College experiment changed Union coach’s life

Paul Wehrum not only has a passion for lacrosse, he has one for helping the environment.
Union College lacrosse coach Paul Wehrum and Connor Hall carry trash off the bus after the team returned from a game at Vassar.
Union College lacrosse coach Paul Wehrum and Connor Hall carry trash off the bus after the team returned from a game at Vassar.

Paul Wehrum not only has a passion for lacrosse, he has one for helping the environment.

On the bus coming back from road trips, the Union lacrosse coach will collect the trash from his players. When they arrive back on campus, Wehrum separates the trash and places the recyclable items into the proper cans.

Wehrum’s passion for helping the environment goes back to an experiment he took part in over 40 years ago, while he was a junior at SUNY-Cortland.

“I was struggling because I wasn’t a science student,” Wehrum said. “I went to the teacher and I said, ‘Is there anything extra I can do?’ He said, ‘Would you be willing to wake up at 6 o’clock tomorrow morning?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘I need you to meet me out in the backfields.’ ”

Using chicken wire and wood, Wehrum helped his teacher construct three canisters. They placed a paper cup in one canister, an aluminum in the second canister, and a styrofoam cup in the third.

The purpose of the experiment was to see how long it took the items to wear down.

“I’ll never forget it,” Wehrum said. “He took the class out there. A month later, we went back there. Because of the wind and rain and stuff like that, because it was a tough fall, this happened in early October. The wind and rain had, virtually, eaten up the paper cup. The aluminum can was still flying around, but you could see signs of rusting. By the end of the year, the aluminum can was in real bad shape. The styrofoam cup was still there.”

After getting his master’s degree in health and physical education at SUNY-Cortland, Wehrum went back to the field to check on the conditions of the aluminum can and styrofoam cup.

“The aluminum can was virtually gone,” Wehrum said. “The paper cup had been gone for 1 1⁄2 to two years. The styrofoam cup was still blowing around in that thing. I remember seeing it blowing around. I can still see it blowing around in my mind’s eye.”

Since styrofoam is non-biodegradable, it will be around forever.

“It’s going to be there,” Wehrum said. “It’s going to be there for a real long time.”

That experiment continues to drive Wehrum’s passion for helping the environment. He remembers how bad the environment was back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“It was also the time of Love Canal,” said Wehrum, referring to the Niagara Falls neighborhood site that had been used to bury 22,000 tons of toxic waste by Hooker Chemical Company. “The Cuyahoga River in Ohio was burning. You could throw a match on it. You couldn’t eat the fish out of the Hudson [River]. It was really, really bad.

“I remember taking the course, and the teacher said that if you littered and didn’t recycle, that you were ignorant, you were lazy and you were selfish. I took offense to that. I’d throw away a gum wrapper or something. I didn’t know about recycling. He made an impression.”

Wehrum carried that on to his 27 years as a professor and lacrosse coach at Herkimer County Community College, and the nine years he has been Union’s head coach.

“Fanatical is a great word,” Union senior midfielder Connor Hall said. “Coach Wehrum’s the kind of guy that, whatever he gets into, he’s going to get into it full speed. Ever since I’ve been here, one of the efforts he’s been pushing for is recycling. So you’ll see him running around campus picking up bottles everywhere, making sure we’re recycling when we need to be because we do produce a lot of trash, water bottles, stuff like that.

“It’s pretty much rubbed off on us. His efforts have rubbed off on us, as a team, and it, basically, has fostered a team where, when we’re off the field, we do as best we can to follow his passions and recycle as much as we can.”

The players have bought into Wehrum’s dedication to recycling. So have the players’ parents, especially when they are having a postgame tailgating event.

“The kids, at first, were surprised, but now they’re used to it,” Wehrum said. “They know [not to] bring any styrofoam near [me]. The parents know that, at the tailgates, no styrofoam is allowed. We commend them when they deal with paper platers and paper cups, and we recycled that.”

Dutchmen senior goalie Stefan Basile is proud of Wehrum’s efforts.

“It’s awesome to see somebody be so dedicated to something,” Basile said. “It kind of teaches us not only about recycling, but just about dedication as a whole. It’s something so little, but it’s very important to him. It’s something he’s 100 percent into.”

Wehrum recalled something he was told by some of the Native Americans he used to coach.

“The natives have a saying that we don’t own the land, we just borrow it from our children,” Wehrum said. “The kids on my teams at Union and every place else, they’re our children. We’re responsible for them, we watch after them, we give them advice. When things go bad, we’re there for them.

“I’ve probably got another 15, 20 years on this earth. They’ve got another 60, 70. Their children and grandchildren are going to be affected a lot more by some of the things that are going on than we are.”

Categories: College Sports

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