Jonathan Higgins, a lifelong Evanston resident whose work as a freshwater ecologist allowed him to travel the world, died on July 24 at the age of 64, after a long battle with cancer.
Known for his kindness and generosity, a no-nonsense style, and for speaking truth to power, Jonathan was an accomplished athlete, musician, gardener, fly fisherman, and outdoorsman. He particularly loved the Northwoods of the Midwest and the rivers and streams of the American West.
Jonathan was a starting fullback on the 1975 Evanston Township High School Hall of Fame soccer team, where he also pole vaulted his freshman and sophomore years. He went on to become Rookie of the Year, co-Captain, and a three-time all-conference soccer player at Grinnell College, from where he graduated in 1980 with a BA in biology and initiated his research interest in freshwater ecology. Jonathan received an MS and a PhD in population ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Illinois-Chicago, graduating with Phi Kappa Phi honors membership. He started his career in freshwater ecology as a contractor with the EPA, where he managed the contract staff in sampling and analyzing water quality and biota of the Great Lakes, and then with the Nature Conservancy, where he worked for over 27 years until his death.
Jonathan was respected as a global expert in freshwater conservation ecology. His work incorporated freshwater biodiversity into The Nature Conservancy’s efforts, which had previously focused on terrestrial conservation. Specifically, his work concerned the development of regional analyses that depict freshwater ecosystem diversity spatially, along with ways to assess the conditions and threats to those ecosystems at multiple scales. At The Nature Conservancy, he developed methods, tools, and regional analyses for conservation planning in North, Central, and South America, Africa, India, Asia, and Australia, where he traveled and engaged with local and regional staff and academic experts. He also led efforts to monitor and measure the impact of conservation efforts within TNC. He developed the science capacity for The Great Lakes Program, the first regional conservation program within TNC, and was one of a small group that started the global program for freshwater conservation within TNC. Jonathan was widely published and cited, and active in cooperative research endeavors with partners around the world. His efforts while at The Nature Conservancy have greatly advanced freshwater conservation globally.
Jonathan was passionate about his work, and always eager to share his knowledge. He mentored young professionals with enthusiasm. In 2020, he created an internship scholarship program at Grinnell College to support students pursuing careers in conservation and the environment.
Jonathan enjoyed a four-decades-long music career, playing piano and keyboards in college bands – including his beloved Space Potatoes – and numerous post-college soul, R&B, jazz, and rock and roll bands in the Chicago area between 1980 and 2010.
Jonathan is survived by his wife Susan Besson, sister Robin Karney (nee Higgins), brother-in-law Peter Karney, nephews Benjamin and Daniel Karney, step-children Chloe Besson and William Besson, and numerous cousins and dear friends. He will be missed by them all. He was preceded in death by James V. and C. Phyllis Higgins.
In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to the Grinnell College Jonathan Higgins ’80 Internship in Environmental Conservation Fund. Donations can be made online at alumni.grinnell.edu/give (select ‘Other’ under ‘Fund to Support,’ and specify Jonathan Higgins); checks may be mailed to Grinnell College 733 Broad St., Grinnell, Iowa, 50112-1690.
Memorial service Sunday, July 31, 2PM
at Chicago Jewish Funerals,
8851 Skokie Blvd. (at Niles Center Road) Skokie. To attend the funeral live stream, please visit our website.
Arrangements by Chicago Jewish Funerals – Skokie Chapel, 847.229.8822, www.cjfinfo.com