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William R. Muehlberger Graduate Fellowship in Structural Geology/Tectonics

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The William R. Muehlberger Graduate Fellowship in Structural Geology/Tectonics was established by the Board of Regents of The University of Texas System on June 25, 2010, to benefit The University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences. Gift funds were provided by an anonymous donor as well as from 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

Whatever else he did in a life of service and accomplishment, William Rudolf (Bill) Muehlberger was, in the words of his children, Karen and Eric, “first and foremost…a teacher.” 

Born in New York, New York but raised in Hollywood, California, Bill entered the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) when World War II interrupted his studies. Enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps, he was sent to study civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, where he also reigned as an Intramural Heavyweight Wrestling Champion. Bill 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, he married Sally J. Provine and soon had Karen and Eric. Bill 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, his doctoral work was in Sierra Pelona and the Soledad Basin, California. Bill 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. As professor, chairman, and professor emeritus in the Department of Geological Sciences, 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. His students worked on problems in tectonics. structural geology and petrology in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, the southern mid-continent basement, Vermont, the Canadian Rockies, the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Turkey, and the Moon. Bill and his students made the first geological maps of Honduras as well as parts of Guatemala and Mexico. In addition, hundreds of undergraduate students studied geologic field mapping under his tenure as co-leader of the University’s Geology Field Camp in New Mexico and West Texas from 1956 to 1992. Bill was 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 was fond of saying, “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.

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 that “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’ x 6’), 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. 

Bill retired from the faculty in 1992 but remained active with his research.

With the knowledge of how much Bill loved to teach in mind, his students, friends, and family created this endowment to celebrate the significant and varied contributions made by him to their lives and to the science of geology during his 57 years of service to the University. Its goal is to help attract the best graduate students in structural geology to the Jackson School of Geosciences and to defray their living expenses upon arrival so that they can concentrate on their studies. Surprised but gratified by this honor, Bill himself wrote the requirements for candidacy as set forth in the endowment’s charter:

Funds distributed from the endowment shall be used to award a fellowship to a graduate student possessing the greatest breadth and depth of geologic knowledge and who is focused on a research project aimed at resolving an important structural or tectonic problem.

The initial goal of raising $250,000 over a five-year pledge period was spearheaded by a few of Bill’s students and his family. Such was his influence on the lives of people around him, and their appreciation for the impact he made on their lives, that the entire amount was secured within a few months of the endowment’s formal establishment.

Shortly before passing away in September 2011, Bill shared that the most rewarding aspect of teaching for him was to see a student who took his beginning geology course switch to geology as a major. 

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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