To many who know him, Dr. Leo Demski is an eccentric, brilliant, and talkative individual who profoundly and positively influenced the lives of many students at New College – including being a father to two alumni. Having taught here for two decades, he is known for his love of fishes, biopsychology, and, believe it or not, being a fantastic drummer and vibraphonist.
“If you ever sit down and talk to him, you’ll see he’s a drummer because he’ll start drumming some beat that’s only in his head,” Dr. Sandra Gilchrist, a friend and colleague, said.
One of the greatest marks he has made at New College is the influence he had in the construction of Pritzker Marine Laboratory and the Heiser Natural Sciences building. This was a tumultuous and contentious period for the school with clashes between the visions for the buildings and the fiscal reality.
“I value him as a professional colleague and he’s very willing to share his knowledge,” Gilchrist said. “I value him as a friend in terms of developing a professional life. In terms of teaching he’s done a lot with trying to help students understand the research education world and so that’s been interesting for me to observe.”
Dr. Demski is a graduate of the University of Miami in Ohio, and received his doctorate degree from the University of Rochester in New York. He met Dr. Alfred Beulig at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Demski was doing post-doctoral research and Beulig was a graduate student at City College and was part of a program that involved him in the museum.
“The chairman of the department of animal behavior at the museum was a scientist named Lester Aronson and he was Leo’s supervisor for his post-doc,” Beulig said. “He was doing brain stimulation studies and using the animals we had at the time – which I believe were cichlids – and it was kind of an extension of his doctoral work if I’m not mistaken. He evoked different kinds of behaviors by stimulating areas in the brain. That’s where we met.”
Demski was teaching at the University of Kentucky when Beulig invited him to Sarasota to apply for the Florsheim Chair, an endowed and rotating position. Having routinely visited Demski over the years, Beulig had previously brought him down to New College to give lectures. It was then decided that he would move down here and teach.
“He told me from time to time that he’d love to get back to the ocean and away from horses because his heart was in the sea,” Beulig said.
Demski has also worked with sharks and studied one of the very few great white shark brains at that time and then presented his research. He was the division chair of the Natural Sciences Division, and has participated with Dr. Gilchrist in a study abroad program in Honduras, which has gone on for about two decades.
“That was very, very important to have a colleague who shared basically the joy of being in that environment and the joy of seeing students get excited about it,” Gilchrist said. “He’s had a tremendous influence on the school and a lot of people.”
Even though he will be retired from teaching, Demski will still be writing and editing, and conducting research at New College.
“I’m glad I came to New College,” Demski said. “It gave me lots of opportunities. I think the people here are what makes the place special. I’m looking forward to still be part of the place.”
Demski echoes the sentiments of many leaving New College this month.