Van Houten, a professor emeritus of
geological and geophysical sciences, passed away on Aug. 27, 2010.
I have always been grateful for Professor Van Houten's kindness to a lowly freshman taking the annual survey course. When I came in to ask questions about the section he was teaching (that was a year when because the normal teacher was on sabbatical, each member of faculty taught the section that corresponded to his/her specialty), he was exceptionally patient and helpful -- and I left amazed that someone so eminent in the field could be so ready to give so freely of his time and advice.
Van helped to make Princeton's Geology Department a special place in the early 1960's, at the birth of plate tectonics.
He was a wonderful teacher who beautifully organized courses and taught us to focus on the important stuff and ignore the other stuff that constituted the bulk of geological literature. He was always available for consultations, and if one were fortunate enough to have him read your thesis, you received a blue-ribbon gift: a thorough, line-by-line review accompanied by detailed notes on grammar, style and science. No one did it better.
Also noteworthy is the hospitality that he and Jean showed to students over many years. Many of us were privileged to share convivial dinners with them, and Jean should also be remembered and honored at this time for being a gracious & lively hostess and for her patience with the commonly untidy habits of geologists.
Finally, Van's wry sense of humor should be noted and remembered. With a twinkle in his eye, he had a special talent for disarming the complaints of students by an appropriately pointed joke.
He will be missed.
For those of us privileged to be at Princeton in the early 1960’s at the birth of plate tectonics, Van was one of the people who made it such a special place. Not only were his courses and field trips models of organization and content, but they also taught us how to think and led us to understand that we should focus on important scientific problems, not incremental advances.
Noteworthy also was his availability. He somehow always had the time to talk with students about matters important and trivial, typically responding to the latter with a wry joke (his dry sense of humor was a major asset). If one were fortunate in having Van as a thesis reader, you were rewarded in record time by a draft that had been thoroughly reviewed and contained dozens of neatly written remarks on each page, with comments on grammar, style, and above all on science. He had carefully read every word!
At this time, we should also remember his life’s partner, Jean, a gracious and lively hostess with Van for many student gatherings at their Princeton home. One of her major attributes was her patience with the commonly untidy habits of geologists.
Van and Jean were unique, and they will be missed,
I read your comment about Van, and incorporated it into my memorial statement that I read at the service last week. I will try and paste it here in the hopes that our system lets it out. We had trouble with the system letting in comments on the blog!
Memorial remarks for Franklyn van Houten
by Lincoln S. Hollister
on behalf of the Department of Geosciences
Nov. 12, 2010
When I joined the Department in 1968, Van had been on the faculty for 22 years, and he retired 17 years later. I have reached out to former students and have received a remarkable response from them. I have edited these responses to form a narrative that shows Franklyn van Houten to be a Professor, with a capitol P, and a Gentleman, with a capitol G. And I include my personal observations from 1968.
As Van walked to and from his Princeton home and around town, he frequently wore a black beret and strode toward his destination at a brisk pace, often whistling. He also sometimes used his walking time to read a geology journal article. When he was happy, you could detect it in his walk, a kind of swinging gate. Once when I walked with him along Ivy Lane, he called my attention to the magnificent fall color of the maple trees there. He paused to admire them and to tell me how refreshing it was to him to just look at them. Whenever I look at these trees, I think of Van.
During another walk together, he told me that he had done fieldwork, as I had, in the far northwest and that the bear rug in his office was a product of one of his trips. He did not say much more; he was only connecting with me at a personal level. Most people go on and on with bear stories. I do, he didn’t.
Well, in order to prepare my remarks for today, I pursued this story and found Fred Roots *49, who had been with him in 1953 on what can only be described as an incredible 3-month expedition to the Mackenzie Mountains along the Yukon-Northwest Territories border. The expedition included an emergency landing on a lake when the motor of the float plane froze up. Nobody knew where they were; there was a massive search and rescue operation. Later they were reprimanded by the Canadian government for continuing the expedition without filing a report …note here that after surviving this incident, Fred and Van continued on the expedition, because that was what geologists do. At the end of the expedition he took additional time to field check Bill Poole *56, a student of Professor Buddington who was doing his thesis in the Cassiar Mts, about 100 miles away. During the visit, Van was reported by Bill to bubble with enthusiasm, even after the long season with Fred.
During the expedition with Fred, they were greeted in their camp by not one but two grizzly bears. One bear even went into the tent and turned around and came out. However, the bear tried to eat the moose meat they had for their provisions; that was the bear's fatal sin. Van and Fred each have a bearskin.
I never heard Van be demonstrative in the department, but he did let his opinions be known, briefly and privately. He gave me several tongue-lashings, with effect. One was on the future of sedimentology, which I had questioned. I am sure he was pleased to know that we now have a sedimentologist on our faculty who uses some of Van's carefully curated teaching collections. The rest of Van's teaching collection is now housed at his alma mater, Rutgers.
Van knew his limits and where he fit in the history of the geological sciences. Even as new labs and techniques and concepts arrived, he continued to contribute on subjects he was uniquely prepared to work on.
Now it is all the rage to work on climate change and oceanography. Back then, however, Van was a pioneer in these subjects in our department. He knew that study of the oceans was important for understanding earth history, so he created the first ever class in oceanography. But when he offered it, nobody signed up. This was in part because Van was considered by the undergraduates to be a rather poor lecturer. The problem of attendance was solved by starting oceanography as the second half of a course on geomorphology that was taught by Sheldon Judson, one of the best lecturers in the department.
One former graduate student commented on Van’s lectures in this way: in real time they were awful, but when this student looked at his notes some years later he saw that he had actually learned quite a bit, and was especially impressed by the allusions to great philosophers that Van brought into his material, like Alfred North Whitehead.
Van did his best teaching one on one, for his Ph.D. students, and for undergraduate independent work. No problem was beneath his notice. He helped students find their way through a vast array of topics.
An overall theme of his research and teaching style was to do what he needed to do without complaint or fanfare. He was very conscientious in doing things that would help others down the road. His early work in the Yukon was such an example, and is attested to in a 12 page description of that field season by Fred Roots. I experienced his sense of duty to the future in his geologic guidebooks for New Jersey, notably for the Newark Basin. We still depend on this work. I remember when he was spending a great deal of time on the project, I asked a colleague why Van was devoting so much time to it. I did not see that it was something that would lead to a new scholarly insight. The colleague said, “because that is the way Van is. He knows that if he doesn’t do that, nobody will, and the product will help generations of students in the future." He was motivated to do what he could do for the future of his students and of the profession; anything else was a distraction.
Here are some comments from former students.
Bob Garrison *65:
Van helped to make Princeton's Geology Department a special place in the early 1960's, at the birth of plate tectonics. He was a wonderful teacher who beautifully organized courses and taught us to focus on the important stuff and ignore the other stuff that constituted the bulk of geological literature. He was always available for consultations, and if one were fortunate enough to have him read your thesis, you received a blue-ribbon gift: a thorough, line-by-line review accompanied by detailed notes on grammar, style and science. No one did it better.
Van's wry sense of humor should be noted and remembered. With a twinkle in his eye, he had a special talent for disarming the complaints of students by an appropriately pointed joke.
Eldridge Moores *63 describes a visit in the field:
When he visited me in my thesis area in Nevada, with a group of geologists from Shell, he first apologized for not camping in my "glassy front yard". It was a cabin on the edge of a ranch with broken glass strewn around. Then a few days later, we journeyed north about 100 miles to investigate some conglomerates that were correlative with the rocks on which I was working. Van and I were in good shape, and we soon outdistanced the out-of-shape oil geologists. When we had finished seeing what we had come to see, the Shell personnel were still toiling up the hill. Van said, "Well, I suppose we had better go back and stop this lemming-like rush for the conglomerates!"
Twenty years later, Cathy Busby *83 describes another visit in the field:
One of my favorite memories of Van was the time he visited me in my thesis area in the high Sierra of California, at 12,000'. He must have been almost 70 by then. He was the most dapper field geologist I have ever seen. He woke up every morning at least an hour before dawn, walked down to the nearest little creek he could find, and washed up for the day. His clothes, hair and face were perfectly scrubbed and he was done with breakfast by the time there was barely enough light to begin climbing the treacherous ridges. He was a formidable field geologist. Having his stamp of approval on my field results meant the world to me.
From Pat Muffler *62: Van Houten was the only Princeton professor to visit me in my dissertation area in Nevada. My dissertation was strictly a hard-rock exercise supported by the USGS and of little interest to the Princeton professors. Accordingly, I particularly appreciated Van Houten going out of his way to visit a grad student whom he barely knew and who was working on problems very distant from his interests.
From Roger MacQueen *65:
My best memories of Van were his grad seminars in Fall 1962 in Sedimentology, including a Lockatong field trip. Van was a stickler on references – knew them all! For a Sedimentology seminar that he assigned to me, I discovered, to his great surprise, an important turbidite paper he hadn’t seen. I moved a couple notches up in his estimation of me. His dedication to knowledge and his enthusiasm for it was infectious, a characteristic that I tried to emulate in my teaching. He was the sort of person who shaped the character of students fortunate enough to have studied with him.
Dave Parris also writes on the seminars: He taught everything seminar style, handing out topics to each of us, giving a bibliography (with instructions to add to it if possible), and a drawer or two full of reprints. If your seminar week presentation didn’t include everything that interested him, he would supplement the presentation with an extensive commentary. If his supplementary comments didn’t take long, you knew that you had done well.
Jack Lockwood *65:
I never worked directly with him, but remember his friendliness and enthusiastic willingness to make all things sedimentary of interest to his students. Those were the Good Old Days --- when all of the Guyot inhabitants felt like members of one family - and where every student knew about each other's research and we all learned about all aspects of geology from each other. It seems like we all took every course offered no matter the subject.
From Hugh Greenwood *60:
When I showed up at Princeton as a student and found that I was expected to know something about stratigraphy and sedimentology I was a bit taken aback. Then I attended Van's course. It's not every day a student finds a topic he had considered dull to turn out to be fascinating and alive, illustrated with colorful language and neat examples. He managed to take a topic that had not interested me and turn it into one of the highlights of my student career.
From Mike Kimberley *74:
Van's method of helping students develop was to watch them closely but only intervene when absolutely necessary. After a one-day introduction to the jungles of Colombia, Van gave me a jeep, a pat on the back, and a sincere wish for good luck. He knew that Colombia was going to be sink-or-swim for any student, no matter how much advice he might give them. Van's quiet but constant concern for his students has endeared him to all of us who have had the privilege to know him.
Ed Cotter *63 writes:
From the start, he treated me as an intelligent person, and in his soft-spoken, thoughtful, almost cherubic way, he helped me gain a sense of confidence that I could be successful in the department and as a professional geologist.
His interest in sedimentary ironstones led him to reconnect with me about 25 years after I left Princeton. I had published a paper on the sedimentology of the Silurian strata that host the Clinton Ironstones in central Pennsylvania, and he wanted to see these rocks in the field. After a couple of days looking at the rocks, he attempted to get me to do something I did not intend to do – to concentrate on a study of the ironstones. With a combination of logic and flattery (remember his “soft-spoken, thoughtful, almost cherubic way”) he got me to agree to study the ironstones in detail. He continued to encourage and support me in the project, and when he told me that he thought that my publication on the ironstones was an important contribution, I was flattered. No one else’s opinion would have meant as much.
Pete Temple *65: Not only was Van my thesis advisor in helping me to decipher the complex sedimentology of Bathurst Island in the Canadian Arctic, but he was a mean squash player in our twice weekly games followed by a beer or two.
From Dan Barker *61:
Van told me of an interesting interaction between a diabase sill and the
Lockatong Argillite, and volunteered that some units of the Lockatong had bulk
compositions that were nepheline-normative. This esoteric information eventually led
to a journal article containing the first use of
initial strontium isotope ratios as tracers in assimilation/partial melting/ fractional
crystallization processes. Van not only knew of the chemical peculiarities of the
Lockatong, but knew who might most benefit from the data!
Here are some other comments:
He was such a class act. He was a venerable Confucian master. But he could tease you in terribly subtle ways. He always took time to ask me what I was doing with my research even after his stroke made it difficult for him to speak.
I'm sorry he's gone, but 96 is a great run, and he left a strong legacy of research and students.
Van was a gem, a total sweetheart.
He was one of the most straightforward and helpful people I have ever met, both early on and over the years.
This was sent by an undergrad, class of 1987: I have always been grateful for Professor Van Houten's kindness to a lowly freshman taking the annual survey course. When I came in to ask questions about the section he was teaching, he was exceptionally patient and helpful -- and I left amazed that someone so eminent in the field could be so ready to give so freely of his time and advice.
Van was one of a kind and I was fortunate to have had him as a teacher and a guide.
In summary, Van had enormous respect for students,
and he had a breadth of geologic knowledge that he was willing to share, with no fanfare.
For Van, all students at Princeton were his students, and the students at Princeton during his 39 years of service all considered Van as one of their advisors.
He was a Professor with a capitol P, and a Gentleman with a capitol G