Kiener, Walter, 1894-1959
- Existence: 1894-1959
Walter Bigler Kiener was born on 18 October 1894, in Bern, Switzerland. He attended school until the age of 15, when he began work as an apprentice to his father, a sausage maker. While working for his father, Kiener attended night classes to further his education. At a young age Kiener discovered that mountain climbing could help him escape from his restlessness and difficulties with his father. Kiener soon became a master of mountaineering.
During World War I, Kiener served in the Swiss Citizen Army and spent considerable time as a frontier guard. In November of 1922, Kiener left Switzerland and his family for America. He moved to New York and worked in a meatpacking house. After seven months in New York, Kiener moved to Denver, where he became a foreman at a small sausage-making plant. Kiener’s evenings in Denver were spent taking classes in English and Citizenship and his weekends were spent climbing in the Rocky Mountains, where he soon gained a reputation as an expert climber and guide.
In January of 1925, Kiener and another member of the Colorado Mountain Club, Agnes Vaille, attempted to become the first people to climb the East Face of Long’s Peak in winter. They were successful in making it to the top, but, while descending, they were overtaken by a blizzard and by fatigue. Vaille died, and, in his attempt to retrieve help and save her life, Kiener lost parts of all of his fingers except his left forefinger and parts of all of his toes and a part of his left foot. As a result, he was no longer able to work in the sausage making plant. After his recovery, Kiener got a job as a ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park and he worked as a fire spotter on the Twin Sisters lookout overlooking the very location of his climbing tragedy.
While a ranger, Kiener met some students and faculty from the University of Nebraska and chose that institution to pursue a formal education. Kiener entered the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) in the fall of 1925 as an adult special student. He earned his A.B. degree in 1930 and his master’s degree in 1931. Not only did he pursue an education, but he also became a United States citizen in 1929. Kiener was elected to Sigma Xi in 1931. His master’s thesis was entitled On the Vegetation of an Isolated Peak in the Rocky Mountains. Kiener continued his work at the University of Nebraska and completed his doctoral dissertation, Sociological Studies of the Alpine Vegetation on Long’s Peak, in April of 1939. He received his degree in 1940.
After graduating, Kiener was hired by the University of Nebraska where he held the following positions over time: Assistant in Botany (1930-1940); Ecologist, UNL Conservation and Survey Division (1941-1943); and Biologist, State of Nebraska Game, Forestation, and Parks Commission, (1943-1955). He eventually became the Chief Biologist for the Commission and established the Commission’s Fisheries Research Department. In 1955 Kiener learned that he had cancer and retired. He devoted his remaining years to the study of botany.
Kiener was a noted writer and lecturer and established an extensive personal herbarium of lichen and bryophyte specimens that eventually numbered well over 50,000. Several species of plants were named after Kiener: Pleuridum kieneri; P. exsertum; Splachnobryum kieneri; and Chara kieneri.
Kiener died alone on 24 August 1959, at Lincoln General Hospital, after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. He willed his papers, library, herbarium, and other personal property to long time friend Dr. Samuel Fuenning, Director of Student Health for UNL. Fuenning presented all the items to the University of Nebraska State Museum through the University of Nebraska Foundation in 1961. Today the entire Kiener plant collection is housed within the Charles E. Bessey Herbarium of the University of Nebraska State Museum’s Botany Division.