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Professor Gene Williams on Field Camps in Utah in the 1970s

You asked me to give you some thoughts about my experiences at our Geology Summer Camp held in Alta, Utah, Gene Williamswhere I was an instructor for several years in the mid 1970s.  It is a sobering thought to know that our students there, so young and vibrant, apprehensive at being in the field for the first time in such forbidding terranes, are now well into their professional careers.  I cannot remember all their faces or their names, but I can still see them, with their packs and picks, boarding the vans in the morning in the parking lot of the Alta Peruvian Lodge for the trip down Little Cottonwood Canyon to the field area along the Watch Front above Salt Lake City.  For them, as well as for their teachers, the moment of truth has finally arrived.  For after years of sitting in classroom and laboratory, the student finally gets to face the rocks alone, and will find out how well he or she was instructed and has learned, and whether or not he or she has the capacity to apply such knowledge -- in effect, if he or she has the makings of a geologist.  I would hope that experience at Alta provided a solid base for future progress, because the geology of that area was most inspiring and wide-ranging.  I have no way of knowing how well they fared, for I have heard from very few.

     Now I see, between the partings in the dark clouds of the past, high on the Wasatch Front, small clusters of our students in the process of making their maps.  When I approach one of the parties, after much climbing, one of its members comes forward to meet me.  He is their leader, not because a vote was taken, but probably because he just took charge naturally.  He is not necessarily the brightest or the most aggressive, but somehow had the ability to command, just the way leaders emerged when I was in the military.  He had to report the progress of the work, answer my questions, and hear any criticism I might offer.  Dividing the students into field parties, although necessary, made it difficult to evaluate the final reports submitted by each student, because so much of the work was a joint effort.  I don't think we ever solved this difficulty in grading the final reports.

     Peering once again through the mists of the past, I see myself in the basement of the Alta Peruvian Lodge, making drawings on large sheets of brown wrapping paper.  Ah!!  Now it's all coming back.... I am transcribing my field notes and diagrams to be put on exhibit that evening.  They represent the results of observations I had made when I was out visiting the field parties.  It demonstrated to the students the kind of observations an experience field geologist would make, and thus set a kind of standard for the next day's work.  In effect, the diagrams said, this is what you should have seen today so that you may see more tomorrow.  I tried to do this for all the parties I visited so no one party had the advantage.

     The clouds part once again, and I see a small, balding man in the process of giving a lecture in the dining room of Gene Williamsthe Alta Peruvian.  The subject is a report of the U.S. Geological Survey entitled "Lake Bonneville" by G K Gilbert.  The lecturer is Dr. Larry Lattman, a Professor of Geomorphology at Penn State, and the subject the history of a Pleistocene lake which once occupied a much larger area surrounding the present Great Salt Lake.  The next day we will travel to the valley to examine the evidence.  For the history of the lake presented by Gilbert is one of the great classical papers in American geology.  In addition to providing the student with relevant technical aspects of a subject, it would be desirable if one could illustrate, by example, something which would represent the best of its kind as a way of providing inspiration.  Thus the students heard one of the most brilliant lecturers in geology speaking about one of America's greatest geologists and how he worked out the history of Lake Bonneville.  It is not necessary that everybody be good, but that there be an example of it somewhere.  That was a day, some forty years ago, near Salt Lake City, Utah, where that excellence was both seen and heard.  This was a rare treat, not only for the students but for all the faculty as well.

Left: Gene Williams examining the Wasatch Fault

     During my thirty years on the faculty at Penn State, I participated, in varying degrees, in Penn State Geology Field Camps.  They all had something to offer, but I felt that Alta was the most exciting, not only for excellence of exposure and varietie of problems and history, but also because few, if any, of the faculty were familiar with the geology of the region.  So we had to learn along with the students.  If effect, we had to teach by example.  Standing at the outcrop, facing students and colleagues, one had to "speak plain French."  If one could not, they would find you out, and you would lose your influence, to be taken over by another.  So there were natural leaders among faculty, just as there were among students.  It was for the director of the camp to find this out and to use the staff accordingly.  The camp director at Alta, Derrill Kerrick, was excellent in this regard.

     And now, one final thought.  Living in such close quarters with students and colleagues, one quickly learns about their personal and professional strengths and weaknesses, as well as your own, which is probably more important.  I will give just one example.  Sometime, during my stay at Alta, the camp was visited by Wayne Burnham, the Geoscience Department Head.  I was surprised to see him, because I felt that he did not have a high regard for field geology, inasmuch as his field was experimental geochemistry.  Well, I was wrong, very wrong.  The next day, I was even more surprised when he visited us in the field.  I was in the process of visiting one of the field parties mapping faulted alluvial fans high along the front of the Wasatch Range when I saw, far down the valley, a figure climbing up toward us.  As he approached, I saw that it was Wayne, huffing and puffing and obviously not in the best of shape.  He said to continue on with what we were doing; he would just observe.  But after a short while he asked a few pertinent questions and made some critical observations.  He had traveled some thousands of miles not just to review our efforts at the camp but to participate and to contribute.  Now, I'm really surprised and embarrassed because I realized that in all the years I had known Wayne, I had judged him to be a narrow specialist, and here he was talking about tectonics and sedimentation, my two specialties.  For years you can pass your colleagues in the hall or see them in the conference room and really know little about them, a condition that can be corrected by a few days in the field.  If I were a chair of a geology department, I think I might require all members to teach Summer Camp at least once, if only for getting them to know and appreciate their colleagues.

     Although the lengthening years now cast longer shadows on my memories of our summer camp at Alta, I feel that what I have related here is, for the most part, accurate and will remain one of the most pleasing periods of my teaching career, made possible by willing and able students, even though I cannot recall them all individually.  It was, indeed, "a time to remember."

                                                                ---- Gene