In Memoriam: Prof. James C. Knox (1941-2012)

James c. KnoxJim Knox: Community Builder
Memorial address by Prof. Jim Burt, Geography, October 12, 2012

Like Dave Mickelson, I’m honored to have this chance to speak to you about our remarkable colleague. Compared to Dave, you’d have to say I’m one of Jim’s newer friends; I knew him for barely 3 decades. I met Jim Knox in 1981, about two years before joining the geography faculty. My last time with Jim was exactly a week ago today, when an old friend and I shared a beer with him in the Rathskeller after work. As anyone would, I have countless individual memories involving Jim from that span.  But I’ll try today to speak more generally, about Jim’s qualities.  As I’m sure they are for you, these impressions of Jim are so strong and so fresh that to call them “memories” seems not quite right.

Perhaps my strongest impression of Jim is as a builder. He’s been called a force of nature, and he surely was. However, a hurricane is not the right comparison: the Mississippi is much better.  Steadfast and consistent, and a depositional section, not erosional, perhaps the delta…always positive, always building.

He was a builder of the department: when he arrived in the late 60’s the department was among the very best, filled with luminaries that helped define mid 20th century geography. As they aged it was up to Jim and his colleagues to provide a vision for continued excellence in the later part of the century. Jim Knox />Along with some people in this room, Jim was both an architect of and cornerstone in a new Geography department, one that was likewise universally considered among the top few. He was a leader again in the subsequent generational turnover, and with similar results.  Geography at Madison has been exceptionally strong for decades, and Jim Knox was a major reason for this.

Jim was also a builder of community. This certainly applied to physical geography. One of my fondest memories in this regard is of getting together on Fridays for lunch at the long-gone Black Bear lounge. The instructors and TAs of our large physical courses along with other physical (and a few non-physical) grads would eat, talk, tease, shoot some pool, and yes, sip beer into the early afternoon. But there was always a moment when Jim would signify “times up” and drive us out, back to the department for the weekly colloquium, no matter how far removed from physical geography the speaker might be. Jim knew the importance of breadth in Geography, and he wouldn’t abide retreat into narrow subdisciplinary alcoves. This is but one example of his determination in that regard.

I also think of Jim as incredibly balanced. He balanced family and profession, and within the academic world he was remarkably well-rounded in terms of both effort and outcome. First, Jim was an exceptionally productive researcher, and as Dave has indicated, his research findings fundamentally changed our understanding of the response of fluvial systems to changes in climate and land-use. Jim received many awards for his work, including the highest honor given by the Association of American Geographers. That kind of success is unusual, and enough for most academics. But Jim was equally committed to teaching.  Up until retirement he taught at all levels, from large introductory courses through specialized graduate courses and seminars. Moreover, he was good at it---and indeed his named professorship is one that specifically recognizes outstanding teaching. Jim was beyond diligent in scrutinizing our curriculum: tracking enrollments, making sure we had the right people in the right courses, rethinking our offerings. He chaired about 90 graduate committees, including 30 Ph.Ds. in geography. Jim’s former students teach in colleges and universities throughout the world, comprising the Knox school of geomorphology. It’s not unusual to hear researchers fret about how teaching takes time away from their own work…for Jim teaching was his work. So were administrative duties and service. If you sat down for a committee meeting that included Jim, you had better be prepared because he would have studied all the files and background documents. He served on nearly every important university committee and chaired quite a few of them. Jim’s work for learned societies, state and federal agencies is beyond extensive. He did it all, and he did it well.

Jim was intensely loyal. He supported our university, our discipline (he was always a geographer), our department, and most importantly, individuals. Everyone turned to Jim for advice. Here’s what a former grad student [not his] wrote a few days ago

“I especially valued discussions with him about life as a professor. I am sure that you will receive many messages about Jim from other people who knew him, but I want to make sure his impact and importance are recognized beyond his area of research. Many, if not all, graduates of your department were influenced by him…”   

Our undergrads, staff and faculty would say similar things.  Jim freely dispensed wisdom, encouragement, and that most precious resource---time---to anyone who needed them. He wanted all of us to succeed.

I know you all could add other impressions: integrity, his pleasant but firm directness, a refusal to take things personally, constant warmth and good humor.

Let me close by returning to his community building, where Kathy also played a role. I mentioned meeting Jim before joining the department. Jan and I had come to Madison so I could give a talk and we could visit friends. The Knoxes didn’t know us before that trip, but there we were on Sunday morning, having brunch at their place with other geographers. I’d later realize this was typical. A visitor, a promotion, some department success, almost anything provided a reason for the Knoxes to host a reception, and over the years there were too many to count.  Kathy, the generosity of the two of you in opening your house to us was important in ways you might not know. We are grateful to you for that, and for the chance to share this time with you and the family. We hope that the deep respect and love for Jim so evident in this room and felt far beyond will be of some comfort to you in the days ahead.