Deeply Passionate: Local Diver Makes a DifferenceSep 29, 2022 04:33PM ● By Terry Jensen
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Omahan Pat Purkhiser has two passions in his life: teaching and the ocean. He has shared his love of deep water with students in the Midwest for decades. With over 45 years of experience, Pat is a level 10 diver completing more than 5,440 dives. He also holds a master’s degree in education and two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Purkhiser discovered his love of diving when he left Omaha for college in the 1970s. Those first scuba experiences were on the Gulf side of Florida. “There’s a place there called Venice Beach and you can find fossilized sharks’ teeth. I went like probably once a week just to collect sharks’ teeth. Up by Charlotte, there’s Cooper River. That’s where you find the big ones. I went up there a couple of times and got some of the large megalodon teeth.The biggest is probably six inches. Imagine the shark behind it,” he said. That early interest in sharks turned into a lifetime affinity. Purkhiser still keeps a jar full of shark teeth.
He has devoted his life to protecting sharks and their ecosystem.“That turned into one of my passions, to work with them. We tag them, we get skin samples. I’m on the board with an organization called Fins Attached,” Purkhiser said. “We’ve done a lot of work with the great whites and then whale sharks also.” According to their website, Fins Attached’s mission is to conduct research, promote conservation, and provide education for the protection of marine ecosystems.This includes a focus on sharks, since the health of an ecosystem is determined by its apex predators.
Despite conservation efforts by groups like Fins Attached, the ocean environment has changed over the years.“People, they won’t go out of their box, they really know nothing about the water. 71% of our earth is water. Most of our oxygen comes from the ocean, the ocean produces about 80%, maybe 75%. And algae is a plant. We just gotta educate people,” Purkhiser explained.
Purkhiser spent about 35 years in education. “I taught for Papillion for over 20 years and I was instrumental in creating, first of all the alternative school for Papillon, and then the Zoo Academy,” he said. In 2009, Papillion-LaVista Schools partnered with Omaha Public Schools and the Henry Doorly Zoo to offer students the chance to attend the newly developed Zoo Academy. To complement Zoo Academy programming, Purkhiser offered students an opportunity to learn about the ocean first hand, helping them prepare for a summer excursion to Cozumel, Mexico.
Several former Zoo Academy students credited Purkhiser with giving them the support they needed to pursue higher education and meaningful career paths. His balance of tough love and enthusiasm for learning inspired many students to realize their goals.
“After high school, I went to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and I got a bachelor’s degree in fisheries and wildlife,” said 2014 graduate McKenzie Jensby. “Then I went up to Canada and studied there for two years and got a master’s degree in biological sciences. Now I’m back and working in a lab in Omaha.” Jensby feels the most important lesson she learned from Purkhiser was persistence. “Never give up. If you’re willing to fight for something, just keep going. Keep chugging along and you’ll get there eventually,” she said.
Former student Karlee Qualheim explained, “Without [Purkhiser], I don’t honestly know where I would be. He helped me get my grades up. He helped me learn things in a real world capacity. It’s not just sitting there with a text book and learning and taking notes. For him it was having his students be hands-on and learn life experiences. It was an excellent part of my life.”
Purkhiser’s lessons weren’t just about science and scuba. Qualheim believes the life lessons were even more important. “Life is really hard. It’s not what you think it is when you’re going through high school. Pat shared his whole life with us. He shared his love for scuba with us. He shared his love for traveling with us. He shared his love for the ocean and conservation, and his love for sharks. All of these things also interested us, so it wasn’t hard when you were in college struggling, or even when you weren’t struggling, and you wanted to share that you had a great day—it wasn’t hard to call him because you knew he was going to be happy for you. And you knew that he was going to listen and that you were important to him,” Qualheim said.
“He actually wrote all of my recommendations to get into vet school,” said former student Lauren Cooper. “Any job I ever had he recommended me as well, so he’s actually played a very large role in my life. As an instructor he’s hard. He doesn’t take any grief from his students. He wants you to show your full potential. He wants to make you the best person you can be. He just always told us kids when you want to do something, you just have to go for it. Go 100%, all your effort if you really want it. And I think that’s kind of the main reason that I ended up going to vet school. He’s just really good at general life advice as well. He’s also very good at vacationing, so he taught me that,” Cooper said.
In 2009, Purkhiser helped develop the concept for the innovative Diventures scuba school in Omaha, which now has 12 locations nationwide. As founder Dean Hollis explained, the idea emerged from a scuba trip that Purkhiser organized for a bunch of friends. “A whole bunch of people from Omaha went down to Cozumel and dove down there with the whale sharks and just had a great time. Everybody was somewhat commiserating about the lack of a good dive shop in Omaha. So, Pat and I just started kicking around the idea, and the rest is history. I kind of took it and ran with it and got some good input from Pat along the way. Next thing you know, here we are,” Hollis explained.
Retirement for Purkhiser means continuing something he loves—working as an independent instructor with Diventures. In addition to diving, the scuba center offers classes in skills like swimming and marine ecology. Purkhiser does a little bit of everything. “I do a lot of work on the gear, I teach scuba, I teach the environmental classes, I teach the first-aid classes.They keep me as busy as I want to be,“ he said.
In recent years Purkhiser has faced a number of serious medical issues. “Once I was healed, the first thing I wanted to do was get in the water. Kinda breathe some air under water. Float around, be relaxed. It’s always been there,” he said. His love for diving and the ocean bring him a sense of peace. “Being in the water, you can’t believe how peaceful it is. I mean, I’ve been through a lot medically and my body, you know I’m a 60-year-old guy that had cancer three times, a couple of hip replacements, a quadruple bypass. But all that pain is gone if I’m in the water neutral, and it’s quiet. And then visually, all your senses are just in a happy place. You’ll hear things like a parrot fish crunching on some coral. You might see eagle rays or a shark swim by, but you know, it’s like flying or floating,“ he said.
He’s still deciding where to go next. “I don’t know, it just hasn’t hit me yet. I do plan on probably going over to Iceland or Switzerland to check out the environment there. Polar bears are around there somewhere, orcas...things like that. When I go on these trips I really don’t go to see people. I go to learn and see about the animals that are there. Usually, the apex predators, but pretty amazing stuff,” he said. “Looking back, I look at things, I was pretty lucky in the way things turned out. They’re pretty crappy sometimes, but then they get really good. I’m not going to die lying on my bed saying ‘I wish I would have.’ I’m going to enjoy life.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.