By Published: Oct. 12, 2023

New scholarship in the CU Boulder Department of Environmental Studies honors Joey Herrin’s non-traditional educational path and love for the natural world

Somewhere in the space between We are gathered here today” and I do,” in a rainbow scatter of June wildflowers at the foot of Crested Butte mountain, a moose emerged from the pine and aspen rimming the summer meadow.

It took one or two thinking-about-charging steps and then stopped, gazing silently at the bride and groom, at the astonished wedding party, at the assembled guests. For several quiet seconds, it watched, then turned and faded back into the forest.

Did you just see…? Did that really…?” everyone asked each other. Surely it must mean something?”  Immediately following the ceremony, the wedding planner Googled the significance of a moose showing up at a summer-day mountain wedding, and learned it was a sign of strength and courage.

That would have greater significance five weeks later, but in the moment of I do” it was the perfect wedding-day benediction for a man who grew tree-like from the earth with a quiet watchfulness, knowing the flow of streams and the flight of birds.

Joseph Joey” Herrin wasn’t religious, but he drew depths of spiritual meaning from the nature of which he felt so much a part. In remembrances following his July 28, 2021, death at age 32—five weeks after his wedding day—the people who love him most said that they knew Joey best, that he was his truest self, when he was heading for the horizon on a dirt trail, miles from the nearest anywhere.

Joey Herrin outdoors

Throughout his life, Joey Herrin was most at home in nature.

At the time of his death from job-related injuries, he was less than a year from completing his environmental studies bachelor’s degree at the University of Colorado Boulder, which was posthumously awarded to him. Recently, his parents, Amy Herrin and David Herrin, established the Joseph Joey” Herrin Endowed Memorial Scholarship Fund in the CU Boulder Department of Environmental Studies to honor his hard work and love for what he was learning.

The undergraduate scholarship is intended to support environmental studies students, especially focusing on non-traditional students who, like Joey, might not have followed a linear path to their university education.

We want to honor Joeys efforts to go (to CU),” says Amy Herrin. He was so close to graduating, and they gave him a full degree and felt he had really earned it and deserved it. We are forever grateful for that.

Its different for older, non-traditional students. We knew how hard Joey had to work to go to school. He carried a full load of classes each semester while working an average of 32 hours a week to be eligible for benefits. We wanted to honor his accomplishments as well as help out people in the future who might need it.”

Noticing natures details

But before he was a man with enough life experience to understand who he was and what he wanted, Joey Herrin was a shy, quiet kid growing up in Austin, Texas, who nevertheless managed to run his parents in circles. He was a real non-conformist, a true independent thinker” Amy says.

He was a noticer, though—from dog paw prints in the park to tiny insects crawling across leaves or a fallen feather beneath a sheltered nest. Along with his parents and his older brother, Alex, Joey went camping in the hilly expanses outside Austin and rock-climbing in Bull Creek Park.

When he was 7, the family bought some land near Johnson City, Texas, on the Pedernales River and built a small house. If there were only one place on Earth that Joey would claim as home, it was there, quiet in the dappled sunlight beside the river, observing nesting herons, watching armadillos, foxes and deer move past.

Stewardship has always been a really important part of our family culture,” Amy says. “It wasn’t always an easy lesson with two boys, but we emphasized that you take care of your stuff, your health, friendships and the people around you. You take care of this world.”

Through middle school and high school, Joey participated in Colorado Outdoor Wilderness Adventures in Lake George, Colorado, and spent a semester in Patagonia with the National Outdoor Leadership School. 

School was definitely not his thing, and when he graduated, he was done—ready to try life on a different path. He set out across the United States as a WWOOFer, working on organic farms from California to Vermont through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).

During the growing season, he worked at places like Montezuma Canyon Ranch & Vineyards south of Monticello, Utah, another place that came to feel like home. In his three years as a WWOOFer, he gained an even greater sense of stewardship for the Earth and an understanding of his place in the currents of life. Between jobs, he visited more than 40 national parks.

He just had a confidence about the world and himself, that he could handle whatever came up,” Amy says. The theme for his memorial was the Tolkien quote that not all who wander are lost.He was definitely that person, he just wanted to explore as much of the country as he could, and logistics didn’t deter him, he would figure it out. He could get a job doing anything, he wasn’t shy about it because all jobs earn money, no job was beneath him, he just really had this trust in himself.”

Back in Austin, he met a woman named Erin Black, who would become the love of his life and eventually his wife, and who loved him for so many reasons that its almost impossible to pick even a few: He once rescued a turtle crossing the road in Texas, he would feed and pet the cows behind our apartment, every dog would cuddle him at Romeros Dog Bar, once he even pulled off the road to free a goat stuck in a fence, and bought me fresh flowers every week and plants when I was sad,” Erin says.

Joey Herrin and animals

From the time he was very young and through his whole life, Joey Herrin loved animals.

“What I loved most about Joey was his kind, nurturing soul. Every single animal he interacted with was drawn to him. He was so gentle and quiet but had a powerful, calming presence. He supported me and the work I did with students and took care of me when I was struggling to teach during the pandemic. His smile lit up the room and my heart. He showed me the most beautiful places in the world and taught me how to be a better person who takes care of the environment.”

They explored together before deciding that Colorado was the place theyd been moving toward all along.

‘He did it his way’

After moving to Colorado, Erin got a job as a teacher and Joey found work in the City of Arvada Parks Department, eventually becoming the only year-round, full-time “seasonal” employee in the department. However, he began to chafe at the limitations of his career path.

He had enough life experience by that point to know he didn’t want to be in parks maintenance for the rest of his life,” Amy says. I was visiting Erin and Joey in Lafayette, sitting at the kitchen table, talking about the future. We asked him, What is it that you want to do?and he said, I want to make a difference.’ He decided that he was ready to go to college.”

Joey started out at Front Range Community College, and Im so proud of how committed he was,” Amy says. Id warned him that you dont get to take the really fun classes in your major until a couple of years in, plus school hadn’t really been his thing before that point. But he really worked hard in community college and was never self-conscious about the fact that he was older than his classmates.”

After two years, he transferred to CU Boulder and pursued his studies with energy and commitment. His coworkers reported that as they began the workday at 6:30 a.m., he often arrived eager to share something he had read or studied that morning before work.

Even though he hadn’t previously loved school, hed always loved to read, which was an advantage as he pursued his environmental studies degree. Part of his time at CU Boulder coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which was a challenge, especially when dissecting a starfish at home in the kitchen. 

He was excited to attend in-person classes for what would be his last semester and was very proud when he earned straight A’s. His dream career was to work for the CU Boulder Mountain Research Station near Nederland, Colorado, or the National Park Service, so he aimed his academic trajectory toward that goal.

In the months following his death, Amy joined a support group in Austin and one week group members were asked to bring a song that represents their loved one who died. At that point, she had been watching animated movies, so she thought about the version of My Way” from the musical Sing.”

Id never paid attention to the lyrics before, but it’s about reflections at the end of somebodys life,” she says. To me, it was absolutely Joey. He didn’t walk a traditional path, and he wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes, but the life he lived was his own. He did it his way.”

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