Derek Clinton Poon
Nov 11, 1945 – Mar 7, 2017
November 11, 1945 – March 7, 2017
Derek Clinton Poon died last week at age 71. On November 11th, 1956 he celebrated his eleventh birthday on board a ship with his parents, James and Rose, and his two brothers. The voyage was life changing for this young boy and his family. They were en route to America from Hong Kong, where they had had a comfortable life, and now everything had changed. They would adopt a new country, a new English language, a new culture — they would start from scratch as so many before them had done, as so many who followed, and in a country that didn’t have the best history of welcoming the foreigners that it had called to its shores. But this family had grit and aspirations, and they made a good life in San Francisco.
Derek worked hard in school and learned American English; he joined the Boys Scouts and then proudly earned its highest achievement as an Eagle Scout. And his interest in the natural world propelled him into studying Zoology at the University of California, Berkley, where he earned a BA in 1967. He wasn’t finished, though. He continued his education, focusing on fisheries at Oregon State University. A summer opportunity led Derek to Alaska, where he spent many formative years doing doctoral research on salmon ecology. He earned a Ph.D in Fisheries Biology in 1977. To his daughter, he often repeated something she has always remembered: “education is something no one can ever take away.”
When he was studying at Oregon State, Derek met Vivian Chesterley and they married in January 1971. They were together for 23 years, continuing to proudly raise their daughter, Laina, who was born in September 1978. Along the way, Derek faced landlords who didn’t want to rent to him, the young couple had to worry about discrimination against their interracial marriage, and, yet, Derek never complained. Instead, he spent his life accepting others and treating them with the respect and dignity he didn’t always get to enjoy.
Derek was extremely proud of his daughter, Laina, and made sure all of his friends knew it. He loved and supported her and her wife and three daughters unconditionally. He tried his level best to help in every way they asked and offered support in ways they hadn’t even considered. And though he was bit of a germaphobe, that didn’t stop him from doing everything he could to help out with their adorable little petri dishes. He practically donned a hazmat suit to pick up dog poo in their back yard so the kids could play outside when moms were busy, but he didn’t bat an eyelash when given a pile of dripping noodles by his two year old granddaughter practicing with chopsticks.
While family was top priority to Derek, his career was a close second. He worked in the environmental field at all levels of government. He was Chief of King County’s Natural Resource Planning section, an Endangered Species Act Biologist in the Sustainable Fisheries Division of the National Marine Fisheries Service, and retired as a Regional Salmon Ecologist for the US Environmental Protection Agency. His colleagues praised his passion, insights, humor, kindness, and perseverance in championing the cause of birds, fish, streams, and forests.
Ultimately, Derek found his greatest overall satisfaction as a volunteer environmental consultant after retiring in 2011. He felt liberated and was exhilarated at being able to press forward with a bold conservation agenda without the weight of politics holding him down. Now it was all about the science, about what he believed, about fully embracing his passion. As a result of his efforts, he received an Environmental Award in 2014 for his work with the Olympic Forest Coalition.
Derek had two other passions: running and music. He suffered a stroke in 2004, and used that old grit and determination to fight for a strong recovery, determined to live a life of health and fitness. He started walking and then walked his way through the Seattle Half Marathon each of the two years after his stroke. Beginning in year three, he picked up the pace and he started running. All told, he logged 14 half marathons, some with his daughter, Laina. He’d plug in his earphones to listen to news podcasts, then switch over to his vast and carefully curated music collection.
As Derek wrote in a Christmas letter, “Life is a marathon, not a sprint. May all of you share my philosophy that whether running or living, finish smiling and standing up.” To those of us left behind, Derek’s finish line came too soon, but he left this earth as he had wished: happy, engaged, active, and beloved by many family and friends.
Derek is survived by his older brother, Leonard Poon, daughter, Laina Poon, and three young granddaughters, Kaya, Shay, and Lissi. Memorial contributions can be made to EarthJustice, the Olympic Forest Coalition, or the Washington Environmental Council.
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