MANKATO — Merrill Frydendall enjoyed sharing with others his vast knowledge of animal life as much as he loved being out in nature and watching birds.
Frydendall died Sunday. He was 88.
His memorial service is 11 am Saturday at Hilltop United Methodist Church.
“Merrill was my hero. I looked up to him in all ways,” said ornithologist/humorist Al Batt of Hartland.
The duo went on many birding adventures. “We did so many things together, walked so many trails,” Batt said.
Along the way on those adventures, his friend, who had a knack for impromptu nature lessons, touched the lives of countless people, Batt said.
Frydendall used the outdoors as his classroom long after his retirement from teaching biology to college students in Mankato. He offered hints on how to identify birds during annual bird counts and headed up a club for bird lovers of all skill levels.
The allure of birding for many, Frydendall told The Free Press in 2005, is that “it’s a type of outdoor activity that doesn’t cost a tremendous amount. It can, but it doesn’t have to.”
Karen Frydendall shares her late husband’s fascination with birds. She said their birding bucket list had included a trip to the Galapagos Islands.
“We got to go there with a local group. We were on a small ship that brought us close to land,” Karen said.
Their birding outings began after they moved to Minnesota. They drove to Duluth to see migratory hawks. Since then, the couple has traveled throughout the world, including Hawaii, Costa Rica and New Zealand and they took trips by RV to Florida and Arizona. They always brought their binoculars.
Merrill diligently recorded each bird species he was able to identify. Family members have not yet totaled up the number.
“We don’t know how many birds are on his life list; it has to be well over a thousand,” Karen said.
“We’ve never got to see a kiwi,” she noted with regret.
The Frydendalls were college students when they met in the late 1950s in Hays, Kansas. Merrill was a graduate student when he first met Karen, who was a student worker in the office of a professor.
She was on a break, playing with the department’s lab animals, when he first noticed her, Karen said.
Soon after they met, Merrill was drafted into the military. While serving as a company clerk for a MASH unit, he wrote to his congressman and explained his skills in biology were not being utilized.
“That letter landed Merrill a job at Walter Reed Hospital,” Karen said.
After he completed his military service in 1959, the couple was married and moved to Mankato in the late 1960s.
Field studies were frequent while he taught vertebrate biology at what was then Mankato State University. He brought the young people in his charge outside of the classroom to observe nature.
“Those poor students — they had to be in class at 6 am two days a week,” said Karen, recalling her late husband’s routine during his career at MSU that spanned from 1966 to 1998.
Long after his retirement, Merrill shared his knowledge with participants in the local National Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
In 1980, he and other Mankato Bird Club members constructed and placed 50 nest boxes for eastern bluebirds in the prairie section of Minneopa State Park.
Minneopa staffer Adelaide Nagel said she encountered Merrill countless times on the park’s bluebird trail. I regularly volunteered to maintain the nest boxes.
Merrill was also active in the Boy Scouts of America. He has earned the highest adult award in Scouting, the Silver Beaver. Under his guidance from him, he guided six boys along toward earning the rank of Eagle Scout.
“I got my Eagle in 1974,” said Mike Kolbinger, of Mankato, who remembers Frydendall as a leader who was fair with everyone. “He always challenged me to do my best… and Merrill instilled in me that service to others is very important.”
During summer hikes during Scout camp, Frydendall was keen to teach troop members how to use their ears to identify species. “’What’s that bird song?’ he’d stop and say — not what kind of bird,” said Kolbinger, whose home has lots of backyard feeders.
Laura Sievert’s memories of her father include Scouting experiences at Camp Cuyana near Crosslake. Frydendall had made arrangements for his daughter’s Girl Scout troop to use the campgrounds in time slots when it would otherwise have been idle.
“Two years in a row when I was in Girl Scouts, we went to Crosslake and did all the things that the boys (Scouts) got to do there.”
Frydendall had a long-term friendship with retired MSU botany professor Don Gordon — they worked together for more than 30 years.
“We did team teaching for some courses. I got to know him fairly well,” Gordon said.
The two eleven traveled together for several weeks throughout Mexico. “I had asked Merrill to come along with me to collect plants. He was a great person to have with when you were doing field work,” Gordon said.
Frydendall kept a lookout for birds during the trip to Mexico; however, he was also willing to climb canyons to help search for flora.
“We camped out — he never complained,” said Gordon, who mentioned the duo didn’t have many opportunities to bathe during the trip. “We were starting to smell pretty ripe when we happened upon some workers washing up in a horse tank. Merrill asked if we could join them and they said, ‘Come right in.’”
Until recently, Gordon and Frydendall regularly met for coffee with a group of their former colleagues.
Frydendall also knew where all the cheap but good cafes were along their birding routes, Gordon and Batt both recalled. Their friend had an ability to easily make new acquaintances.
“He was a nice person who in turn introduced me to other nice people,” Batt said.
Batt described one trip to view sandhill cranes in Nebraska in which they were accompanied by their wives. Seeing the large migratory birds take flight through early morning mist was a “spiritual experience,” Batt said.
The two couples also had a celebrity sighting that day. “Our wives recognized Tom Brokaw was part of the group sharing a birding blind. Being good Minnesotans, we didn’t bother him,” Batt said.
After that shared experience with the retired network television journalist/author, Brokaw told Frydendall he was in Nebraska with a group of friends from high school.
Batt also shared the bittersweet experience of one of his last birding adventures with Frydendall, who had begun to suffer hearing loss. They caught sight of a familiar bird known for its singing.
“Merrill couldn’t hear its song. I’m sure I saw a tear in his eyes from him.