William R. Muehlberger Field Geology Scholarship Fund
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 always strongly advocated that geology is best done in the field, where theory meets 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.
Bill did not like to isolate himself indoors nor did he ever confine himself to one state, one country, one continent, or one planet. Born in New York City 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, eventually earning academic degrees, a B.S. and M.S. degrees in 1949, and athletic honors as a football fullback.
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 for his doctorate degree. 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 moved to Austin to begin teaching at the University. His interests were 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 resulted in hundreds of publications, and his distinguished teaching earned multiple major awards and endowed professorships. 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.
Recollections of Bill by many of his former students reflect 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 Bill’s 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, coincidentally an ex-Marine with exceptional ability to visualize in 3D (two traits which always warmed Bill’s heart), says that Bill 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!” After observing that Bill was never shy about letting people know his opinion, Jerry trained himself to not 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 what he learned from Bill 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 its flora and fauna. More importantly, she learned that while he had his own interpretations of data, he was completely open to anyone testing their ideas, provided that they had done their homework and consulted all the information that might influence the conclusion.
In the early 1960s Tim Denison (Ph.D. ’66) joined a team, headed by Bill, on a project to make a map of buried basement rocks of the contiguous United States. Although the results were largely due to Bill’s vision and direction, Tim states that he was “scrupulous in giving credit” to the team members at every opportunity; the lesson – when good work is done, there is plenty of credit for everyone – is one that Tim says he tries to follow.
Continent- and hemisphere-scale projects like this 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, and the surrounding ocean floors, of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean regions. Of the latter, Sharon Mosher, dean of the Jackson School and longtime friend and colleague, 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 in 1965 (for the Basement Rock project) and the Structure/Tectonics Division of The Geological Society of America in 1998 for the Tectonic Map).
Bill’s expertise and endless curiosity led him beyond the Earth. From 1964 through 2005 he taught geology to astronauts who would be the first humans to touch the surface of the moon. 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 moon missions, training astronauts to do field work- literally bringing home pieces of the moon-, advising mission control while the astronauts were on the Moon, and writing the report summarizing what the Apollo crew learned. He was Co-Investigator of the Earth Observations team for the Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz Missions. He briefed each Shuttle crew on the tectonic features they would see and photograph, from orbit, for a worldwide image database.
NASA memorialized Bill’s extraordinary work with the 1973 Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement for his contributions to astronaut and public instruction in geological and solar system exploration, the 1999 Public Service MedalIion, and in May 2010 the Team Innovation Award from NASA’s Johnson Space Center. In March 2012, Bill was posthumously honored by NASA with the dedication of a tree in the Memorial Grove at Johnson Space Center. The oak,is firmly rooted in the Earth and reaches toward the stars, like the man who taught everyone he could about the world around us and encouraged us all to experience and discover it for ourselves.
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 which would in turn 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.
A graduate fellowship, the William R. Muehlberger Graduate Fellowship in Structural Geology/Tectonics was established on June 25, 2010, to benefit The University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences, with gift funds provided by an anonymous donor, family members, friends, colleagues, and former students.
Material for this story was provided by Patricia Wood Dickerson, Ph.D. and Marc Airhart both of the Jackson School of Geosciences.
Dr. William R. Muehlberger, August 2010