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UW Cuts Ribbon on Thorson Geology Field Camp

August 15, 2022
people listening to a person speaking in front of a T-Rex statue
A ceremony Friday at the UW Geological Museum marked the naming of the Tom A. Thorson Geology Field Camp, in honor of the late Wyoming geologist. (UW Foundation Photo)

The University of Wyoming has cut the ribbon on the Tom A. Thorson Geology Field Camp, a venerable century-long tradition made new by a $1 million gift from family in honor of Tom Thorson, president of the Wyoming company Black Hills Bentonite LLC.

“Our department’s field camp boasts a long and esteemed tradition of providing top-notch field training for students interested in pursuing a career in the geosciences,” says Mark Clementz, head of the Department of Geology and Geophysics. “With this donation, we can not only ensure that this tradition continues, but also that the content of this course is able to evolve as new methods and technologies are developed for field research.”

The Tom A. Thorson Geology Field Camp Fund is an endowed excellence fund that was established by Don Thorson and Mary Thorson Gullikson on behalf of the Harry T. Thorson Foundation. Family and friends also contributed to the fund.

“Tom loved his experience going to the Geology Field Camp, and it fostered a lifelong love of the outdoors and for Wyoming,” says Tom Thorson’s sister, Mary.

The Tom A. Thorson Geology Field Camp was formerly named the University of Wyoming Field Course in Geology or the Summer Field Camp, and it has been training geologists for almost a century.

The camp celebrates 100 years in 2023, and many of the nation’s geologists have experienced this rite of passage. It was created by the legendary professor S.H. “Doc” Knight, who recognized early in his teaching career that field experience was necessary for a comprehensive education in geology, and the terrain around Laramie was ideal for that purpose.

“Our goal is to provide the best training possible for our students, and the commitment from the Thorson family, along with friends and colleagues of Tom, in his honor will help to ensure we are able to do this for years to come,” Clementz says.

The camp is a six-credit-hour, six-week summer course -- a comprehensive and nationally recognized professional experiential learning opportunity that provides a broad introduction to geologic field techniques.

While this course is vital for students, it also is expensive, though UW does its best to keep costs low. The course fee is currently $3,250. Total cost covers tuition, transportation during fieldwork, course supplies, some instructional costs, meals and lodging while away from Laramie. Students participating in this required course are not able to work during this time.

The Tom A. Thorson Geology Field Camp is a worthy tribute to its namesake: Wyoming geologist Thorson.

He was the president of Black Hills Bentonite, the family business, for six decades until his death from cancer in December 2020. He joined the family business in 1961 following his graduation from UW.  

Black Hills Bentonite was a pioneer in the industry, one of the first to ship crushed bentonite in open-top hopper cars, which helped to develop overseas markets. Thorson’s father, Harry, also introduced field-drying techniques to the industry that he had learned growing up on a farm in North Dakota.

Seventy-five years later, Black Hills Bentonite is headquartered in Casper and has three plants located in Casper, Worland and Upton. The company employs 100 people and mines and hauls from locations across the state.

“The generosity of the Thorson family allows a level of excellence and opportunity at UW that would not be possible otherwise,” says John Small, UW Foundation senior associate vice president for development. “A camp like this allows students to gain invaluable hands-on experience that they will carry into their careers and lives, in turn making Wyoming and the world all the better for it.”

Friday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony and reception took place at the UW Geological Museum. Speakers included Don Thorson, UW Provost and Executive Vice President Kevin Carman, Clementz, Small and geology student Sue Heller.

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