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William R. Muehlberger Field Geology Scholarship Fund

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The William R. Muehlberger Field Geology Scholarship Fund was established by the Board of Regents of The University of Texas System on June 10, 1993, for the benefit of the Jackson School of Geosciences. Gift funds were provided by Friends of the University comprised of family members, friends, colleagues, and former students. The endowment honors William R. Muehlberger, Ph.D. of Austin, Texas. 

Dr. William R. Muehlberger, August 2010
Dr. William R. Muehlberger, August 2010

During his 57-year affiliation with The University of Texas at Austin – as professor, chairman, and professor emeritus in the Department of Geological Sciences, William Rudolf (Bill) Muehlberger was always a strong advocate that geology is best done in the field where one sees theory meeting real life. “Sitting in a lab, you are not a geologist,” he believed, “you are a ‘geo-something.’” Bill’s work and adventures in the field can arguably be considered the gold standard for any geologist and teacher.

It is not surprising that Bill did not like to isolate himself indoors nor did he ever confine himself to one state, one country, one continent, or one celestial body. Born in New York, New York but raised in Hollywood, California, he was attending the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) when World War II interrupted his studies. Enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps, Bill was sent to study civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, where he also reigned as an Intramural Heavyweight Wrestling Champion. He returned to Caltech in 1946 earning academic (B.S. and M.S. degrees in 1949) and athletic (fullback on the football team) honors. In 1949, Bill married Sally J. Provine and they soon had two children, Karen and Eric. He was recalled to active duty with the Marines during the Korean Conflict and re-enrolled at Caltech in 1952. Named outstanding senior in his class, Bill’s doctoral work was in Sierra Pelona and the Soledad Basin, California. He received his Ph.D. in 1954.

Bill left southern California and moved to Austin to begin teaching at the University. His interest was in structural geology and tectonics (the development of folds, faults, and mountain belts) as well as the transport of material by wind, rivers, and ice. Throughout his career at UT Austin, Bill’s research and that of his 59 M.A. and 26 Ph.D. students have resulted in hundreds of publications, and his distinguished teaching has garnered eight major awards and endowed professorships. In addition, hundreds of undergraduate students studied geologic field mapping during his tenure as co-leader of the University’s Geology Field Camp in New Mexico and West Texas from 1956 to 1992. 

Dr. William R. Muehlberger, right, examining Apollo 16 Lunar Sample 61016 inside the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, circa 1972.  Nicknamed, “Big Muley,” after Muehlberger, the rock weighed 11.7 kilograms and was the largest collected during the six Apollo lunar landing missions.
Dr. William R. Muehlberger, right, examining Apollo 16 Lunar Sample 61016 inside the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, circa 1972. Nicknamed, “Big Muley,” after Muehlberger, the rock weighed 11.7 kilograms and was the largest collected during the six Apollo lunar landing missions.

Recollections of Bill by many of his former students are characterized by respect for a stern and formidable taskmaster mixed with affection for a down-to-earth and honest human being. Bill St. John (B.S. ’58, M.A. ’60, Ph.D. ’65), a graduate field assistant in his Marathon Senior Field Geology course, recalls him as “a serious teacher” with “very few funny stories about him,” except for the night when the students succeeded in throwing him and two other instructors into a water tank. St. John, an ex-Marine with exceptional 3D vision (two traits which always warmed Bill’s heart) says that Bill has remained his personal hero since they first met in 1958. Jerry McQueen (B.S. ‘61, M.A. ’63) once slabbed some rock samples for Bill and remembers “he was very demanding, especially being an ex-Marine, that I do it correctly – I hope that I did!” Nevertheless, after observing that Bill was never shy about letting people know his opinion, he took note to not just blindly accept someone else’s interpretation but to analyze the data and make his own interpretation. Mark Gordon (Ph.D. ’90) points out that field work, along with time in Bill’s office, was important “because that is when we worked out tectonic problems or he sent me off in new directions.” Some 25 years later, he would really appreciate Bill’s influence when his job took him to look at Eagle Ford-equivalent rocks. 

Patricia Wood Dickerson (B.A. ’70, Ph.D. ’95) whose long-time collaborations with Bill include astronaut field training as well as two geological guidebooks on Trans Pecos, Texas and the Big Bend region, recalls the pleasure of working with a man who generously shared his knowledge not only on the geology of an area but also on its human history and flora and fauna. More importantly, she learned that despite having his own interpretation of data, he was completely open to anyone in testing their ideas provided that they did their homework and did not miss consulting a body of information that might change the conclusion. In the early 1960s, Tim Denison (Ph.D. ’66) joined a team, headed by Bill, whose project was to make a map of buried basement rocks of the contiguous United States. Although the resultant map and publication were largely due to Bill’s vision and direction, Tim states that he was “scrupulous in giving credit” to him and the other team member at every opportunity; the lesson – when good work is done, there is plenty of credit for everyone – is one that Tim says he has tried to take to heart and follow.

Continent- and hemisphere-scale projects reflected the scope of Bill’s thinking – he directed production of the first Basement Rock Map of the United States (USGS, 1968). He also compiled the definitive Tectonic Map of North America (measuring 6’ x6’), the first showing the plate tectonic settings of all the rock units that comprise the continent as well as the surrounding ocean floors, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean regions. Of the latter, Sharon Mosher, dean of the Jackson School and longtime friend and colleague of Bill’s, says, “It’s an award-winning map that hangs in probably every geosciences building in the country.” For these efforts, he received Best Paper awards from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (basement rock project in 1965) and the Structure/Tectonics Division of The Geological Society of America (for the Tectonic Map in 1998).

Bill’s career went beyond the continents and hemispheres of Earth when he began teaching geology to astronauts from 1964 through 2005. Most notably, he was the Principal Investigator for the Apollo 16-17 Field Geology Experiment Team which had the responsibility of laying out the traverses for the missions, training astronauts in field work, offering advice from mission control while the astronauts were on the Moon, and writing a report summarizing what they had learned. Bill was a Co-Investigator of the Earth Observations team for Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz Missions. In addition, he briefed each Shuttle crew on tectonic features they would see and photograph from orbit, contributing to a worldwide image database. Two NASA medals attest to his contributions to astronaut and public instruction in geological and solar system exploration: the 1973 Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and the 1999 Public Service Medal. In May 2010, he was the recipient of the Team Innovation Award from NASA’s Johnson Space Center. 

Shortly before Bill passed away in September 2011, he reflected on the importance of field work. The field was, in his view, the place to learn. Those lessons could then be supplemented by lab work, results of which provide new insight for returning to the field. He expressed the hope that the endowment in his name would continue to financially help students train outside of the classroom to enable them to “do a better job” as working geologists.

In March 2012, Bill was posthumously honored by NASA, fittingly, with the dedication of a memorial tree in the Memorial Grove at Johnson Space Center. The oak, like the man who taught every one he met about the world around them and encouraged them to experience and discover it for themselves, is firmly rooted in the Earth and reaches toward the stars.

Material for this story was provided by Patricia Wood Dickerson, Ph.D. and Marc Airhart both of the Jackson School of Geosciences.

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