July 08, 2002 12:00 PM

Erich Jarvis’s father was never like the other dads he knew. While Erich lived with his mom and three siblings in a house in New York City, James Jarvis lived at times in one local park or another. Once, when Erich was a teen, his father took him to a cave he discovered in upper Manhattan. “He was so proud,” says Erich. “I was trying to understand why the hell he wanted to live in caves. Why was he staring up at the stars?”

James Jarvis was eccentric, and he was schizophrenic. To Erich, he was also an inspiration. His father’s beautiful but disordered mind and his fascination with science eventually led Erich, 37, to an interest in biology. Now an esteemed neurobiologist, Erich received the Alan T. Waterman Award this May—the National Science Foundation’s top prize for young researchers—for his techniques in studying vocal communication among songbirds. The prize comes with a staggering—in academic circles—$500,000 prize. Jarvis credits his father with influencing his approach to his field. “What I really got from him is this eccentric view of being a scientist,” says Jarvis, an associate professor at Duke University and the father of two. “How to be a scientist in the more profound sense.”

As a young man in the ’60s, James Jarvis showed great promise. At 16, he entered City College of New York, studying chemistry. “He had everything—the brains, the looks, the middle-class background,” says Valeria McCall, who married him in 1964 and had their three sons and a daughter over the next five years. But after James began taking drugs, he seemed to lose his way. After Valeria separated from him in 1971, when Erich was 5, he began wandering but would occasionally show up at the family’s home. He’d play Bach on the piano, discourse on chemistry, expound mathematical fractals—then disappear again. Erich took it all in stride. “To me that was just my father,” he says. “That’s how I knew him.”

Unable to cope with societal constraints, James would retreat, alone, into nature. “He traveled a lot to see comets, meteorites, things of that nature,” says his ex-wife. Once, he walked hundreds of miles from New York City to area mountains, making a series of homes in caves, where he would camp with a few meager possessions, including scientific journals and a knapsack of fossils. “He never considered himself homeless,” says Erich. “He considered himself living where people always lived—in the natural environment.”

Erich Jarvis didn’t get a close-up view of his father’s world until 1984, when, as a Hunter College freshman, he lodged with his grandfather James Hodnett Jarvis, a patriarch figure who pushed him to excel. As it happened, the older Jarvis had recently taken in Erich’s father—later diagnosed with drug-induced schizophrenia. “It was a real reunion,” recalls Erich.

James took him to the two caves in city parks that had been his homes. He showed him how to find fossils, even in the urban wilds of Manhattan. At home they talked—once late into the night. “We stayed up until 3 a.m.,” recalls Erich. “He even helped me with my calculus.” Early the next morning James was gone, departed for another solo sojourn.

While Erich focused on his undergraduate studies, majoring in biology and math, James received some help from a social worker who found him an apartment and got him medication to control his schizophrenia. His recovery was short-lived. In 1989 James was murdered in an ostensibly random slaying in Manhattan’s Highbridge Park, one of his favorites. “There was so much promise,” says Valeria, “and he was just starting to reconnect.”

The younger Jarvis began working with a biologist, Fernando Nottebohm, who had done groundbreaking studies of the neural basis of bird-song. After earning his doctorate in 1995, Jarvis took a position at Duke, where he leads a team of 15 researchers trying to investigate the human brain by studying how birds learn new songs.

Unlike his father he has managed to create a stable home, a Chapel Hill, N.C., ranch house where he and his wife, Miriam Rivas, 48—a molecular biologist he first met when he was in college—are raising daughter Electra, 13, and son Syrus, 9. The children have already traveled to Africa and South America, accompanying their parents on research expeditions. He has also told them about their grandfather, whose backpack of fossils lies out in the garage. It serves to remind Jarvis of what his father taught him about his life’s work—”to try to go for something very imaginative and profound—and to have your scientific thinking be connected to your natural environment.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Constance E. Richards in Chapel Hill and Debbie Seaman in West Hartford, Conn.

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