I am particularly pleased to offer a toast to Bob Burger, the Achilles Professor of Geosciences. Bob is the longest serving member of the faculty, now completing his 45th year at Smith. When one of Bob’s earliest students, from the Class of 1967, wrote to him on the occasion of his retirement, she commented that he arrived as an assistant professor in a department of geologic giants. She continues, “Like a mammal among dinosaurs, he flitted around breathing energy into the somewhat dusty geologic halls.” He came to Smith at a watershed moment in the development of the geosciences, when concepts of plate tectonics and continental drift were fairly new. Bob embraced these new ideas, critical in changing the department to what it is today. Bob is now one of the giants—though certainly not a dinosaur.
His research focuses on ancient mountain belts in southwestern Montana, the structural evolution of the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts, and the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to mitigate natural hazards. His bibliography lists well over one hundred books, monographs, articles, and abstracts. His teaching has always been deeply integrated with his research; many publications speak to pedagogical issues, and, together with two colleagues, he has published a leading textbook “Introduction to Applied Geophysics.” He has also been quick to embrace information technology in his research and teaching.
Bob has been an important citizen and leader on campus. His cv contains a virtual alphabet soup of committees; and he has served as chair of geology for four terms, and fifteen years.
Bob is a winner of the Sherrerd Distinguished Teaching Award. His courses—particularly those in structural geology and in natural disasters—have been legendary for decades. When I was collecting information for this toast, Bob’s colleague, John Brady, sent me a file of letters from students that had been collected for the department’s retirement celebration. I was deeply moved by the scores of tributes, spanning four and a half decades, many with vivid and detailed accounts of what they had learned from Bob’s courses. Alumna after alumna testified to how amazing Bob was as a teacher, a mentor, and a friend.
The geographic range of photographs in this set of alumnae tributes is amazing—New England and Montana, of course, but also Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, and one amazing shot of Bob and Ann on a camel—probably not taken in the Grand Canyon. Bob has been a stalwart of the Smith travel program, leading trips to the Great Lakes, the Canadian Rockies, Ireland, Patagonia, the Sea of Cortez, New Zealand, and Antarctica. A welcome letter to the travelers on one of these trips gives a sense of the zest and wonder he brings to them: “As a geologist I try to look beyond what is visible today and imagine how a landscape has changed and evolved over millions of years. I hope I will be able to take you on such a journey, so that you enjoy not only what you are seeing during the trip, but appreciate how the present landscape originated from many different events during Earth’s history.”
Bob (and Ann, his wife) love travel, and rarely take the easy way. When Paul and I took a trip to Peru a few years ago, we discovered Bob and Ann were going there too. However, we took trains, planes, and automobiles; they hiked the Inca Trail. Bob loves model trains, however, and Bob and Ann are both accomplished gardeners.
In his tribute to W.B. Yeats, Auden writes, “He was silly like us.” With all Bob’s seriousness about rocks, he loves puns and sheer silliness. So in conclusion, I will raise my glass with one of Bob’s verses, in imitation of Edelweiss:
You are nice, rocks are gneiss
I know a gem when I see one.
It’s crystal clear, when you are near
You, my dear, I find faultless.
Here’s to a nice, faultless gem.