Former Wittenberg prof built legacy as nationally known caving expert

Horton Hobbs III built a national reputation at Wittenberg University as a biology expert who mapped and explored caves and their inhabitants from Clark County to Eastern Europe.

But at home, friends and family members said he shied away from publicity. His interests were sharing his love of nature with his family and his students. Hobbs III, 71, died at his home in Fleetwood, N.C., this week.

“He was a Southern gentleman in all the best senses,” said Margaret Goodman, a former colleague and professor of biology at Wittenberg. “He was kind, he was open to others, he was was incredibly helpful to me starting out. And it was clear that he loved working with the students.”

His interest in science was instilled at an early age. His father was also a nationally recognized biologist and crayfish expert who served as head curator of the Department of Zoology at the United States National Museum. Hobbs III began exploring caves in part because they were a perfect environment to study how animals adapt in a challenging, lightless environment.

But before long, he became hooked on exploring and mapping the remote, unknown caves themselves. For his family, that meant vacations were often spent not on a beach, but hiking through the woods on the way to another cave.

“I was never in the Boy Scouts because I didn’t need to be,” said Horton Hobbs IV, his son and vice president of economic development at the Chamber of Greater Springfield. “Camping and hiking, we got to do all of that at a much higher level.”

Throughout his career, Hobbs III explored more than 1,600 caves and published more than 200 academic papers. His research took him as far as Costa Rica and Slovenia, and he wanted his students to have the same curiosity he did.

In a caving community of thousands of people, there are few who wouldn’t at least know his name, said David Culver, a long-time friend a professor emeritus at American University. But his biggest legacy may be in the classroom, where Hobbs III inspired a whole generation of students, Culver said.

“As a mentor, he was enormously influential,” Culver said. “There’s nobody in the U.S. who’s trained as many people as Horton has.”

Hobbs III also founded Wittenberg University’s Speleological Society, known around campus as the Caving Club.

Erin Hazelton, a 2000 graduate of Wittenberg, joined the university’s caving club soon after she enrolled as a biology student. She soon found herself taking as many of his classes as she could find. The club regularly took trips to Kentucky, for caves that are now named in his memory. A section of caves in Carter Caves State Park in Kentucky has been renamed the combined Horton Hobbs Cave.

“We were so lucky to learn from the best,” Hazelton said. “Literally, he was world-renowned, and we had the opportunity to learn from him. As a student you probably don’t think about it much at the time, but it was a big deal.”

She eventually turned those lessons into a career with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, where she helped head up an Ohio Cave survey. That study helped map and identify more than 400 caves and rock shelters, as well as their inhabitants.

“Make no mistake about it, he was hard and he was demanding,” Hazelton said. “To get that A or B, you earned every bit of it, and he must have gone through 20 red pens alone. He put in the effort, and he expected you to as well.”

Hobbs III tried to instill the same lessons at home as he did in the classroom. Hobbs IV one took his father’s classes at Wittenberg and had a question about an assignment. But when he went downstairs to ask, he was told to wait until regular office hours to be fair to the other students.

“It was the moment in my life I needed to hear that,” Hobbs IV said. “That was the ultimate integrity for a professor, and I just look back on that as a really cool moment.”

Hobbs III’s students and friends will have one last chance to honor his memory with a celebration at the caves in Kentucky that now bear his name.

“It’s very fitting we all go back there, and it’s going to be one heck of a party,” Hazelton said.