Monarch Watch founder and his wife give ‘seed money’ to cement organization’s legacy

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Supporters of Monarch Watch celebrated the organization’s 30-year anniversary in September. Now founder Orley “Chip” Taylor and his wife, Toni, have their sights set on the conservation program’s future.

The Taylors have gifted $1.4 million toward the establishment of a professorship at the University of Kansas. In a news release about the endowed fund, the couple called the proceeds from an early investment in what would become tech giant Apple as “the seed money” to jumpstart their fundraising goal of $3 million.

Although Taylor officially retired from KU in 2016, he’s remained active at Monarch Watch as its director. With the anticipated hiring of his replacement, Taylor wants to step back, yet still contribute. At 85, he’s busy finishing manuscripts and conducting experiments, and he’s amassed a long list of lingering questions about monarchs and their migration between Canada and Mexico amid a changing climate.

“How do they perceive all of this environmental information?” Taylor asked during a discussion about the sun, celestial changes and the pace of monarch migration across North America. “How is it integrated into a behavioral response? And how do you explain the fact that if you trigger this behavior that leads into a migration?”

Chip Taylor

Taylor grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. He recalled what first whetted his appetite for nature. During World War II, Taylor’s mother sent him east to live with his grandmother at her 80-acre property at Crivitz, Wisconsin. There he discovered a young outdoorsman’s delight: the slippery mudpuppy, a salamander sometimes referred to as a waterdog.

“There was an incredible amount of life under the rocks and those rivers, and swimming in those rivers,” Taylor said. “I was 6, 7, 8 years old at the time, and my grandmother was very much an amateur sort of naturalist. And the things that we were doing on this property, which had been a Native American camping ground for decades, just made an impression on me that allowed me to become a biologist.”

Generations of Douglas County residents of all ages hold memories of chasing butterflies and maybe even taking home a chrysalis of their own after a Monarch Watch tagging event, where Taylor’s white beard often presents a mesmerizing scene of colorful contrasts while also providing a landing place for monarchs. Meanwhile, volunteers listen to Taylor share details about the monarch’s life cycle, how to identify its gender and the proper technique for placing a tiny coded sticker on a wing.

Monarch Watch’s growth has traversed the globe since it was launched by Taylor and then-science teacher Brad Williamson in 1992. Besides tracking the monarch’s migration, the organization has evolved into a leader in conservation through the distribution and habitat restoration of milkweed for monarch caterpillars and nectar sources for pollinators in nine countries. More than 41,500 Monarch Waystations, like this one in south Lawrence, dot the globe, and 1 million milkweeds have been distributed by Monarch Watch since 2010, according to the news release.

“I wish I knew how many people had tagged butterflies for us over the years,” Taylor said. “But it’s got to be a couple hundred thousand.”

Taylor estimated volunteers have tagged more than 2 million butterflies, of which more than 20,000 have been recovered in Mexico.

“The data has proven to be a gold mine and has yielded information about the timing and pace of the migration, the success of monarchs in reaching Mexico from different regions, the effects of droughts and more,” according to the release.

Taylor and his wife were already married when they arrived in Lawrence in 1969. They’ve since raised two daughters and are grandparents three times over.

Taylor said when he looked back at Monarch Watch’s legacy, he felt gratitude to have created “something that other people enjoyed.”

“The way my mother brought me up was basically, your mission here is to have an impact and to make the world a better place in some way,” he said. “And if I’ve done that, that’s something I appreciate. Yeah, I’d like to think I’ve made the world a slightly better place.”

Thirtieth anniversary events during the “Month of the Monarch” last fall attracted nearly 500 attendees from three countries.

Among them was Hugh Pinckard and his mother, Marjorie Pinckard. They visited Lawrence from Bossier City, Louisiana and attended the organization’s banquet, symposium and tagging event.

Hugh Pinckard/Contributed Marjorie Pinckard and Hugh Pinckard

“It was our vacation,” said Hugh, a truck driver, during a phone interview. “I mean, it was great. People were so polite. We had a wonderful time.”

Three years ago, the Pinckards found Monarch Watch online while researching butterflies after a trip to Branson, Missouri piqued their interest.

Hugh estimated the family had hatched almost 200 monarchs from their home in the South since their newfound hobby. The grandfather of three memorializes the family’s experiences on his website, found at this link.

“I can watch caterpillars and butterflies for hours,” Hugh said. “I’m so impressed with what they’ve done, and what Chip has done, what they offer. It’s just amazing.”

Taylor said he hoped the community would provide the remaining gifts needed to reach the $3 million fundraising goal. 

“We have provided the seed money, and we hope others will chip in for monarchs and help us reach our goal,” Taylor said in the release.

To date, donations toward the Chip and Toni Taylor Professorship have reached $2.199 million, according to Conor Taft, associate development director at the KU Endowment Association.

The targeted goal “of at least $3 million will provide perpetual support for a permanent director of Monarch Watch” and support the new director’s “salary, travel and other programmatic activities for decades to come,” according to a brochure about the professorship. 

For more information or to donate, visit this link.

Ann Dean Photo/Contributed Members of a Girl Scout troop observe a monarch butterfly during a Monarch Watch tagging event in September 2022.
Ann Dean Photo/Contributed Marjorie Pinckard attends a Monarch Watch tagging event in September 2022.
Ann Dean Photo/Contributed Volunteers look for monarch butterflies during a Monarch Watch tagging event in September 2022.
Ann Dean Photo/Contributed A volunteer holds a tagged monarch during a Monarch Watch tagging event in September 2022.
Ann Dean Photo/Contributed A child records tagging information for Monarch Watch.
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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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