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

James c. KnoxJim Knox: Exceptional scientist, teacher and friend
Memorial address by Prof. David Mickelson, Geology, Oct. 12, 2012

I'm honored to have been asked by Kathy, Lezlie, and Sara to speak to you today. I'd like to share my views of Jim as a colleague, a scientist, and more importantly as a friend. I started at UW three years after Jim did. We had met on several field trips when I was a graduate student and again when I came here to Madison to interview. When we moved to Madison in 1971 our families got to know each other and Jim and I almost immediately started working together.

As many of you know Jim loved working in the Driftless Area – that part of southwest Wisconsin that was not glaciated. It had been thought to be unglaciated for many years before the 1960s when my predecessor, Bob Black, published several guidebooks and abstracts claiming that it was glaciated. This was the perfect project for young assistant professors to work on, and Jim was the perfect partner. I was interested in the glacial arguments and Jim was interested in what the streams, hillslope deposits, and soils could tell us. We got along well and Jim introduced me to many southwest Wisconsin bakeries in those early days – and a few taverns as well. I think we proved conclusively that the Driftless Area was not glaciated and we published several papers demonstrating that.

For the next 40 years, our careers diverged in some ways, with me working in the glaciated area and him in the Driftless Area, and then converged on numerous statewide projects and co-advising of graduate students, along with non-academic activities such as working on antique tractors.

I have always valued him as a colleague and as a friend. Let's talk a little about both aspects. He was a scientist who was much respected by geomorphologists around the world. His office sometimes – well usually – appeared disorganized, but his thinking and his data collection were very orderly and complete. He was meticulous in collecting data and analyzing it, and he demanded the same from his students. It is not appropriate here to discuss in detail his research contributions, but they were significant. And I would like to mention some.

His primary work was on streams, mostly in the Driftless Area, but in other places as well. He was especially interested in looking at the effects of climate changes, often minor ones, on stream systems and he was known around the world for those studies. He was also interested early on in the impacts of humans on streams and he clearly documented the effects of European settlement on streams and their floodplains in southwest Wisconsin. Jim was an early leader in this field.

In recognition of his contributions to geomorphology he received numerous awards from professional organizations and in 1997 he was awarded the Evjue – Bascom Professor at-large, named chair which he held until his retirement. This is quite prestigious! He received a number of other awards, and was most recently the recipient of the Association of American Geographers Presidential Achievement Award for Long-standing and Distinguished Contributions to the Discipline.

Not only was Jim a careful researcher, but he instilled that same ethic in many of his students. Most of them have gone on to prestigious careers in academic or industry. His impact on graduate students is obvious from their enthusiastic response to the celebration of his career at the national Geological Society of America meeting last year and a large gathering of his former students and friends at a retirement celebration last fall. He spent a great deal of time with students, both grads and undergrads. Normally when I stopped by Science Hall to chat with him there was a student in his office, and sometimes several were standing outside waiting to see him. Many of the grad students that I talked to last fall raved about the attention that Jim had paid them and how his guidance had been a wonderful inspiration. They also appreciated the field trips! These were the best of times for many of his students.

And then there were the drill trucks. There was a small drill truck on a three-quarter ton chassis that was here when we arrived. We used that for a few years, but recognized that we wanted something bigger and more modern. We put in a proposal and managed to buy a 10 ton rig that could easily drill to 100 or more feet. Jim was pretty protective of that truck and many times complained that those hydrogeology students were wrecking it! In fact, that was true to some extent. At two different times students tried to take it under the old Park Street bridge which was about 6 inches too low to allow the truck to go through without trimming off pulleys and various cables that were on the mast.

We also purchased a pickup truck with a small drill rig. It was just three weeks ago that Jim, Lou Maher and I stopped by the parking lot in Mount Horeb where it sits today. Jim allowed as how it was getting pretty rusty and maybe it was time to get rid of it.

Lou Maher, Bob Dott and I, all of us in the Geology Department, have often commented among ourselves on what a treat it has been to have Jim as a friend and colleague.  We all lunched together quite often before and after Jim's retirement. Jim especially enjoyed heading out for a long lunch to places like Potosi to see some old mine sites and then have lunch at the brewpub, or to search cemeteries for graves of ancestors or important historical figures of southern Wisconsin.

Jim loved not just Earth history but Wisconsin history and genealogy. I remember his excitement just this fall about finding a new bits and pieces of information on the web about his ancestors in Scotland.

As many of you know, Jim had a great sense of humor. He wasn’t a joke teller, but he saw the humor in many situations and made sure we recognized that as well. He was a joy to spend time with. We did many field trips together. A particularly memorable one was one when Jim, Lou Maher, Al Schneider from UW Parkside, and I went to a meeting in Reno in November. We first flew to San Francisco and rented a car. Jim wanted to look for the grave of an ancestor in the goldfields of the Sierras, and it was after dark, after much searching, that we drove the rental car into a cemetery overgrown with weeds and found it using the headlights – we had no flashlights of course. The next day we drove to Yosemite National Park, planning to stay in the Lodge. Alas, the Lodge was full and all that was available were tent platforms with wall tents on them and cots inside. They were obviously intended for people with sleeping bags, but we didn't have any. We decided to give it a try anyway. Little did we know that it would get well below freezing by the time we got up in the morning. I can still remember Jim on the cot wearing almost every bit of clothing in his suitcase, including the suit he planned to wear at the meeting. There was solid ice on the bucket of water outside the door in the morning.

I won't tell many Jim Knox stories. But perhaps one more. A few of us drove to a conference – I think it was Bloomington, Indiana – Jim would remember exactly where it was. One of the geomorphology sessions was on theoretical geomorphology. Well, Jim was a practical guy and could see that a lot of that stuff was baloney. On our way home, someone, maybe Jim or perhaps Bill Newman, had the idea of creating a tongue-in-cheek Badgeria Institute – its sole research objective would be to speculate on what it would be like if Wisconsin had mountains? This conversation managed to entertain us for quite a few hours that day and off-and- on over the next 15 or 20 years.

Another great feature of our friendship was the "oops award" parties that we had for many years. These parties created great interaction between grad students in geology and those across campus in geography. I see some of you out there who were winners of the “oops award”. All of us, but particularly the graduate students, watched carefully for mistakes, generally harmless ones, of others, including the faculty. Nominations were then made – often inflated to make it good story – and the winner was chosen by the applause meter – which was usually Jim’s arm. Jim, of course, won several times including the banner year when a couple of students and I wrecked the Geology department boat on Lake Superior, Vance Holliday, another geomorphologist in the Geography Department, drilled into a gas line in Texas, and Jim drilled into a phone cable disrupting service and running up a fair size repair bill. Of course, Jim, with his interest in statistics, had to analyze the magnitude and frequency of these oops events much as he did with flood events. Similar, except that the “oops events” had almost no data.

Well, I could, but I won't, go on. Let me just finish by saying that Jim was an exceptional scientist and teacher and also an exceptional friend. We will miss him.