At 9:30 p.m., William Bass' ringing telephone interrupts a quiet August night in Tennessee. It's the state medical examiner. The police have found a body in the Holston Hills suburb of Knoxville. It is decomposed beyond recognition.
Bass, head of the anthropology department at the University of Tennessee, tracks down three of his top students. Within a half hour they arrive at the scene of the crime, dressed in uniform: jumpsuits and baseball caps bearing the insignia "Forensic Investigation Team." One student cuts back the weeds from around the body and starts to take notes; another begins to photograph the scene; Bass and the third student slip on rubber gloves for "the dirty work" -- the gruesome chore of examining the body and clothing for clues before zipping it up in a rubber bag.
In two hours, they're at the forensic lab behind the university's hospital. They inspect the pelvis and scapula to determine the cause of death -- the victim was shot in the back. Making an ID is tougher. The police provide a tip on the body. The skull must be probed. Medical records need to be extracted from the files of a reluctant dentist.
"It's not like in 'Quincy,' " says Bass, referring to the TV drama about forensic investigation as "great public relations for the profession," but not always realistic. "The first call usually doesn't get the job done. You're talkin' a good 10 to 25 hours or more on a case," with or without an ID.
When William Marvin Bass III tells students to bone up for an exam, it's not a euphemism.
At 57, the native Northern Virginian has guided the University of Tennessee's forensic anthropology department to among the best in the nation, including the universities of Arizona, New Mexico and Massachusetts at Amherst. In October, he will be honored as 1985 national professor of the year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), a Washington-based, international education association. Funded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT), the competition panel sifted through nominations from 41 states and Canada to find Bass, a professor ". . . committed to excellence in the lecture hall and in the laboratory," according to CFAT president Ernest Boyer.
"I've always had a hard time separating teaching, research and public service," says Bass, whose slight twang confirms 14 years in Knoxville. "If you're a good teacher, you really need to do research. You need to involve your students in that research. And you need to share that with the public. I never set out to be professor of the year -- but I think it happened because I combine all three of these things."
In the lecture hall, Bass is known for taking the edge off a heady subject with humor that runs from raunchy to morbid. "Education is fun -- I don't feel I can do a good job teaching unless I can get the students to laugh," he says.
His real trick is personalizing subjects beyond textbook theory. Each year he walks into the introductory-level evolution class of 200 students with a box of human bones, but he brings to life 60 million years of primate development by making the students aware of their own bone structures.
"Everybody has bones," says Bass, who claims to have had no complaints and plenty of arguments from creationists over his practical approach to evolution. "I get the students to feel on themselves. I tell them to feel down where their belt is -- that's your iliac crest. I talk about the hand and how you can touch your little finger to your thumb. I ask them to try to touch their big toe to their little toe. An ape can touch his big toe to his little toe. The reason you can't is 'cause you evolved.
"Your own body is a record of all of the things our ancestors have gone through. It's not something students read in a book and then go home and put down. Instead, they go home and look in the mirror to see if they have a Y5 or Plus-4 tooth pattern. I try to personalize these things. I hope they're becoming more aware of themselves."
In addition, Bass teaches courses in the races of man, anthropometry (the measurement of the human body), osteology (the study of bones) and human identification. It is from the latter two courses and his graduate students that he chooses his assistants for forensic fieldwork.
"They need to know their bones before they go out there," says Bass, who adds that despite more than 40 forensic cases a year, more students want to assist than he can take along. "You simply do not want an army out there tromping all over the scene."
Bass' method of separating the curious from the serious? "I get the ones pushin' to go out into the lab and ask them to help boil down a head -- I mean, literally," he says. "That's when it gets bad and that's when you learn who is dedicated and who isn't."
Not one to forget his own bouts with nausea during undergraduate anatomy classes, Bass empathizes with his students. He forewarns assistants of the nature of the crime and what to expect in any field investigation. He makes it clear that nobody will give a second thought to someone walking away from a crime scene for a breather.
"My first time in the field, I hit a body that wasn't completely skeletonized," recalls Maria Liston, 24, a graduate student who has accompanied Bass on five forensic investigations. "Knowing I'd be rattled, he quickly gave me something to do to take my mind off it. He handed me the notebook and made me take notes as he dictated. It's that kind of sensitivity that makes him such a marvelous professor." Liston, formerly a classical archeology student, adds that she changed her field to physical anthropology in order to study under Bass.
Bass insists on paying his assistants' expenses on all fieldwork, including dinners and overnight lodging when necessary. And he donates his state fee per case -- between $25 and $150 -- to a contingency fund that helps his students attend national and professional anthropology conferences. "They need to go to meetings and give papers," he says. "There's no money in the department to do this. I just plow all of it back into the system."
If students are the standard by which teachers are judged, Bass rates at the front of the class. Of the 34 board-certified anthropologists practicing human identification in the United States, more than a third received their degrees from Bass, and another four or five students based their graduate research on his work.
His teachings form a network of forensic scientists nationwide. Three years ago, for example, Bass was called in to reexamine physical evidence surviving from the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnaping case. Then president of the anthropology division of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Bass got the job when the widow of Bruno Hauptmann, who was convicted and executed for the kidnap and murder of the 20-month-old baby, petitioned to have her husband's case reopened. Hired by Anna Hauptmann's attorney, Bass flew to New Jersey. In a basement warehouse of a Trenton police station, he examined 10 tiny bones believed to be from the feet and hands of the Lindbergh child.
"It was interesting to look at something that nobody has looked at for 50 years," he says. "But there was no way of saying 'This is the Lindbergh baby.' " The irony for Bass, however, wasn't the case. It was that had the case been returned to trial, the forensic specialist testifying for the state would have been Wilton Krogman -- Bass' PhD dissertation director 24 years earlier at the University of Pennsylvania.
"To me it's part of the challenge," says Bass. "We practice anthropology. We teach students. We help solve crimes." It's how Bill Bass says he repays society for letting him teach the next generation of anthropologists.