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Why is a chimney swift depicted on the Kent State University seal?

In the mid-’60s the university was envisioning its future as a research institution. The selection of the chimney swift to symbolize that newfound direction is a tribute to Dr. Ralph W. Dexter, emeritus professor of biological sciences, whose research on the chimney swift was so prominent, that the bird — which colonizes on the Kent Campus and appears to be in constant flight — was chosen to represent the research aspirations of Kent State on its newly designed seal in 1964.

Many remember Dexter as a man with qualities similar to the swift he was so passionate about. Dexter influenced many of his students while teaching in the Department of Biology. Dr. Dennis Cook, ’59, came to Kent State and decided to major in biology. He ended up working with Dexter in his classroom. 

“From that point on, he stimulated me so much that I ended up getting a doctorate in the biological sciences area,” says Cooke, now an emeritus professor of biological sciences. “I consider him a significant mentor.”

Significant he was, and not just as a mentor. Dexter was the recipient of the Outstanding Faculty Member Award and the President’s Medal, which is given for distinguished service on behalf of the university. Dexter’s research took him into many areas of the biological sciences. His publications (spanning from 1942 through 1986) are housed in the Special Collections section at the University Library, and the list is extensive — he studied and published on everything from marine life to earthworms and lobsters. But perhaps his most significant research at Kent State was conducted on the chimney swift.

Dr. Robert Heath, retired professor of biological sciences, sees the chimney swift as a model for Dexter’s life.

“Docile, just like the chimney swift is docile, Dexter was a very ardent worker, from dawn until dusk,” Heath says. “Ralph chose to work on chimney swifts because it was something he could do on the weekends and still do a credible research project.”

During Dexter’s time at Kent State, there was no research expectation for faculty. 

Chimney swifts are part of the
Kent State seal.

“In Ralph’s day, science was something that was almost done out of dilettante interest,” Heath says. “Ralph was out of a different generation when scientists work on their own.”

But Dexter wasn’t always on his own. He often had his students helping him with research on the chimney swifts.

Emeritus Professor Lowell Orr, ’56, was a student of Dexter’s before being hired as an instructor at Kent State and working with him as a colleague. Orr remembers his time as a student helping Dexter with banding the chimney swifts on top of McGilvrey Hall.

“He got those of us who were students up on the roof to help him band the swifts and do research on them,” Orr says. “That was a trip. It was an honor to be asked to go up on the roof and help him band.

As Cooke recollects, during the 1950s and ’60s, Kent State President Robert White was convinced the university could become a research institution. With Glenn Brown’s work with liquid crystals and the formation of the Liquid Crystal Institute, the university was ready to enhance its image and develop a new seal.

“The chimney swift would represent the university,” Cooke says. “The swift was picked because Brown couldn’t figure out how to put liquid crystal on it [the seal]. The seal would symbolize the research arm of the university.”

Heath says the swifts nest in chimneys, are easy to handle and work well with people. The birds are also very hard working. The bird “flies all day long and it was thought it would be a good model for the university seal,” he says

Through the decades, research on liquid crystals has eclipsed that of chimney swifts, but the bird remains an apt symbol of the university’s leadership in research and a fitting tribute to Ralph Dexter, who, for 45 years, taught and involved his students hands-on in his prolific research.

By Anna Riggenbach  

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