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Ronald K. DeFord Technical Session Award

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Professor Ronald K. DeFord
Professor Ronald K. DeFord

The Ronald K. DeFord Technical Session Award was established by the Board of Regents of The University of Texas System on October 15, 2008, to benefit The University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences. Gift funds were provided by Ms. Robbie Gries, a 1970 graduate from The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences.

Professor Ronald K. DeFord's academic life was dedicated to enhancing excellence within the department of geology while building a more comprehensive learning environment for students.

Ronald DeFord joined the University of Texas at Austin as a Professor in 1948. He was Graduate Advisor in the Department of Geology from 1949 to 1967. He supervised a phenomenal 19 Ph.D. dissertations and 126 master’s theses. Nearly all of these degrees were based on fieldwork, many in West Texas and northern Mexico. After nominal retirement in 1972 and appointment as Professor Emeritus, he continued until 1987 as the faculty supervisor of Technical Sessions, a one hour course meeting twice a week which was required of all graduate students to learn clear, effective speaking. He then retired in fact at the age of 85, partly because of the afflictions of Parkinson’s disease. Professor DeFord's influence on the Department and University was immense, as a teacher, a leader, and a colleague.

As Graduate Advisor in the Department, Professor DeFord encouraged all students to acquire an adequate foundation not only in geology, but also in mathematics, physics, chemistry, English, foreign language, and fine arts. His interests and skills in English usage were always evident when he edited student manuscripts. Among the memorable courses he taught were undergraduate classes in physical geology and graduate courses in Geology of Fluids and Advanced General Geology. Vigorous discussions with students were hallmarks of his teaching.

From the 1960s on, Professor DeFord was the only full-time faculty member without a PhD degree. This was not an issue with his faculty colleagues, but, insisting on proper titles, he corrected people who addressed him as Dr. DeFord: “I am Professor DeFord” was his response. Ronald DeFord, age 92, Professor Emeritus of Geological Sciences, died May 7, 1994. He will forever be remembered with great respect, love and affection by his family, friends, students and colleagues.

For 35 years, Professor DeFord was married to Mary Amma Spence. Her quiet and unassuming strength complimented his forthright and exacting manner. She accompanied him on many summer field trips as an active participant living in primitive conditions. UT Austin President Emeritus and former Director of the Jackson School’s Bureau of Economic Geology, Dr. Peter T. Flawn, recalls them as “inseparable” and remembers first meeting her in an adobe motel in Kent, Texas while she awaited Professor DeFord’s return from the Apache Mountains. Dr. William L. Fisher, the first dean of the Jackson School and another former bureau director, considered them the “social glue” of the Department of Geology for their hosting of numerous faculty parties. Amma passed away in 1976.

Professor DeFord taking a breather while reviewing work performed by his graduate students, Chihuahua, Mexico, August 1957.
Professor DeFord taking a breather while reviewing work performed by his graduate students, Chihuahua, Mexico, August 1957.

Professor DeFord met his second wife, Marion Wier (B.A. ’46 English with Honors), at a dance in the mid 1970s. “He was, she says, “a marvelous dancer.” They married in 1978 and were very active patrons of the arts and museums in Austin as founding members of the Austin Lyric Opera as well as great supporters of Ballet Austin and the Austin Symphony Orchestra. Professor DeFord was also part of the group who started University Federal Credit Union. When illness forced him to stop driving, Marion served as his chauffeur, attended his Technical Sessions classes with him, and assisted with his administrative tasks. She took him to AAPG meetings in San Francisco, San Antonio, Dallas, Atlanta and Denver, even when he was in a wheelchair. They faithfully attended the Austin Geological Society meetings until Ronald's death. In 1994, the AGS presented her with a plaque which stated "The AGS recognizes Marion W. DeFord in appreciation of her loyal support of the Society and her devoted assistance provided to a fellow member, the late Ronald K. DeFord." Until his death, she cared for him in their beloved home where he could enjoy all his books and paintings, and he could watch all the wildlife he loved on the property. Marion continues to actively support the Jackson School, most especially in creating the Ronald K. DeFord Graduate Advising Office in the school's new student center.

In 2011, Professor DeFord was inducted into the Jackson School’s Hall of Distinction. This honor pays tribute to individuals who are or were strongly affiliated with the school and who achieved exceptional distinction and standing in academia, industry or government.

Robbie Gries arrived at UT Austin in 1966 with no support and great needs. She has never forgotten that as the Graduate Student Advisor, Professor DeFord was always encouraging and found her a Research Assistantship and eventually a Teaching Assistantship which allowed her to continue her graduate studies. She remembers that at her first Technical Session, which was overshadowed by her “lifetime fear of speaking in front of a group,” a fellow student fainted after Professor DeFord “rose to his full imperial height and said, ‘I have a question about your field area.’” The experience did not make her feel any better about speaking.

However difficult it initially was for her, Robbie believes that Professor DeFord’s idea to teach geology students how to make a formal presentation was one of the most important and unique assets UT offered to its graduates. In her words, “I found that for years I could always recognize that training in presentations at professional meetings.” She further observes that “it was decades before other schools seem to catch on about how valuable it was to train students to present.” Eventually, Robbie went on to win some “Best Paper” awards for her presentations which she feels has helped her in her professional life and created a sense of accomplishment that she otherwise would not have enjoyed.

As to the impact she hopes that her endowment will have on the Jackson School and UT Austin communities, Robbie is clear. While the costs of a presentation have become insignificant thanks to computers and photoshopping, “I believe,” she says, “that it is still important to have a monetary award for the students who put in the effort to make superior presentations.”

Robbie is not alone in appreciating the value of the Technical Sessions. Professor DeFord heard it for himself when one of his last graduate students said to him what many of his former students felt: “Because of what you made us do, we were so much better in our jobs than others.” According to Marion, “this made my husband very proud.” “He would have been thrilled,” she says “to recognize how good tech sessions were to everybody.”

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