had been around me all day. First, I spent hours on a boat with them. After a little chow, they took me to Stone Lab's big weekly attraction, an evening lecture about Lake Erie in an old classroom. Then they included me in their post-lecture ritual of blowing off steam at the bar.

Their world of science was as foreign to me as Eastern Europe. It was like the feeling I had a decade earlier, when my sister, Sue Henry, invited me to her house in Lansing to meet some Polish immigrants her church had helped come to America after the historic Solidarity labor uprising that ultimately led to the Soviet bloc's downfall.

It's always amazing how a little beer can help break down language barriers. I felt as if I was starting to understand the Lake Erie scientists better as we shot pool, threw darts, played foosball, and wolfed down a few cold ones.

I don't remember who got the Pabst. But I got the better of the deal by forming a friendship with Mr. Hageman. So did The Blade's readers.

Mr. Hageman, who retired Aug. 31 after 24 years as Stone Lab's manager, was never a highbrow academic or a call-my-secretary guy. He veered onto his chosen career path because of an uncanny ability to identify Great Lakes fish -- a skill that landed him a part-time job at age 17 for $2.50 an hour with OSU's Center for Lake Erie Area Research in the late 1970s.

In the years that followed, he got dirty. If he wasn't helping youths trawl for fish from a boat or dissect fish in the lab, he was dazzling them with the mysteries of life as seen through a microscope in a drop of water. His love for Lake Erie showed in his affable demeanor, making him a great ambassador for the world's 11th largest lake and one of Ohio's greatest natural resources.

The guy kept busy beyond belief. For years, Stone Lab has hosted K-12 students with assembly-line precision, often for overnight visits. It's nothing to see throngs of kids coming in as throngs of kids are leaving.

OSU figures the lab lately has hosted nearly 5,000 students a year from 70 schools.

Mr. Hageman often was the logistics magician to boot. He spent his summers checking in on graduate students and professors who use Stone Lab to do some of the Great Lakes region's most important research.

He spent his winters as a Lake Erie ice fishing guide. He was such a fixture on the islands that many people probably didn't know he and his wife live near Bowling Green.

Thousands of people -- kids to college professors -- have at least a little better understanding of Lake Erie because of Mr. Hageman's plain-spoken insight and hospitality. I can't remember a single press release Mr. Hageman wrote. Yet he was one of the lake's most effective communicators.

Mr. Hageman pulled his first fish trawl on Lake Erie as a high school sophomore, during a series of field trips he made to Stone Lab in the late 1970s. He got hooked, not just on fishing but also on the thrill of turning people on to Lake Erie. You don't find his intangibles in a job description.

"I just think what would have happened if I hadn't made those trips to Stone Lab as a high school student, or how many students have made the decision to become biology majors after coming here on field trips," Mr. Hageman said.

Said Jeff Reutter, director of Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory: "There's probably nobody in Stone Lab's history who has meant more to the lab than John."

Tom Henry is an editorial writer and columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: thenry@theblade.com



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