Why I Am a Geologist
     Even when I was a kid, I wanted to be a scientist. The allure of investigating the unknown always intrigued me. I was probably born to look at rocks. I'm sure I started wanting to be a geologist before I ever even heard the word or knew that one could make a living by studying rocks. It probably started one morning at the breakfast table in 1957.  I was four years old. As I filled my cereal bowl with Trix that morning a small, plastic Dimetrodon tumbled out of the box and into my bowl.
    "Mom!" I cried.  "What’s that?"
    "It’s a dinosaur." she replied. Today, I would argue with her that it was actually a pelycosaur, a primitive mammal-like reptile that dominated the terrestrial scene at the end of the Paleozoic Era. (It still sits on the window sill in my office.) Dimetrodon died off millions of years before the earliest known dinosaur ever thought about breakfast.
    Back then, I accepted my mother’s word and asked my first questions about dinosaurs. I learned the word extinct that day.  I also learned that one has to dig to find dinosaurs. That afternoon I took my little shovel and started digging in the back yard. My mother told me that I wouldn’t find any dinosaurs there in West Long Branch, New Jersey.  Stubborn and determined to find a dinosaur, I continued digging anyhow... until I hit the top of the septic tank about a foot and a half down.
    Like most kids, when they discover dinosaurs, I became a fanatic. A few months later my parents took me to the American Museum of Natural History in New York to see the dinos on display... I also saw a Dimetrodon!  As a first grader in Syracuse, NY, my teacher once reprimanded me for spending too much time writing a dinosaur book. I wondered if Dick, Jane, and Sally liked dinosaurs; it wasn’t obvious if they did.
    Two years later we moved to Pittsburgh. On Saturdays my parents often took my brother, sister, and me to the Carnegie Library and Museum. I always spent the most time looking at the dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles on display. The immensity of time was beginning to gain some appreciation in my mind.  In truth though, I was much more interested in the Pittsburgh Pirates who played at Forbes Field, across the parking lot from the museum. I was an Adjunct Professor at Pitt for a few years and still use the Pitt Paleomagnetism Laboratory . Forbes Field is gone but my old friends the dinosaurs are still there. I still visit them when I am in town.
    We moved to Albany, California when I was 10. On the way out, I bought a small rock collection at the gift shop at Red Rocks Amphitheater, west of Denver. I sat with that box of rocks on my lap and identified every roadcut we whizzed by until we arrived in Berkeley a week later--I wish I was as confident of my identifications today!
    A year later, in 1964, we moved to Hamilton, NY. Driving through northern California, Oregon, and Washington on our way to New York, I was completely captivated by the enormity of the Cascade volcanoes. The expansive lava fields of the Columbia River Plateau were beyond my imagination.
    As a sixth grader in Hamilton, it fascinated me that nearly every rock lying on the ground had a fossil in it.  These weren’t dinosaurs. These were funny-looking invertebrate creatures that thrived in a long-gone Devonian sea one hundred fifty million years before the dinosaurs appeared. As a Boy Scout I went to Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, NM. Our leader was an Earth Science teacher at a nearby high school. What he lacked in field experience, he made up for with enthusiasm for the geology of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Some of it must have rubbed off. I earned the Geology Merit Badge the next year while taking high school Earth Science.
    Other things occupied my interest through my last three years in high school but the Geology bug bit me again before I entered Dartmouth College as a Freshmen. I read in the catalog that Geology majors were required to go on a field trip to Central America to climb active volcanoes. I made that trip my Junior year and was hooked. The next summer I worked for a mineral exploration company in California, Nevada, and Colorado. I knew I was hooked that first day in the field when a helicopter picked us up on the McCloud Reservoir Dam, in northern California, and flew us to a distant mountain peak. We were dropped off there and spent the day walking down a steep streambed collecting sediment samples in a dense virgin forest. At the end of the day the chopper picked us up and returned us to camp. We used the helicopter for a week to get to the most remote areas and spent another five weeks working on streams that had vehicular access.
     I spent the winter of my Senior year in Guatemala mapping Tertiary volcanic rocks for the Instituto Geográfico Nacional (Guatemalan Geological Survey) with three other guys: Carl Nelson, Jake Dann, and David Hyde. It was rough going but, even though we were extremely naive in our interpretations, we produced good maps that were eventually published. I was launched.

In retrospect, this is a pretty amazing photo. It was taken in November 1973 in the southern Arizona desert near Benson by a classmate (Ernie Page). I am the guy in the red plaid shirt (and very cool hat) on the right. We are all watching as our professor, Noye Johnson (butt to photo!), demonstrates to us for the first time how to collect a paleomagnetic sample in continental sediments. Little did I realize that 10 years later I would return to Dartmouth as a Ph.D. student to work with Noye on this very topic but on the east side of the Andes in NW Argentina. My career has followed this path ever since.


I grew up a lot in Guatemala, realizing that there is a world out there about which I knew very little. When I returned to Dartmouth, my mentor, Dick Stoiber, asked me to stay to pursue a Master's Degree with him. I decided that was a good idea. I married Haidee Wilson just before graduation. We found an apartment and lived a few miles outside of Hanover for the next two years. I returned to Central America for three months and traveled back and forth across the Neogene volcanic belt in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. My results correlated the Neogene strata across the region and also, eventually, helped me realize that much of the area in which I had mapped as a senior was actually a large, Miocene caldera.
     After receiving my Master's Degree, I took a job as an Environmental Geologist at the West Virginia Geological & Economic Survey in Morgantown, WV. It was an excellent first job and was my real introduction to sedimentary rocks. I traveled all over the state looking at landslides, strip mines, road cuts, and anything else that related to geology and society. Something always bothered me about environmental geology though. as important as it is, I really didn't get into geology to look at the ways other people had messed up the planet. I left after a year and a half. I'm extremely grateful for that time in West Virginia and still go back there to look at the rocks. My time there changed the direction of my career.
     I ended up teaching geology laboratories at Colgate University, in my home town, in the spring of 1980. I immediately realized that an academic career was where my future lay. I loved every minute I was in the classroom and related to the students very easily. That summer, I worked for Phelps Dodge Exploration East on a couple of projects in northern New Hampshire. In the fall, I started the Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts. Unfortunately, six weeks into the program, I suffered a near-fatal stroke while on a field trip in northern Maine. That knocked me out of the program and Haidee and I returned to Hamilton where lots of friends could kick me in the butt to keep me on the road to recovery. I was extremely fortunate in that Colgate hired me back to teach labs for a year while my body slowly started its trek back in the direction of normalcy. (Someday, it might even get there.) It surprised me when my department chair offered me a full-time teaching position the following year. It was a timely offer. My oldest daughter, Elise, was born two months later.
     I taught the same labs that I had the first year but I also taught a freshmen seminar in Volcanology, a 3-week January course in the Hawaiian Islands, and Geomorphology. Certain that I wanted to pursue an academic career, I applied to the Dartmouth Ph.D. program and was accepted. Prior to leaving Colgate, I taught on their Off-Campus Field Study in the Taconic Mountains near Granville, NY. It was my first full-fledged field work since the stroke. This experience made me realize that I didn't just want to be a geologist, rather, I had to be a geologist.
     Soon after entering Dartmouth, Noye Johnson asked me if I would be interested in doing a magnetostratigraphy project with him and Teresa Jordan, at Cornell, in the Andean foreland basins of NW Argentina. I said yes, immediately. For some reason I had harbored a dream to go to Argentina since I first read about it in my 4th grade Geography class. I made my first trip there in the summer of 1984 with Noye and Terry and Terry's student, Shaun Reynolds (no relation). I loved the country, the geology, the people, the food, the wine; I knew I had made the right choice. I made two more trips to Argentina while I was a grad student, spending a total of five months in the field. Although I still limped noticeably and my left hand wasn't very cooperative, my body regained much of its former strength.
     I received my Ph.D. in June 1987 and moved to Northfield, VT where I had accepted a position as an Assistant Professor at Norwich University--the Military College of Vermont. Suddenly, I found myself wearing a captain's uniform to class every day. As odious as that was to me, I had two great colleagues, Fred Larsen and Dave Westerman, who made teaching there somewhere between bearable and fun. The best thing that happened to me at Norwich was receiving a Fulbright Fellowship to conduct 6 months of teaching and research in Argentina. During the Fulbright, I taught a short course on magnetostratigraphy at six of the Argentine national universities. It was my first teaching experience in Spanish. I'm sure it was horrible in the first couple of classes but it rapidly improved and I became fairly fluent. During these courses, the students, faculty, and I established six new magnetostratigraphy sections.
     I spent parts of the summers of 1990 and 1991 at the paleomagnetic lab at the University of Hawaii--Manoa analysing the Argentine samples I collected on the Fulbright and samples that I collected on a contract research project in Trinidad and Tobago. It was during my second visit that I received word that Norwich was declaring financial exigency and that all untenured faculty were being terminated. My second daughter, Elena, was born the day before Christmas. This all occurred in the year I was to go up for tenure. Trying to beat the system to preserve my job proved to be to no avail so in July 1992 I started receiving unemployment checks. The economy was not in a good state and there were few jobs in geology, so once again my career choice was being challenged. I was lucky, though, and was hired at Western Carolina University, starting in January 1993.
     I think I realized that I had made a mistake my first day at WCU. I requested a filing cabinet from my department chair. You would have thought that I was asking for her office. I found the place to be a pretty big school in a beautiful place but with an administrative culture that belonged in the Dark Ages. The total lack of vision and pervasive inferiority complex drove me and most of the other faculty members crazy. I've never belonged to any organization that had a morale problem that ran as deep as the one at WCU. I inadvertently exacerbated a bad situation when my picture appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal on February 15, 1994. In what I still regard as a good, straightforward article, the author described the employment situation in academia. The sophisticated dons of WCU took great umbrage at this and made my life hell after that. I was denied tenure and left in June 1997.
     Anticipating that I would never receive tenure at WCU, I started Magstrat, LLC, a consulting company, in 1995. My goal was to go full time into consulting and leave academia forever. I had some fun and fascinating contracts doing exploration work in Patagonia, magnetostratigraphy in northern Argentina, and remote sensing projects in several areas but once again I found that I was out of synch with the economy. I never really brought the company to the level where I could make a living with it.
     Then, in July 1999, I received a letter from Larry Ragsdale, at Brevard College, telling me that their geology professor had taken a sudden leave of absence and they needed someone to fill in as a one-year replacement. Convinced that academia was evil, I decided not to apply and left the next day with my daughters for a two-week vacation at my parents' place in New York. While in Hamilton, I went up to Colgate to visit any of my old colleagues who were around. I explained my present situation to Paul Pinet. He told me a story about his career that bore similarities to my own. He applied to a job at Colgate that was a three-year contract. "Things worked out." he told me, "I'm still here." It was at that moment that I decided to apply for the job at Brevard.
     When I returned to North Carolina, I called up Larry Ragsdale and asked if the position was still open. He said yes and requested that I send him an electronic copy of my vita. I did immediately. Less than 15 minutes later, he called me up and invited me over for an interview the next day. I interviewed and was hired the following day. I started teaching two weeks later. Brevard and I got along instantly. Ever since I had taught at Colgate, I had longed for the type of academic atmosphere that Brevard provides. Neither Norwich nor WCU came close to having  the environment in which I could thrive. In fact, WCU seemed to do everything it could to stifle creativity and innovation among its faculty.
     Brevard allows me the freedom to teach my courses the way I think they should be taught. When the opportunity arose for me to stay at Brevard after that first year, I accepted it immediately. I quickly developed a Geology Minor and an international field course. Students, faculty, administrators, and I seem to rapidly find levels of communication where everyone's needs can be met. I was awarded tenure in the Spring of 2003.
     There have been plenty of rough times on this road but I have never regretted the path I chose more than 30 years ago. I have enjoyed every twist and turn along the way. The opportunities I had for field study as an undergraduate laid the foundation for my professional career. I still work in Tertiary-aged rocks in the Argentine Andes. I try to give all of my students the opportunity to experience Geology as they study it. I have led portions of group field studies in the southwestern, northeastern, and southeastern  U. S., Hawaii, eastern Canada, Guatemala, Argentina,  Iceland,  Costa Rica, Italy, Chile, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Greece. In the past I took some of my students to Argentina and another to Trinidad & Tobago where they collected samples for their Senior Theses. It has been a wonderful ride. I hope to continue it for many years to come.


Last updated
August 9, 2007