My only face-to-face interaction with Dr. E.O. Wilson revolved around a single event, the PCT Ant Management Summit in March 2004. When we began planning the three-day program, I floated the idea of inviting E.O. Wilson, the world’s leading ant authority, as a keynote speaker for the conference, even though I knew it was a longshot.

When we approached Wilson’s representative, informing him that we could only afford a portion of his client’s speaker fee due to the modest size of our event, he couldn’t have been more gracious. He said he would check Wilson’s calendar, gauge his interest in speaking and get back to us in short order. Several days later, much to our surprise, we received word that Wilson would indeed appear on our program, and we couldn’t have been more excited.

It proved to be a “bucket list” experience for industry entomologists who shared the program with the legendary scientist, including Dr. Richard Cooper of R Cooper Consulting, who preceded Wilson on the program.

Here’s how we described Wilson’s participation in our event nearly two decades ago: “Harvard University Professor E.O. Wilson regaled attendees of the PCT Ant Management Summit with sometimes humorous, always insightful stories about his lifetime love affair with ants, ‘the most dominant organisms on earth.’

“In an animated 60-minute presentation that transported attendees from the mountains of South America to the deserts of the American Southwest, Wilson discussed the leading role he played in enhancing the world’s knowledge of ants during a career that has spanned more than 50 years.

“What can we learn from ants to enhance human society, he asked? ‘Not a thing,’ he said. ‘They’re the most warlike creatures on earth. If they had nuclear weapons, the world would end in a week.’ At a cocktail reception following his keynote address, Wilson chatted with attendees, signed autographs and posed for pictures with PCOs and academics eager to meet the man Time magazine once called one of ‘America’s 25 Most Influential People.’”

What I remember most about that day was how gracious Wilson was to all those in attendance. It isn’t often when you meet one of your lifelong heroes and they live up to how you pictured them in your mind’s eye for all those years. Yet E.O. Wilson did just that, interacting with attendees at the conference on a “peer-to-peer” basis rather than “icon-to-fan” basis.

When I asked Wilson why he agreed to participate in our modest conference, he said, with a twinkle in his eye, “This is my tribe.”

Dr. Ed Vargo, who met Wilson on three separate occasions, wouldn’t have been surprised by that response. He said Wilson was most comfortable fully immersed in the insect world. “The first time I met him was in 1980 at a social insect conference in Boulder, Colo.,” he said. “When I first saw him, he was hunched over on all fours watching some ants on the ground.

“I met him again in 1989 when he visited the Brackenridge Field Lab at the University of Texas at Austin where I was working at the time. I first addressed him as Professor Wilson, and he immediately insisted I call him Ed. We went out collecting ants, trying to find colonies of the big-headed ant Pheidole tepicana,” Vargo recalled.

“The third time was in the early 2000s when he visited North Carolina State University while I was a professor there. I hosted his visit on campus. When he entered the lecture hall where he gave a seminar on the evolution of ants, he immediately recognized Ed Eanes, who he had not seen since 1948. The state of Alabama hired Ed Wilson and Ed Eanes to conduct the first statewide survey of fire ants, which they did using Ed Eanes’ car. When I asked Ed if he was surprised at Ed Wilson’s amazing career, he said no. He matter-of-factly stated, ‘I said then that Ed was the smartest person I knew, and he’s still the smartest person I know.’’

And that was the beauty of E.O. Wilson. Despite being the smartest person in virtually any room he occupied, he never acted like it, treating everyone with equal measures of kindness, humility and respect, which is not only the true measure of a great scientist but the true measure of a great man. Rest in peace, Dr. Wilson.

The author is publisher emeritus of PCT magazine.