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History of Geology Department

“Up from the Mud”

by Paul Myers, April 1998

In 1960-61, it was proposed that geology courses should be offered in the Geography Department under Mr. Henry Kolka. This began a crucial time for the newly “orphaned” Geology Department, a time for development of new faculty and curriculum and the carving of space from a building not planned for a geology department. With only three faculty members, the newborn department easily could have been resorbed back into the Geography Department - or disbanded altogether. Since that time the Geology Department has grown and developed a reputation for excellence. I felt it appropriate to summarize the department’s history because the “youngsters” in the department are all relatively new to the department.

The Formative (“White-Knuckle”) Years: 1960-1982

The proposal in 1960-61 to offer geology courses in the Geography Department led to some turbulent times. Amidst considerable, often heated, discussion of courses which rightfully “belonged in Geology” and those which should be taught under the heading of “Geography” during 1964-66, the newly renamed Department of Geography and Geology began offering a cluster of introductory and second-year geology courses such as Mineralogy-Petrology, Structural Geology, Geology Seminar, and Field Geology all taught by John Bergstrom. The separation of geology from geography in state universities was a national trend linked to rapid expansion in the petroleum and minerals industries. With the hiring of Ronald Willis in 1967, the Geography-Geology Department began offering “softrock” courses such as Stratigraphy and Sedimentation and Paleontology.

The Geology Department officially separated from Geography in July 1969 and obtained instructional space. At this time the 2nd floor labs, specimen + map storage, and work/preparation areas were carved out of spaces assigned to other departments. This did not endear the Geology Department to its Phillips Hall neighbors! The newly remodeled Phillips Hall (W and S wings) had not been planned for a geology department, the “orphan-child” of Phillips Hall. The Geology Department faculty shared first floor office space and a secretary with the much larger Mathematics Department. Paul Myers was hired to teach Mineralogy, Petrology and Economic Geology in 1969. Building a “traditional” geology major from scratch with only 3 faculty members and providing students seeking an orderly progression of courses proved daunting during this period of rapid growth and change.

In the early 1970s, the profile of the Geology Department was raised as courses were revised with an increased emphasis on General Education courses. Courses such as “Geology and the Environment” and “Oceans and Shorelines” were introduced and proved quite popular. In addition, numerous course-connected field trips to Chippewa Valley sites, Wausau, SW Wisconsin, and leading the Wisconsin State University Field Conference in the Eau Claire area showed the department’s commitment to meaningful field experiences, a reputation that continues to the present. Upper-division courses taught by Bergstrom, Myers, and Willis included Struct. Geol., Min. Petrology-Petrography, Econ. Min. Deposits, Sed-Strat, Paleo, Petroleum Geology, and Field Geology. The large Field Geology enrollment during summer 1973 showed that the department was doing well. However, the need for courses in hydrogeology, engineering, and environmental geology was recognized.

By 1973-74, Math had moved out of Phillips Hall, creating space for Geology. New general studies courses such as National Parks, Earth Resources, Glaciers, Rocks and Minerals, Continental Drift led to more geology majors (40) and minors (35). Nancy Jo Pickett joined the Department half-time, teaching Physical Geology labs and organizing collections. In October 1974, Ms. Betty Vetter of the Scientific Manpower Commission, Washington D.C., gave a talk entitled “Futures in Geoscience Professions” at the Tri-State Geology Conference hosted by the WSU-Eau Claire Geology Department. This talk gave new impetus for changes in the Geology curriculum toward environmental and hydrogeology courses, and in 1975-76 a request was submitted to add another full-time faculty position in hydrogeology and environmental geology. By this time, Environmental Geology (101) and Oceanography (102) had become the department’s most highly enrolled courses. The university also acquired a Tracor Northern SEM.

The number of geology majors fluctuated considerably during the following years. In 1977-78, the department had twenty-one majors (15 men, 6 women). Geology majors reached a maximum of approximately 84 in 1982, but soon began to decline owing to a sharp reduction in demand for petroleum- and minerals-related geologists. This led to a need for the department to reposition itself in its relation to needs in the profession, so much time was spent searching for new faculty to cover new courses.

The Adjustment Years: 1982-1990

During this period, with the rapid decline in demand for geologists in the petroleum and mining industries, there was a general decline in upper-division geology enrollments with a consequent shift toward environmental and hydrogeology emphases. This was a time of rapid changes in teaching staff and a maturation of the larger department. The years 1982-83 marked a turning point in the Geology Department. With Bergstrom retired, Pickett and Willis on leave, and Wilson leaving to take a teaching position at Weber State Univ., the Department faculty underwent a quantum leap into the unknown. Combs, Myers (Chair), and Orazulike were joined by new faculty; Scott Schillereff (structure) and John Tinker (hydrogeology) [5.0 faculty]. Course additions included Field Methods, Hydrogeology, Vertebrate Paleontology, Paleoecology, and Plate Tectonics. In 1983 Robert Hooper joined the faculty with a new Ph.D. in Geochemistry-Mineralogy from Washington State University. This brought the number of faculty up to six, and things started humming!

With declining numbers of geology majors in the mid-1980s (in 1984-85 majors were down to approximately 30) there was an increased emphasis upon service and General Education courses, such as the 1-credit 100-level lab course in Environmental Geology. During this time, Lung Chan (geophysics, structural geol.) joined us. In addition, Physical and Chemical Hydrogeology courses approved in 1985-86 began changes in the department that were to recapture majors and strengthen the department. By 1986-87 geology majors were up to 38 in three comprehensive major emphases (General, Environmental, and Marine Geology) and the Liberal Arts major. Majors were increasingly shifted toward environmental and hydrogeology areas. In late October 1987, Nan Pickett died after a battle with cancer, and the Geology Department lost a valued friend and colleague. In 1989-90, Hooper was awarded NSF grants for an x-ray diffractometer and petrographic microscopes—equipment that helped us make the transition to….

MAKING IT BIG-TIME: 1990-Present

Under Robert Hooper’s excellent leadership, the Geology Department experienced rapid growth in the number of majors and minors, student-faculty research and publications, program diversity, curriculum refinement and acquisition of sophisticated analytical equipment and their incorporation into the program. We became a respected member of the science community at UWEC and throughout the State.

Over its 30-year history, the fledgling Geology Department has adapted and evolved into one that has gained the respect of its university neighbors and the greater academic professional community. Its persistent enthusiastic commitment to learning by direct experience – in the lab and in the field – and its insistence upon faculty-student research collaboration have brought it to a position of prominence in the field.

The Geology Department will have to keep on changing in the future, and we are looking for partners – like YOU! You can help by offering our students internships and jobs, speaking with us about your work, or giving to the Geology Department Advancement Fund. We thank YOU for helping to build the tradition for excellence within the Geology Department!

Geology Department History

Part II - John R. Bergstrom

By Paula M. Sumpter (Class of 1983)

John Bergstrom was the first geologist to join the faculty at UWEC, hired as an Associate Professor of Geology in the Department of Geography and Geology. There would be no separate Geology Department until he established it, a task that took six years. His specialty was Structural Geology, but in his eighteen years at UWEC he taught 25 different courses.

Bergstrom was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1916. He received a B.A. in Geology in 1938 from Union College in Schenectady, NY. After graduation he found jobs in geology to be scarce and made a living selling ski equipment and vacuum cleaners, as well as working for Eastern Airlines. In 1942 he enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a member of the 10th Mountain Division. After the war, he returned to college at the University of Wyoming at Laramie, where he earned an M.A. in 1950 and Ph.D. in 1954. He taught briefly at the Univ. of Connecticut, Williams College, North Dakota Univ., Western Illinois Univ. and Arkansas Tech. in sabbatical-replacement positions. In 1964 he joined the faculty of the UW-Eau Claire where he taught until his retirement in 1982.

The case for establishing Geology as a major and as a separate department was outlined in the form of white papers Bergstrom wrote to administrative personnel. One such paper, written in 1965, described how the advent of space exploration had increased public interest in "The World We Live In" and caused Earth Science to be added to the public school curriculum. By 1964, demand at UWEC had resulted in the hiring of a geologist and the implementation of a program intended to provide pre-professional training and courses that would satisfy the general education laboratory science requirement. By 1965 the Curriculum Committee had approved the offering of a Geology minor for the fall semester of 1966.

Another paper included a graph demonstrating projected growth in student enrollment in geology courses and a detailed chart outlining the corresponding need for additional staff. The chart illustrated how Bergstrom would eventually be joined by "Man B" "Man C" and "Man D" over a period of five years, as well as the new courses and additional sections that would be added to the curriculum. It was supplemented by interviews with students who wanted to become geology majors at UWEC, and these and other students would have to go elsewhere if the major was not offered at UWEC. Projected increases in employment for geologists, primarily in the petroleum industry, had helped to spark student interest.

The Geology major was offered in the catalog for the first time in 1967 and an independent Geology Department was established in 1969. Bergstrom served as department chairman from 1969-1971. He was joined by "Man B", Ron Willis, in 1967 and "Man C", Paul Meyers, in 1969. "Man D" happily turned out not to be a man at all, but rather Nan Pickett who was finally hired in 1973.

I met Bergstrom in my first geology class, Plate Tectonics. He greeted me warmly and I liked him immediately. He had bright blue eyes and a face that crinkled when he smiled, which he did often. He was outgoing and friendly, the sort of person who makes you feel like an old friend as soon as you meet him. After a few sessions of the class I was hooked. It didn't take long for me to realize that this man was literally telling me how the world worked. He had opened my eyes to the processes that shape the planet and my interest has not wavered. In retrospect I realize I had inadvertently chosen the perfect course to begin my study of geology. Everything I've learned since has been more meaningful for having this global view of geological processes as a foundation.

During every lecture he took at least one trip down memory lane and related some story relevant to the topic of discussion. He knew the geologists who were regarded at the experts in the field and peppered his lectures with first-hand anecdotal information. J. Tuzo Wilson, a pioneer proponent of the theory of plate tectonics, was discussed in an early reading assignment. In the subsequent lecture, Bergstrom digressed into the story of how he and Wilson had once discussed particulars of the theory far into the night over a bottle of bourbon. He was not name dropping - he brought it up so he could tell us what Wilson himself had to say.

Bergstrom was a life-long student and a born teacher. He was interested in everything and always learning something new. If you were sensible enough to listen, he would turn right around and teach it to you. He got an obvious thrill out of seeing the lights come on in a student's eyes when they finally understood and it spurred him on to teach some more. His lectures always exuded enthusiasm. He was excited about the prospect of learning and clearly did not understood people who were not.

He didn't just teach for the 50 minutes he was scheduled, nor did he keep just the office hours required of each professor per week. If he was in his office, it was office hours. If he was awake, it seemed he was willing to teach. He taught in hallways, parking lots, moving vehicles (those riding shotgun needed to watch the road), while he walked, drank coffee or ate lunch. If you really wanted to learn he would make time. If a geology student was studying in the evening and didn't understand something, they could call him at home and he would explain.

His office was at the end of the hall at the back stairway, a room that would be later occupied by John Tinker. Books and manuscripts clogged the shelves, covered every available surface, including the floor, and climbed into great piles that sometimes teetered precariously. As far as I could tell, it was an organizational system based entirely on the Law of Superposition. Students were always welcome to move the inevitable pile of reading material from the visitor’s chair, find a spot to put it down, and make themselves comfortable. It was interesting to see what his subject of the moment would be. He was always observing and his conversation was never dull. There was always something going in the world, on campus, in the department or in his head that he was prepared to discuss.   He had a firm command of the English language. He was a student of words, interested in their meaning and devoted to their appropriate use. An eloquent writer, he chose his words carefully and always said exactly what he meant. To this day, whenever I read something he wrote I know I will never do it that well.

Bergstrom rarely arrived at any destination by way of a straight line. His lectures were full of asides, his conversations full of stories, and his path to anywhere full of detours. He would be walking along and something would catch his eye and off he would go. You could be talking to him and look around and he would be gone. He didn't intend it to be rude (actually, he didn't intend it at all); he was just unashamedly fascinated by everything. Follow him and he would tell you all about the thing he had just discovered. He understood that important things happen all along a journey, not just at the destination. He taught me to keep my eyes open because I never knew what discoveries I might make along the way. Very often those unexpected events are more important than what I thought that I came to do.

There's an art to being a mentor; to be able to explain and correct so much without being condescending to the student. To know when they've had enough for the moment and let up so they can tell you about something for awhile. To encourage them to think for themselves. To let a student argue a point and sharpen his or her skills on you without being offended. The students must trust that the instructor is inviting them to share what they know and not criticizing them for what they don't. Bergstrom had all the qualities of a mentor and generously shared his wisdom and passion for discovery with his students.

John Bergstrom died entirely too soon on June 24, 1988 at the age of 72. The flag on Schofield Hall flew at half staff in mourning. During the memorial service, his twin sister read aloud a portion of a letter he had written to her. In it he described his observations of the change of season from summer to fall and his continuing effort to understand all he had seen. It was a beautiful letter, more like poetry than prose. There was one line that remains in my memory, "I am a slow and impatient study, still learn I do." I can only hope to do as well.

Excellence. Our Measure. Our Motto. Our Goal.