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Department of Geology at the University of Minnesota Duluth
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A Brief History of the Department of Geological Sciences

With commentary by T.B. Holst and R.W. Ojakangas

In 1950, Bob Heller, a paleontologist-stratigrapher with a fresh Ph.D. from the University of Missouri, started the Department. For several years he taught every course on the books, single-handedly—he was probably in the classroom more than 30 hours per week!

Economic geologist, Henry Lepp, out of Canada via the University of Minnesota, was hired in 1954, and the geology major was approved. There were already many “majors” waiting in the wings, for Bob was a great recruiter. For example, after a 10-day field trip to the Badlands and Black Hills, about half of the 20 students came back as “majors”, although they didn’t realize it at the time. Dick Beckman and Dick Ojakangas were the first two official geology graduates, in June 1955.

In the summer of 1957, the Department was given a third position. Bob and Henry wanted time to search for the right person, and persuaded Dick Ojakangas, just discharged from the U.S.A.F, to be an instructor for the 1957-58 academic year. Imagine how delighted Bob and Henry must have been, being free of physical and historical labs for the first time! The search ended in 1958 with the hiring of John Green from Harvard, and Dick left for graduate studies.

Bob Heller took a leave in 1963 to head the Earth Science Curriculum Project (ESCP) at the University of Colorado. (When the U.S.S.R. launched the first Earth-circling satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, Congress began pouring money into secondary education so that the U.S. could “catch up” to the Soviets.) Chuck Carson, a geomorphologist (Ph.D. Iowa State), was hired as Bob’s temporary replacement.

In 1964, Henry Lepp was enticed away to head the geology department at Macalester College, and Dick Ojakangas, now a sedimentologist with a Ph.D. from Stanford University, was hired in the fall of 1964 as his replacement. Don Davidson (“young Don” or DMD), a structural geologist from Columbia University, was hired in 1965 as the Department continued to grow. At the same time, Bob Heller returned as Department Head and, Assistant to the Provost.

To handle the physical and historical geology labs, Lee Warren was an instructor from 1963 to 1969, George Holliday from 1965 to 1969, and Tom Hanson in 1970-1971. This allowed the regular faculty to concentrate on their lectures and research.

Ralph Marsden, Chief Geologist for the Oliver Iron Mining Division of U.S. Steel, was enticed away from Pittsburgh to become Head in 1967 of this now Precambrian-oriented department, as Bob Heller moved up to become Associate Provost full-time under Provost Ray Darland.

In June 1967, the CIC Geology Field Camp (later renamed the Wasatch-Uinta Geology Field Camp) began with joint sponsorship of UMD, UM Twin Cities, UW Madison, Iowa, and Purdue.

In 1968, Dave Darby, a paleontologist-stratigrapher (Ph.D. University of Michigan), was lured out of the jungles of Peru where he was working for Mobil Oil. (Dave later said, “I thought, why should I go to Duluth, a place I have never even seen? But then, they are also hiring me, sight unseen! Let’s give it a try.”)

In 1969, Jim Grant, a metamorphic petrologist via Scotland, Queen’s University in Canada, and Cal Tech, and then teaching at Minnesota Twin Cities, joined the staff. Charlie Matsch, a Quaternary geologist-geomorphologist from Wisconsin via Minnesota Twin Cities, was hired in 1970.

The Department thus stood during the 1970s with seven full-time tenure-track faculty: Ralph, economic; John, igneous petrology, mineralogy, volcanology, environmental geology; Dick, sedimentology of biotite schists, sedimentology-stratigraphy, Precambrian; Don, structural geology, Precambrian; Jim, metamorphic petrology, optical mineralogy, Precambrian; Dave, sediments, paleontology; Charlie, geomorphology, Quaternary geology (“remember, the overburden has a wonderful story to tell, too”). Clearly, a major orientation was Precambrian Geology. Even paleontologist Dave became so oriented, working on stromatolites. And Charlie acknowledged, gratefully, that his Pleistocene deposits were nearly all derived from the Precambrian basement.

While the rocks don’t change much, interpretations and geology department staffs ultimately do. In the fall of 1979, Don Davidson left to head the department at the University of Texas-El Paso and Ralph Marsden retired. Tim Holst, a structural geologist from Minnesota Twin Cities and then at Hope College, was hired as the structural geologist. Ron Morton, from Carleton University in Canada, was hired as the economic geologist. By this time, there were two geologists in higher campus positions—Bob Heller was the Imperial Grand Poohbah (i.e., Chancellor), and Rip Rapp arrived from the Minnesota Twin Cities campus in 1975 as Dean of the College of Letters and Science.

The Department had, for some time, sought to provide a wide range of courses, even outside the major areas of faculty expertise. Charlie added to his knowledge of water systems with a leave to Denver U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to study groundwater. Jim added geochemistry courses. Ron and Tim team-taught exploration geophysics, and Tim did a couple of versions of geophysics. But many memories remain of departmental discussions and dreams of hiring a full-blown geophysicist, a geochemist, and a groundwater geologist.

Stability in personnel again reigned throughout the 1980s but with a few important changes. Tom Johnson, oceanographer via Scripps and Minnesota Twin Cities, joined the staff in 1981 (with Alworth funds), but was hired away two years later by Duke University. A part-time tenure-track position was added in 1986, filled by Penny Morton. This position was created by Ron moving to 75% time, and the addition of some engineering money from Dean Rapp of the College of Science and Engineering, with the rationale that the Materials Processing engineers would take mineralogy and surveying. Glenn Evavold was hired in a part-time capacity to teach surveying. Another change in the 1980s occurred on September 30, 1988, when the Math-Geology building was renamed Heller Hall in honor of Bob Heller.

The decade of the 1990s began with Rip leaving his deanship to assume an appointment that was officially 1/3 Archaeometry Lab, 1/3 College of Ancient Studies on the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus, and 1/3 Geology Department. At the same time, Tim complicated things by leaving for the “dark side”, becoming Associate Dean of the College of Science and Engineering. A series of temporary replacements for Tim followed, teaching astronomy as well as structural geology. Paul Umhoeffer was his replacement for two years. Greg Ojakangas (from NASA via Cal Tech) taught for four years. Greg also taught geophysics, remote sensing, field methods, and physics. In about 1995, Jim Grant added structure to his admirable repertoire, and Susan Hartley was hired to teach astronomy, after having taught it in the Continuing Education program.

Dave Darby took an early retirement in 1992. At the same time, a severe University-wide retrenchment hit. CSE’s share was several hundred thousand dollars from a budget that was 87% personnel costs. Half of Dave’s position was lost, and Rip’s position was retrenched to 90% time.

The Department decided to hire a groundwater person with the remaining half of Dave’s paleontology position, funds from the newly funded R.L. Heller Professorship, and funds from Rip Rapp cutting back. Thus, in 1991, Howard Mooers was hired away from the University of Iowa shortly after he completed his studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. The Heller endowment also provided funds for Glenn Evavold to teach groundwater contaminant classes.

Then there is the LLO (Large Lakes Observatory) chapter in the history of the department. In 1994, Tom Johnson was hired away from Duke University to be the Director. (We must have liked him when he was here in the early 1980s.) In 1995, Nigel Wattrus (Ph.D. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities), a geophysicist, with Arco Petroleum, and Erik Brown (Ph.D. MIT and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute), a geochemist working in France, joined the staff. Both are 50% LLO and 50% Geological Sciences Department.

John Green retired in 1999, and the administration said we could not replace him. (They must have known that he IS irreplaceable!) However, the administration agreed that we could make a new hire in advance of the next retirement, which was to be Charlie Matsch in 2001. Instead of one, we were able to hire two; John Swenson (Ph.D. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities), and Christina Gallup (Ph.D. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities), who was at the University of Maryland. John is in experimental sedimentation basin analysis and groundwater. Christina’s expertise is in geochronology and geochemistry.

Dick Ojakangas retired in 2002 and was replaced by Tim Demko from ExxonMobil. Tim had graduated some years earlier with a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona. He is a broad sedimentologist, with an emphasis in sequence stratigraphy.

The Department successfully competed for a new position funded by “Freshman Seminar” monies that came from Central Administration. By mortgaging Jim Grant’s pending retirement in 2004, we were able to hire a couple away from Southern Methodist University. Vicki Hansen, a graduate of University of California Los Angeles, is a structural geologist and planetary geologist with an emphasis on Venus. John Goodge, also a University of California Los Angeles graduate, is a structural geologist and metamorphic petrologist with an emphasis on Antarctica.

In December 2002, the Department faced its fourth retirement in as many years with the retirement of Rip Rapp.

The last of the "old-timers", Jim Grant, retired in 2004 and now resides at his lakeside home on Lake Nebagamon. Tim Demko left the department in 2007 to return to the oil industry and once again is doing great things with ExxonMobil. The department was fortunate to be able to replace Tim with Karen Gran. Karen is a fluvial geomorphologist who received her Ph.D. in 2005 from the University of Washington. She joined the department in 2007.

In 2007 Tom Johnson stepped down as the director of LLO (Tom remains on the faculty and is active in both research and teaching) and Steve Coleman was hired to take his place. Steve is a quaternary stratigrapher and also works on paleoclimatic and paleoenviromental records from sediment cores collected from large lakes. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Colorado and came to UMD from the (USGS).

In 2008 the department was able to hire Bryan Bandli as our full time Lab Manager, to run the new SEM lab. Bryan received a Master's degree from the University of Idaho in 2002 and, believe it or not, moved to Duluth Minnesota from Duluth, Georgia.

So, as of fall 2009 the Department consists of Ron Morton, Penny Morton, Tom Johnson, Howard Mooers, Nigel Wattrus, Erik Brown, Christina Gallup, John Swenson, Vicki Hansen, John Goodge, Karen Gran, Steve Coleman and Bryan Bandli. John Green and Charlie Matsch are in the department most days and Dick Ojakangas drops by when not traveling. We also see Rip Rapp and Jim Grant occasionally when they stop in Duluth.