GSA Medals & Awards

Penrose Medal

Robert D. Hatcher Jr.
Robert D. Hatcher Jr.
University of Tennessee

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Presented to Robert D. Hatcher Jr.

 Citation by Michael W. Higgins

Robert Dean Hatcher Jr. was born 22 October 1940, in Madison, Tennessee. He received B.A. and M.S. degrees from Vanderbilt University, and a Ph.D. degree from the University of Tennessee. He was assistant professor, associate professor, and professor at Clemson University, professor at Florida State University and the University of South Carolina, and he has been a distinguished scientist and professor of geology at the University of Tennessee since 1986. From 1986 to 2000 he was also a distinguished scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Hatcher is a scientist with incredible energy, enormous drive, a superior scientific intellect, and an ability to get things done. He is prolific, with over 165 scientific papers; more than 140 of these are in refereed journals, and many invited. In addition, he has published eight books, 34 field trip guides, 12 technical reports, and more than 320 abstracts, and he has lectured by invitation at more than 60 different universities, including several foreign universities, at the U.S. Geological Survey, several state surveys, and the Russian Academy of Sciences (Siberian Branch). Bob has guided 35 M.S. students and 14 Ph.D. students to completion and has guided six postdoctoral research associates. He has had 34 successful grants, contracts, and other awards for research. Tireless, in his mid-sixties, Bob presently has seven M.S. students and three Ph.D. students working under his tutelage. In an age dominated by “black-box” and computer-driven geology, Bob teaches geologic mapping, but he teaches the students to guide and follow up the mapping with geophysics, geochemistry, and geochronology and to use computers to assemble and print quality geologic maps. Bob makes sure that his students get credit for what they have done by publishing with them as the senior authors in field trip guidebooks, maps, and published papers, and he makes sure they know how to speak before an audience at local, national, and international scientific meetings.

Bob is a member of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, American Geophysical Union, Carolina Geological Society, Georgia Geological Society, and East Tennessee Geological Society, a Life Member of the Society of Sigma Xi, and a Fellow of the Geological Association of Canada, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Geological Society of America. He is a founding member of GSA’s Structural Geology and Tectonics Division and a member of the Geophysics and International Divisions.

Bob is the only geologist to receive the honor of distinguished scientist in the University of Tennessee system, which has had only 13 distinguished scientists in its history. Bob has been president of GSA, the American Geological Institute, and the Carolina Geological Society and has received numerous awards for service, including the first GSA Distinguished Service Award. He has been a consultant to the Advisory Committee on Nuclear Waste for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a member of the National Research Council Reactor Safety Research Federal Advisory Committee. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences Advisory Committee on the U.S. Geological Survey, Board on Radioactive Waste Management, and the National Committee on Geology.

Bob has organized or co-organized three Penrose Conferences, and he and his students organized and ran the 17th International Basement Tectonics Conference in 2004 and led two major field trips for that conference.

Bob was first to apply plate tectonics concepts to the southern Appalachians in his classic paper, “Developmental model for the southern Appalachians” and has modified the model as new data became available. Bob is one of those rare geologists who integrates field geology, petrology, geophysics, geochemistry, geochronology, and structural geology to decipher the geology of complex mountain systems such as the Appalachians, and he has the writing ability to publish his findings in clear, concise fashion.

In a mix of scientific service and scientific achievement, Bob’s editorship with Bill Thomas of the GSA Bulletin during the 1980s resulted in bringing the journal back to its former status as the leading earth science journal and made major improvements in dissemination of scientific knowledge and he has worked diligently to improve the scientific quality of other aspects of the Society.

Bob served on the Site Selection Advisory Committee for the COCORP seismic reflection project and was part of the team of scientists that first documented that the Appalachian Blue Ridge and Piedmont are totally allochthonous, that the Brevard fault zone dips to the southeast as it would if it were a thrust fault, and that the Pine Mountain belt is a window. Hatcher led a consortium of geologists and geophysicists nationwide in proposing to drill an Appalachian ultradeep corehole to provide lithologic and real geophysical data from crustal rocks that would allow far better interpretation of seismic data. Bob’s Tectonic Map of the Appalachians has been used in national and international syntheses.

In another action in which service and scientific accomplishment are intertwined, Bob assembled leading scientists for the GSA Decade of North American Geology volume on the U.S. Appalachians and Ouachitas. Bob’s scientific standing is documented by eight Fellows, three of whom are Penrose medallists (Jack Oliver, 1998; John Dewey, 1992; Gary Ernst, 2004); three of the Fellows enthusiastically supporting his nomination (Albert W. Bally, Jack Oliver, and Bill Thomas) are past presidents of GSA.

For his scientific service, and especially his service to the Geological Society of America, his teaching, and most of all for his scientific achievements, Bob Hatcher has earned the Penrose Medal, the highest honor a geologist can attain and essentially the Nobel Prize for geology, except that it does not come with a large cash award — sorry, Bob. It is my pleasure and privilege to cite Bob Hatcher for the Penrose Medal.

 top 2006 Penrose Medal - Response by Robert Dean Hatcher Jr.

For many years, I have enjoyed attending GSA Presidential Address and Awards Ceremonies to hear the outgoing Presidents speak and to admire the great accomplishments of the medalists, without considering the possibility that I would be standing here today to receive two of these great honors. For the Penrose Medal I thank citationist Mike Higgins for nominating me, those who wrote supporting letters, the Penrose Medal Committee for selecting me, the GSA Council, and particularly my family for their love and for tolerating my work habits for the past several decades.

I would not be here tonight, however, were it not for several mentors when I was a student and a young professional. Doug Rankin, 1950s Vanderbilt professor now USGS Emeritus, loaned me his Jim Thompson Harvard petrology course notes to read, bring to his office, and discuss with him when I was the only student undergrad petrology, for kindling my interests in igneous and metamorphic processes. Bob Barnes, Tennessee Division of Geology — now retired independent oil geologist — taught me field geology one-on-one, emphasizing the importance of careful observation in making detailed geologic maps. He kindled a spark in field geology that later would become a cornerstone of my career. And George Swingle, my Ph.D. advisor — perhaps more a philosopher — for encouraging me to think freely and synthesize geology based on sound data. Admittedly, crustal geology and processes became my primary hobby and avocation, and the backyard Appalachians became my lifetime playground, with side trips to collect other mountain chains.

During the 1970s three others filled gaps in my knowledge or opened doors abroad. Izzy Zietz, USGS Emeritus, taught me about potential fields geophysics. Jack Oliver, along with Sid Kaufman, Larry Brown, and several Cornell grad students and postdocs, taught me about reflection seismology. Bob Neuman, USGS Emeritus and National Museum of Natural History, got me involved in international geology. I also am grateful to the graduate and undergraduate students who have chosen to conduct their research with me. One of the greatest compliments they have paid me is that most are still willing to talk with me, consider me their friend, and even be considered part of my extended family. I also want to thank my office manager and assistant Nancy Meadows who for most of the past 20 years has held my office together, kept my students and I organized, and kept the bureaucrats off my back.

To put my life into a more geologic perspective, by ~7:30 tomorrow morning I will have lived ~1.2 x 1010 s (66 y). So, I would like to weave a tale of good luck — combining serendipitous and conscience decisions with a little work — that brought me here.

Robert Frost wrote in his poem, “The Road Not Taken,”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both …

There have been many divergent roads in my life: many choices as to which to take were made serendipitously, while others were taken with clear and thoughtful decisions. Early-on my parents wanted me to become a chemist, a chemical or mechanical engineer, or a medical doctor. Then I took a geology course and realized that that was what I wanted to do, despite contrary advice from Vanderbilt geology department head Willard Jewell: the late 1950s were a down time in the cyclic employment-time curve for geologists. My parents were rather chagrined when I walked in and told them I was going to major in geology, with the response, "What is geology?" So, I did not heed Prof. Jewell's advice and completed majors in geology and chemistry, thinking I wanted to become a geochemist, then completed an M.S. in carbonate petrology and geochemistry. Although something beckoned me to return to pure chemistry and organic chemistry, ultimately I decided to stay in geology and seek a Ph.D. in geochemistry. This obviously was a good decision at a major crossroads for a number of reasons. Applying to work on a Ph.D., however, was very frustrating: I was rejected by several universities because of my poor early undergrad record, probably related to having started college at 16. One Ivy League professor — and Penrose Medalist — sent me a lengthy rejection letter saying that only a few should work toward the Ph.D., and I was clearly not one of them. This had a rather large impact on me for awhile on me, but there were still options and I decided to enter the Ph.D. program at the University of Tennessee, to become a geochemist. This was a conscious, but unknowingly serendipitously positive decision for my future for several reasons. My first year there was not a happy one, however, and I even considered transferring. This would have been a very bad decision! In the meantime, I worked summers for the Tennessee Division of Geology and enjoyed making geologic maps, but still thought I wanted to become a geochemist. After several frustrating attempts to begin a research project in geochemistry, a field project was begun in the Appalachian thrust belt in East Tennessee under structural geologist George Swingle. Sometime later I realized that I loved what I was doing; and might be pretty good at making geologic maps, synthesizing small geologic maps into larger ones, and trying to understand the results; so my Ph.D. was completed in structural geology.

In parallel with finishing the Ph.D. in 1965 at age 24, I met and married Diana Simpson, and accepted a position with Humble Oil and Refining Company in New Orleans. After a short time in New Orleans, two other young Ph.D.s in the same group and myself decided to seek academic positions. I accepted an offer from Clemson University, with the lowest salary of three offers. The decision to move to Clemson proved critical for my career, for in our back yard was some of the most spectacular, complex, and unknown geology in the world. After receiving an NSF grant to work on the Brevard fault zone, I realized that I was woefully undereducated to decipher the structure and stratigraphy of polydeformed metamorphic rocks. So, I read most of the 1950s and early 1960s papers on the structure of the Scottish Highlands, and again began to make geologic maps.

We had only an undergraduate program at Clemson, but each summer the most highly achieving undergraduates were invited to work with me in the field. Several became accomplished field geologists. Most have continued to involve field geology in their careers in the consulting, government, or academic worlds. There are numerous stories that could be told of the encounters of these undergraduates with snakes, bears, hornets' nests, and moonshine stills; of lost eyeglasses and wallets; and of triumphs of making interesting traverses along ridges and streams through the Carolinas and Georgia Blue Ridge rhododendron and mountain laurel thickets. There is no better way of stating the satisfaction of what we do in the field than the way Kay Behrensmeyer, National Museum of Natural History, said it this past summer:

Field geology is a process of solving space-time puzzles that depends on interacting with actual rocks (“ground truths”). Every outcrop represents a hypothesis that can be tested by going to the next outcrop — a never-ending process of discovery and increased understanding of Earth history. Future generations of Earth science students, teachers, and the public must have the opportunity to experience and be inspired by this process, for the good of geology — and science in general.

Bill Dickinson convened his “Plate Tectonics” Penrose Conference in 1969, and I was very fortunate to be invited — another major crossroads. Many participants, including myself, went home and wrote papers on the application of plate tectonics concepts to the world in which we were working. Mine on the southern Appalachians was published in the GSA Bulletin in 1972.

In 1978, we moved to Florida State University, to work with graduate students, thinking my workload would be decreased to be able to spend more time with family and hobbies. Working with graduate students went as planned, but the decreased workload did not. Even so, after 28 years now of working with graduate students, I still enjoy teaching and working with undergraduate geology majors.

We moved to the University of South Carolina–Columbia in 1980, intending not to move again because of our ties to South Carolina. We were offered the opportunity in 1986, however, to return to the University of Tennessee–Knoxville and, after some debate, decided to do so, where we have remained for the past 20 years.

In closing, I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world to have spent my career doing something I love, to have done some geology reasonably well, to have positively influenced the lives of a number of young people, and to have been a geoscientist in the most exciting time in the history of our science: the formulation and adaptation of the plate tectonics paradigm. Realize that the physicists and chemists witnessed this over 100 years ago with the formulation of atomic theory, and the biologists recognized organic evolution as fact and began formulating theories to explain it more than 150 years ago. No doubt plate tectonics theory and other foundations of geoscience will evolve, like the foundations of the other sciences. Geoscience also will not stagnate, with so many frontiers remaining to be explored on and in the Earth, and in our solar system, and discoveries to be made that will continue to challenge us. Let’s hope that future geologists will continue to do legitimate field work on the most complex planet, not just go to the field to collect samples, but to make geologic maps — and teach young geologists to understand, make, and utilize them. And there is still some fieldwork left to do: I am not ready to play golf every day.

From the epitaph of W. C. Fields, "All things considered, I would rather be in Philadelphia." Again, my most sincere thanks for these medals; my debt to others is immense; this has been a very humbling experience.