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Sam Ristich, Our Founder

image of Sam Ristich holding a mushroomDr. Samuel Ristich, entomologist, mycologist, and educator, was an enthusiastic supporter of amateur mycology for nearly half a century. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1915, Dr. Ristich held a Ph.D. (1950) in entomology from Cornell University. Over the years he taught biology, mycology, and various aspects of natural history. In fact, his interdisciplinary approach to science may be best described as that of a classic “Natural Historian. http://samristich.com

Founding MMA

Mycophiles come in as many varieties as the mushrooms they admire. Sam Ristich had the gift of being able to speak to them all. Pot Bangers—yup, that’s what he called those of us who forage to fry them in garlic and butter—to Ph.D.’s heading university departments, we all were drawn by Sam’s truly infinite joy in and knowledge of the natural world. “Wonderment” he called it.

When Sam came to Maine in the early 1980’s, even the clubs he inspired in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut were fairly young. Maine had none at all. He hated to leave his contacts there, he told his first weekend class at the Maine Audubon Society, but Ruth had inherited the Pullen family farm in North Yarmouth. “I’m going, are you coming?” is how he described the decision.

Of course, in no time at all his professional contacts, friends and students were beating a path to the farmhouse on Sligo Road, and the Audubon workshops had become the foundation of the Maine Mycological Association.

Sam was an extraordinarily energetic man and so dedicated to supporting a budding interest, to spreading the word, that he was often frustrated with the part-time commitment of most club members. We had to get used to being scolded. Much of that derived naturally from his keen sense of “tempus fugit.” He wanted us to be able to thrive on our own. We, of course, were utterly spoiled by having a national treasure living among us for what turned out to be over 2 ½ decades. It was time enough to get our footing despite ourselves.

To Sam an alder with many dead trunks wasn’t just a rotten tree; it was a “mycological Tiffany’s.” Forays were punctuated with “Whoop, whoop!” to draw us together to discuss a find. “He used the Socratic method,” says Sandy Sheine, a former student of Sam and now herself a national resource for science teachers. “Ask questions and have the audience answer them.”

Slime molds were Sam’s specialty. His eyes lit up as he described them: “They have a fascinating lifestyle. They start out as an animal—that’s the amoeba stage—and end up as a fungus. The slime mold transforms itself about every four hours. It’s a photographic drama in two days. If that’s not exciting, what is?” Exceptionally generous, when asked by one disciple for help with a project, he wrote back: “I’m not God, but I can open doors and part curtains.” That’s funny. We kinda thought he was.

The club continues its mission of education and the enjoyment of mushrooms and nature.