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Robert S. Houston -- 2002 -- Outstanding Former Alumnus
Geology and Geophysics Department
Professor Emeritus Robert S Houston was born in Monroe, North Carolina. He earned both his B.S. Degree and his M.S. degree in geology and physics at North Carolina State University, and he received his Ph.D. in economic geology at Columbia University. Houston joined the UW faculty in 1952. Houston made fundamental contributions in teaching, research, and service during his tenure at the university. He supervised more than 50 M.S. theses and Ph.D. dissertations and taught virtually hundreds of undergraduates at the summer Geology Field Camp, which he directed beginning in the mid-1970s until 1987.
This seven week program gave Houston an opportunity to get to know his students very well. Houston also excelled at mentoring graduate students. His former student, Professor Ernest M. Duebendorfer, Northern Arizona University, commented, “In my opinion, Bob Houston’s most outstanding personal characteristics are his integrity, sense of humor (even in difficult situations), and his modesty. As an example of his integrity, he never accepted credit for his students’ research and insisted that the student be first author on any publication based on his or her research.”
Internationally recognized as an expert on the geologic evolution of Precambrian rocks, especially the Precambrian evolution of the Archean Wyoming province and environs, Houston spent most of his UW career mapping the Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre Mountains. His careful, detailed studies of the complex early history of the earth have led to the concept of a major crustal boundary (now referred to as the Cheyenne Belt) running through Wyoming. Houston’s pioneering work formed the basis for a vast, cooperative, $3 million National Science Foundation (NSF) project initiated and led by Houston’s former Ph.D. student, Karl Karlstrom. Involving nearly 20 universities, this study is one of the most visible, comprehensive studies in Earth Science ever conducted in the United States.
Houston served as chair of the Department of Geology and Geophysics between 1968 and 1986. During that time, the department experienced enormous growth and became nationally and internationally recognized for offering one of the strongest graduate programs in Earth Sciences in the Rocky Mountain Region. When he took over as department head in 1968, the department had nine faculty members; by the time Houston retired from that position, 21 faculty members were on board. Professor Ron Marrs, interim Department of Geology and Geophysics chair, noted, “Known affectionately as the ‘silver fox,’ his subtle manner of administration was legendary. With quiet good humor, persistence, and the flair of a southern gentleman, he accomplished whatever needed to be done.”
Houston’s work with graduate students is among his finest accomplishments. Professor Karl Karlstrom, University of New Mexico, recalled his initial experience with Houston fondly. “I showed up in Laramie in July of 1975, green as can be. Bob had already accepted me as his graduate student and found financial support, so I was reporting for duty, so to speak. After a cordial welcome, he unfolded his famous geological map of the Medicine Bow Mountains and, pointing toward the Deep Lake area, said: ‘Karl, why don’t you start here and figure out the structure and stratigraphy of the Deep Lake Group.’ That night, I headed out to find that place on the map and begin my geologic mapping, even before finding a place to live in Laramie. Later in his career, Houston’s services veered toward university-level administrative duties. These positions required Houston to expand his thinking politically, and he did so admirably. Houston was acting president for Academic Affairs (1986) and provost and vice president for Academic Affairs (1987-1988). He also served as interim president of the university in 1987.