Al Dufty could be a hard man to forget just from first impressions: 6-foot-6 with a stunningly deep voice, an athlete’s stride and a researcher’s gaze.
But what made Dufty indelible to those who knew him was his character: humor, humility and a knack for helping people find confidence in what they could do and be.
A longtime Boise State University biological sciences professor who spent the past seven years as associate dean of the graduate college, the 62-year-old collapsed suddenly while working out at the BSU gym and died April 16, his daughter, Cam Dufty, said.
“He died of an enlarged heart, which is kind of poetic,” she said. “He always focused on the good in people and he really helped people see the good in themselves.”
Dufty mentored countless graduate students, including Julie Heath, who came to BSU as Dufty’s first graduate assistant and later returned to fill his faculty position after Dufty was promoted to associate dean.
Dufty chose students who might not have stellar grades but showed passion for the field and willingness to work hard, she said.
“He gave people the opportunity to show what they could do — people who might not have been accepted elsewhere, including myself,” Heath said.
BASKETBALL AND BIRDS
Dufty grew up in Vestal, N.Y., where his size 14 feet brought him the nickname Flipper. He attended Princeton University as a student athlete, earning a degree in biology and the opportunity to play professional basketball in France.
After a year, he returned to New York, married Bonnie Post and earned master’s and doctoral degrees while raising their two young children. In 1998, they moved to Boise, where he taught at Boise State and Bonnie taught elementary school.
Dufty was a widely published researcher in bird physiology and migration. He won the BSU Foundation Scholar Award for Research, and his work on the hormonal control of bird dispersal was funded by the National Science Foundation and laid the groundwork for further research in that field.
Although tremendously accomplished, Dufty was unfailingly “humble and graceful,” Heath said.
“His humbleness was always striking to me. It’s a rare quality,” she said. “He just didn’t have to tell you how much he knew.”
Comfortable in silence, Dufty didn’t talk a lot, friends and family say. But longtime neighbor and friend Terry Hendrix loved to hear Dufty describe his travel and adventures.
About once a month for most of 23 years, the two men and their wives went out to dinner and talked.
“Al would paint this picture of where he’d been and what he’d done, running with the bulls in Spain or riding an elephant in India,” Hendrix said.
“He was the most fantastic storyteller I’ve ever known. A lot of it probably had to with that voice.”
Soft and improbably deep, Dufty’s voice caught the attention of many.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever been with anyone else ever that … every time he spoke, people turned and were like, ‘Wow,’” Heath said.
Another striking aspect of Dufty was his relationship with his wife of 37 years, Bonnie.
“They were an amazing couple,” Heath said. “They instantly brought a feeling of love into the room when they came in.”
ORANGE JUICE AND POPCORN
Around 1993 or ’94, residents of Dufty’s Southeast Boise subdivision got home delivery of milk and orange juice, and suddenly Dufty’s orange juice started coming up missing.
So he and Hendrix got up in the middle of the night and laid in wait for the thieves, who turned out to be seven or eight kids of junior high age who passed by Dufty’s corner lot on their pre-dawn rambles.
“The kids scattered in every direction, but one poor kid went the wrong way and ran right into Al,” Hendrix said.
“Al tackled him, then very calmly took the opportunity to educate him, explaining that stealing orange juice … wasn’t a good use of his time.”
Dufty’s juice stayed safe on his porch from that morning on.
But perhaps the foodstuff that most reminds Hendrix of Dufty is movie popcorn.
“He’d get the biggest popcorn the theater had, but he wouldn’t eat it until the movie started,” he said. “You could eat yours, he might even help you eat yours, but he didn’t touch his until the feature started — not the coming attractions, the feature. And he never had a drink to go with that salty popcorn.”
“I personally think he had an iron fortitude,” Hendrix said.
COMPOSURE AND CONNECTIONS
As a father, Dufty “was always the person you would want to go to,” his daughter said. “He wasn’t the kind of scary dad you’d be afraid to tell bad news to. He wouldn’t judge you. He would always calm you down and help you figure stuff out for yourself.”
“One of the words I always think of for him is equanimity,” Cam said. “He had an air of thoughtfulness and composure about him all the time.”
That said, she allowed that “he also had a goofy side. He loved trying new things.”
She remembers walking home with her dad when she was in junior high, and they passed a section of wet cement.
“He was appalled that I would just walk by and not do anything,” Cam said. “He wanted me to go back and write something.”
She complied, and her initials are still there.
Dufty was careful to carve out special time with his children, Cam and Brian.
“Since my brother and I were kids, he took us each out to breakfast, one-on-one, rotating every Sunday,” Cam said. “Goldy’s was our favorite, but I think we tried every breakfast place in Boise at least once. He really savored that time.”
The tradition continued through adulthood, lingering after breakfast for more coffee and catching up.
“During the week I’d make mental notes of interesting news stories I wanted to get his opinion on or movies I wanted to recommend to him,” Cam said. “It was … something I’ll always miss on Sunday mornings.”
Connecting with people appears to be a Dufty gift.
Talking with other colleagues and former students after Dufty’s death, Heath said it was striking and a little humorous how many people felt they had a unique bond with the man.
“None of us ever felt shorted,” she said. “We all felt, ‘I’m the special one.’”
In Remembrance is a weekly profile on a Treasure Valley resident who has recently passed away. To recommend a friend or loved one for an In Remembrance, email firstname.lastname@example.org.