Oral History Transcript — Dr. Robert Gerard
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Robert Gerard; May 31, 1996
ABSTRACT: Born February 4, 1926 in Huntington, NY; discusses his family life and childhood. Describes his early interest in mechanical things and science; comments on his high school education and writing skills. Entered Cornell after World War II; then transferred to University of New Mexico. Discusses his interest in geology through aerial photography; discusses his decision to go to McGill for graduate school.
Doel:This is Ron Doel and this is an interview with Robert D. Gerard. I should say youíre known primarily as Sam Gerard. And weíre making this recording on the 31st of May 1996 in Snedenís Landing, New York. And I know that you were born on February 4, 1926 in Huntington, New York, but I donít know much about your family or your parents. Who were your parents and what did they do?
Gerard:My father was a person in the restaurant business and hotel business, third generation in that particular profession. And my mother worked very closely with him in restaurant and hotel work so that we were always close to that kind of family activity. His grandfather was a sea captain whose wife, obviously in those days (nineteenth century) spent much time by herself with her husband at sea. And so she opened up a boarding house in New York City. In those days there were rather elegant boarding houses for professional people, rather like what you would now call, I think, residence hotels. And she took her entire clientele from the hotel, from the boarding house in New York, to a place sheíd bought in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, for the summer. All of her guests would come out with her and spend some of the summer period at Cold Spring.
Doel:Thatís interesting. So these would be long term guests that she —
Gerard:Yes, they had a full commitment. And later on, her son, my grandfather, sort of moved into this business. He built a hotel, a larger hotel, in Cold Spring Harbor. He became the manager and owner of a hotel in New York called the Gerard. The building is still there, and was recently converted to a condominium called the Gerard as well, on 44th Street, between Broadway and 6th avenue.
Doel:Itís really in the heart of mid-town.
Gerard:Yes and that building is still there. They also branched out and he and my grandmother proceeded to have hotels in cold Spring Harbor, Oyster Bay and also one in Jacksonville, Florida. This was at the turn of the century. Later on, these family holdings were sold. My father continued in restaurant/hotel work on Long Island at Huntington, where I was born. One of the activities he had when I was a kid was to manage the Huntington Yacht Club. We spent the summer at that location on the north shore of Long Island, and I got quite familiar with boats and sailing and things to do with the sea.
Doel:Did you hear stories of, if I have that correctly, your great grandfatherís sailing career?
Gerard:Yes. In fact, I have a log book of my great grandfather who sailed between the eighteen forties and the eighteen seventies. The log book I have covers the period from 1857 to 1863. He was lost at sea 1865 in a storm off Cape Hatteras. We had a family background of seagoing and hotels. I prepared for a career in the hotel business, attending Cornell for several years in the College of Administration.
Doel:How old were you at the time?
Gerard:I was nineteen when I first attended Cornell University.
Doel:I see. Okay. So this would have been about 1945 or something. Thatís interesting. I want to make sure we get back to that. Iím curious how, did you recollections of visiting Cold Spring Harbor when you were growing up influence you?
Gerard:I lived in Cold Spring Harbor in the early 1930ís.
Doel:You were actually in Cold Spring?
Gerard:Yes, my father had his first restaurant in Cold Spring Harbor. After that we moved to South Huntington where he built a larger place.
Doel:I was just curious if you were familiar with the laboratory in Cold Spring? Was that something youíd known about?
Gerard:As I recall, the lab was a small enterprise at the time, not the world class institution of today.
Gerard:Some of the biologists who worked there would come to my fatherís restaurant. They were friendly with our family. I probably was only eight or nine years old and I knew some of them by name. I knew that they were scientific types who worked across the harbor somewhere, but that was about all. Since then the lab has obviously become a much more important research center.
Doel:Yes. How much time did you spend learning to sail or the yachting that you mentioned? Was this a summertime activity primarily or did you continue?
Gerard:Well in the earliest introduction to this, I was only five or six when we lived by the yacht club. I was kind of a mascot for the people who kept their boats there, and they would take me out from time to time for day cruises. Later on in Cold Spring, I used to build my own boats. They werenít really boats. They were almost anything I could find that would float, that would hold together long enough to get me from one point to another. As a teenager, I had friends who were into sailing and racing and I would go out and crew with them. I was always close the north shore, of Long Island as a kid where there was much interest in boats and the sea.
Doel:Yes. Did you have a real interest in mechanical things when you were growing up?
Gerard:Very much so. In Cold Spring Harbor I can remember there was a fine little library. It was in a park. And my companions and I, all of us pre-teenagers, would spend a lot of time at the park, browsing in the library. Particularly in the section where there were technical journals and magazines that had to do with mechanics and race cars and whatever was exciting in the thirties for kids our age.
Doel:Indeed. Indeed. Do you remember reading any magazines particularly like Popular Mechanics or Popular Science?
Gerard:Both of those were favorites. And we would devour them every month along with how-to-do-it books that were hard cover. We built wagons to race down the hills of Cold Spring Harbor. Things like that were very much of interest to me and the kids I played with.
Doel:Thatís interesting. Were there books on the Soap Box Derby for instance that you read?
Gerard:Yes, very similar books. I remember it was always a great task to scrounge around the neighborhood for parts that we could use for these vehicles. If you found a good piece of steel that would make an axle you really had something of great value.
Doel:Oh yes. Do you remember reading a lot as you were growing up when you were a child?
Gerard:I would prefer to see graphic things rather than read stories. It was much more meaningful to me to see a picture than to read words about something.
Doel:Yes. Thatís very interesting. And what did you find particularly satisfying? You mentioned, of course, Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. But were there other, were you able to get a hold of maps for instance? Was that an interest?
Gerard:Not so much maps, but stories of adventure that would describe parts of the world that were different than what I was accustomed to. I can remember on Long Island as a kid that I didnít get to see much in the way of hills and mountains and bare rock. We had only sand dunes and shore lines. After I was about twelve, my parents would send me up to summer camp up on Lake Champlain. It was quite a revelation to see a different landscape, a very interesting and varied topography, in contrast to Long Island. That was a new experience. I didnít realize that the world had so many interesting land forms.
Doel:How old were you when you started going up there?
Gerard:I went there every summer until I was 15. I enjoyed the Adirondacks and the hiking and the outing and canoeing on Lake Champlain. It was a wonderful place for a kid in the summer. The last couple of years there I helped teach crafts to the other campers.
Doel:Clearly you were appreciating the surroundings that you were in. Do you remember reading books that described the local geology or wasnít that an interest at the time?
Gerard:No. I think that the main thing was to get out into nature and experience the landscape, and the scenery, rather than to read someone elseís account. I never put much store in second hand experience. It was always more important for me to have a direct experience.
Doel:Okay. I was very curious when you mentioned earlier how you were responding so much more to visual material than narrative accounts of things. Were there other categories of information or things that you found particularly interesting that you could get a hold of when you were growing up of that kind?
Gerard:I just donít have a clear picture of how those things affected me. In general, I was always interested in figuring out how things worked. If I couldnít figure something out, then I would read about it.
Gerard:Iíve always had more of an interest in sculpture than in paintings because theyíre three dimensional. You can touch them, and you can walk around them. And I think thatís part of the same feeling.
Doel:What sort of house did your parents live in?
Gerard:Well, we had various places. The clearest picture I have of a family house is one in Huntington. I can tell you the address, it was 68 Chestnut Street. It was probably built in the — just after the end of World War I. We lived there in the thirties. It was a large house with two stories with and an ample attic. It was in a nice middle class neighborhood. We would leave it sometimes in the winter time to go and live in Florida where my father would manage a hotel during the winter season.
Doel:You mentioned Jacksonville, Florida, earlier. Was that connected to it?
Gerard:Only in the sense that my father had been in that part of Florida at his familyís hotel as a child in the 1890ís. In the 1930ís, my father managed a small hotel near Orlando which has now become a huge center for tourism. I remember two or three winters were spent there. But home was really up north in Huntington. I recall the kids and the neighborhood very vividly because this was one of those periods in life where there were lots of new discoveries going on. Cowboys and Indians was a great discovery for a seven year-old in those days. And listening to the radio and talking to your friends about some adventure serial that was on the evening before was part of a kidís world. We didnít do much in the way of sports, there was no junior league. Our play was entirely unsupervised, and we would play in the woods rather than in the playing fields. Maybe itís because we didnít have any playing fields.
Doel:How many were in your family?
Gerard:I had two sisters; One older by a year or two and one younger by a year or two.
Doel:Did the Great Depression particularly affect your family? You of course you were young when the economy really began to nose dive.
Gerard:Not so badly. In fact, my father seemed to manage reasonably well during that period. He was always employed, either self-employed or under some contractual arrangement to manage a hotel. And in fact it was in the worst depression years that he decided to start his own restaurant rather than continue with management jobs. His first restaurant was so successful that in 1937 he bought a larger property and built another restaurant in South Huntington even though the economic history suggests that this was a lousy time to start a business. So he was quite lucky. The place closed down during most of World War II because it depended a lot on people traveling the roads of Long Island.
Doel:Yes, and as the gas became rationed.
Gerard:Yes, there were no cars to be seen. So the business closed down and didnít open up again until the end of the war.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. I was curious. Your schooling then was mostly in Huntington, was it not?
Gerard:I went through grade school in Huntington at a school run by Dominican nuns. Then I had a year at the local junior high school. Following this, I went to a boarding school in Massachusetts called Mount Hermon for a year and a half. That was during the early part of WWII.
Doel:Right. You would have been, just for the record, fifteen years old 1941. End of Ď41, of course, was Pearl Harbor.
Gerard:Right. And about that time, I was in my second year at Mount Hermon, I came down with tuberculosis and so I had to go into a sanitarium for a ďrest cure.Ē This was conventional treatment in those days and I did that for a year and a half. Fortunately for me, during the war they had made great progress on antibiotics.
Gerard:I was one of the early beneficiaries of streptomycin. That put me back in the normal world again. I was then faced with having to finish up some sort of a high school degree. I had really only had a couple of years of high school or prep school.
Doel:Yes. The equivalent of a freshman and sophomore years.
Gerard:Yes, in 1945 I was faced with trying to get into college without having finished high school. So I enrolled in the local high school to try to get a graduation certificate. This was in the spring and I wanted to get into college the next fall. I was told if I took all of the New York State Regents exams for the several years that I had missed, then I could graduate. Therefore, I took all of the exams for the three years missed, in the spring of 1945, after attending the high school for about six weeks. I was admitted to Cornell in the fall of that year.
Doel:That must have been quite a difficult task to try to do; you being able to study at all when you were in the sanitarium?
Gerard:Well, I read a lot. It was a period when I couldnít get out and see things and do things, so I had to do a lot of reading. There wasnít much else to do. I read a lot of different stuff, sort of by default, whatever would come along. I got interested in reading history and biography. There must have been a fair number of history books in the institution. Also my folks would bring me things to read. Iíd see something in the book review of the New York Times that looked interesting and my mother would get it for me.
Doel:Interesting. Before you had gone into that, I had meant to ask you. Did you get into the city, for instance, to visit the museums often when you were growing up?
Gerard:My sister and I would go to the city occasionally to visit my grandmother who lived in Jamaica. She would take us to the city, but mostly for things like circuses and entertainment. Rarely to museums. My family had little interest in intellectual things, frankly. There were mostly business discussions at the dinner table or just sort of every day family matters. But not a great deal of interest in literature, history or science. So that had to be done as an independent side line as far as I was concerned. And the first opportunity to do that came when I was in the Mount Hermon educational environment and later when I had a chance to do my own brand of reading while I was recuperating.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. Again, I want to make sure we cover your experiences at Cornell. Iím curious when you felt, what your first interests in science were?
Gerard:Well, I think probably the course that got me involved with earth sciences was one that I had at Mount Hermon. You had to take certain courses in science and math and literature. And I chose one in earth sciences that I found that was very stimulating and it kind of lead me to read things of that sort.
Doel:What was the class called? Do you remember or?
Gerard:They didnít use the term earth sciences in those days. I think thatís sort of a more recent title.
Gerard:I think it was called physiographic.
Doel:Including general land forms and evolution of the landscape and a little geology for instance.
Gerard:Yes, all of that. I donít know what theyíd call it today. They might call it geomorphology. But it was a basic introduction to earth sciences. I had a lot of interest during this period of World War II in aeronautics as well. Any kid in the United States who wasnít into airplanes was sort of out of things. So I read and subscribed to a couple of journals having to do with aircraft design and performance and technical matters.
Gerard:And I was always interested in the latest technological innovations. During World War II every time a new fighter plane would come out, it would be a topic of great interest for kids. It was a big deal to read about these marvelous new weapons of destruction that were coming out. At an earlier age I and my friends would trade adventure stories written for boys.
Doel:Buck Rogers at the time?
Gerard:No. That was popular in the cinema, but there was a whole series of Tom Swift books that had a lot of futuristic machines that we all loved.
Doel:Yes. Indeed Tom Swift.
Gerard:Yes, Tom Swift and his marvelous flying machines, submarines, great machines that would circle through the mountains and so on. They were stimulating for kids of my age. And that was continued in a way in real life during World War II because all of these developments seemed right out of Tom Swift. So that technical stuff, mechanics and earth sciences, were the interests for me.
Doel:Yes. How do you recall getting word about the technological developments during the war? Was it mostly from the newspapers or magazines that you were subscribing to?
Gerard:The magazines continued to get turned out. And they would cover all the latest fighter planes and weapons. During the early 1940ís and during the war itself, we had a friend who subscribed to a British journal called the Illustrated London Times.
Gerard:It had marvelous pictures and drawings of all of these war weapons as well as other subjects such as art and archaeology. The drawings were cross sections of battle ships or planes by a popular illustrator named Davis. I remember his name. Iíve seen things like this being produced today for kids that are very interesting to my grandchildren.
Doel:Thatís interesting. Arid you indicated that you had a circle of friends who shared your interests in these things.
Gerard:I suppose oneís friends whoever they were, would have much the same, lines of interest. We werenít much into sports in those days. Maybe, the kids I knew, were not necessarily the average, but to me when I think of my friends, ages twelve to fifteen, interested in taking old cars apart, and maybe taking hikes and building camp fires rather than playing soccer or football. Maybe itís different today. It could be because we were able to go out and do just about any damn thing we wanted to as kids. I didnít know anyone among my friends who had a big problem with getting permission to go off camping with his buddies for Friday night and Saturday night, away from home. The parents wouldnít even, in most cases, be particularly concerned about where you were going. Youíd say Iím going out with the kids and we are going to go back in the woods and set up our tents. And nobody was concerned that you might be kidnapped or fall into some sort of trouble. I guess today parents have to be much more cautious. So it was a time when a kid could do a lot more on his own and get a lot more experience without supervision than today. I think thatís quite a different aspect in our society.
Doel:Thatís an interesting observation. Iím curious too when you think back were there any teachers who were particularly memorable for you?
Gerard:Not really. Perhaps the man who taught the physiography course was one. I canít remember his name but I remember what he looked like. I really never had any role models who were teachers. I had a nice English teacher. I canít remember his name either. That was one thing about Mount Hermon that I think was really a wonderful training for anybody who wanted to be a productive adult. They had an English department that required that everybody in school had to take an English course each year, for the full year. You had some choices. But whatever you were taking, you had to write a theme every week of about three pages. Sometimes it would be an assigned topic and sometimes not but you knew automatically that you had to deliver, Monday morning, a theme of a certain size. Then you had a regularly scheduled theme conference that would last for half an hour with your instructor to discuss your essay. It taught people how to write. There is no better way to learn how to write except to write, and then get carefully edited.
Gerard:I think that this was one of the most important educational practices that you could give someone at that age. To require them to do regular writing.
Doel:Did you enjoy writing at that age?
Gerard:No. Iíve never enjoyed writing. Iíve enjoyed reading my writing when it worked. But actually doing it has always been labor. It never came easy, but when it worked, it was very satisfying.
Doel:Yes. I was very interested in your saying that because I found a kind of clarity in the scientific papers that you later wrote which wasnít necessarily shared by all of your colleagues. And I was wondering if you found that you did spend a significant amount of time trying to work on the style as well as the content?
Gerard:Perhaps. But I think that learning to write clearly. Well, first of all, I think itís important that if you canít think clearly, you canít write clearly. Once you can think clearly, itís sometimes takes a bit of effort to translate that into words in a nice and mellifluous fashion. But one of the things that I learned in working for Doc [W. Maurice] Ewing at Lamont was that it doesnít matter how much you know when it comes to writing, necessarily, but how well you can say this in a way that will reach the widest audience. He would say. ďAssume that your reader is not an English speaking person; someone who is not familiar with English except in a very rudimentary way. Youíve got to get to him as well as to the people who are native born speakers of English. And so you must temper your statements accordingly.Ē I always remembered that; that youíre writing for some people who may not be English speaking people in the first place.
Doel:Interesting, please go ahead.
Gerard:Anyway, back to the matter of the learning of writing by writing. I havenít done a lot of writing other than scientific papers until recently. Lately, Iíve been doing a few little essays. Iím doing a book review, right now for a small journal called, Sea History. But itís style than Iím accustomed to. Iím trying to learn how to write differently. I tried for a long while to write very sparingly, because journals donít want big articles. They want things very concise. And if you ramble on too much, your editor cuts you short. Now I have to start all over again in terms of writing with a style that allows for words that are not spare words but are words that have some emotive quality.
Doel:We just flipped the tape and I wanted to be sure that I didnít cut off any of your words on writing at this particular point. Weíre just noticing that while flipping the tape you brought out coffee and weíre holding a Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory cup.
Gerard:The young people whose writing I see today seems to me to be far worse than what was going on when I was that age. I think thereís been a great let down in the insistence on practice of writing. And I think thatís too bad. Communication has suffered because of that.
Doel:How much mathematics did you get while you were in school?
Gerard:Damn little. Only the minimum. The only thing that I really enjoyed in mathematics was geometry. The abstract stuff was never interesting to me. I got squeaking passing marks in algebra, but geometry I really enjoyed because it was this graphic stuff that I could understand. But even there, I donít think I got terribly far along. My education in mathematics was really not adequate for someone who was going into a science profession. And I always felt quite unprepared to deal with the advanced concepts in mathematics. And I would always defer to my colleagues when it came to that portion of a report. I never figured that that was my cup of tea, and there was no sense my getting into deep water. I would stick to the things that I could do and the things that I enjoy, which were the things that you could put your fingers on.
Doel:Yes the tactile experiences. And to be sure, you mentioned, and this is probably a good time to begin to turn to your experiences at Cornell. Were you thinking though at the time at all of a scientific career? Or did you feel that you were heading towards you mentioned hotel work and management.
Gerard:Actually, I seldom thought very far into the future. But at that time, I could get a vague picture of what it would be like to be an adult out in the world making a living. And I thought, gee this is pretty easy. I know quite a bit about the restaurant business from family experience. I could take over my fatherís business which was quite successful. And I figured after a short time the thing to do would be to hire a bright, hard working Cornell graduate to run the place for me, because this was the best professional training for that kind of enterprise that was available in the United States. And these guys were sharp and they liked their work. Iíd put them in charge, give them a good salary. This was my long-term game plan. And I would get a nice yacht and sail around the world and do any damn thing I wanted. I thought, well, what could better than that?
Doel:That was a good plan.
Gerard:My father was getting ready to retire. I figured I could take his place over, and pay it off in a few years. I had long-term plan that when I was thirty-five I would retire, get my boat and do what I wanted. Of course, I scuttled such plans not too long afterwards after a couple of years at Cornell. I had a spotty career at Cornell. I was there for one year, then, I got sick again and had to lay off for a year.
Doel:And this was another TB attack?
Gerard:Yes, it was. Actually, I made a wrong turn in our earlier discussion; it was not until this second episode that the antibiotics came in.
Gerard:That was the problem. The first treatment was simply the rest cure.
Doel:The rest cure. Yes.
Gerard:And that seemed to be okay, but there was a recurrence. And by then the antibiotics were available. So I laid low for a little while and then on the spur of the moment, registered for courses at Columbia to take refresher business courses that I wasnít doing too well in at Cornell.
Doel:You had returned to the New York area?
Gerard:Yes, I was living in Huntington. After this I got back into Cornell in order to finish up so I thought. But I discovered that the hotel business was becoming less attractive.
Doel:From what you knew or just understanding yourself?
Gerard:Just from getting more involved with the people there. I figured I had less and less in common with the people who were in the hotel school. I thought that it was nice to have a money making profession, but maybe there were some things that were more interesting in life than making money. And so I began to take other courses, some in geology. I remember one on geological interpretation of aerial photos.
Doel:Thatís very interesting because that was a field just coming into being in the years right after World War II.
Gerard:Yes. I took two courses at Cornell in the geology department.
Doel:Do you happen to recall which professors these were or what kinds of courses they were besides the aerial photography? Was it introductory?
Gerard:One was an introductory course in, I think, historical geology. I canít remember the professors. The aerial interpretation course was extremely interesting. It had a wonderful lab course where youíd pick up a couple of stereo pairs, aerial photographs taken from somewhere in the world. You wouldnít know if they were of Mongolia or northern Scotland. Thereíd be no identification printed on the photos. Youíd take these back into the lab and set them up with the stereo viewer, look at the land forms and other features. Your assignment was to say everything you could about the photos, and if possible, identify where on Earth they were from. It was amazing to me that you could, using what you had learned in this course, come up with something very close to the actual location. It was a real challenge finding some part of the world that youíd never seen, but could figure out from the landscape. It was a wonderful game to play. It was much better than computer puzzles. It was a real puzzle.
Doel:Yes. Yes. Thatís very interesting. And it sounds as if this professor had a large collection of these aerial photographs that he would use?
Gerard:Yes, they came from the military. There are depositories of these photographs that are available from the defense mapping agency. There was a world mapping project after World War II that was done by military aircraft in order to map the world. And you could then with the proper equipment put in the topographic information as well.
Doel:So this clearly was stimulating an interest in geological, science.
Gerard:Yes. You werenít there, but if you peered down through a stereo viewer. It was almost like being in the field.
Doel:You actually had one of the stereo-optical viewers available?
Gerard:Yes. It was almost like flying over the site. And you can really see a lot of detail and all three dimensional as you do this. If youíd look over and suddenly see a cliff, and your reflexes would tighten up, almost like falling in space.
Doel:Yes. And you do get that feeling with a good set of stereo images.
Doel:Yeah. Were these the old Fairchild camera systems that?
Gerard:Oh gosh, I canít remember. We had everything from the fancy ones where you had color dots where you could work out the contours to just simple little lenses that you put on the table and look through. As a matter of fact, after a while when youíre experienced looking at stereo pairs, you can just hold them up at the right distance and see 3-D.
Doel:Thatís true. Right. Youíre holding your hands out about three foot or so.
Gerard:You jiggle them around until you get the right parallel axis and you can see the center part in 3-D.
Doel:According to your C.V. it was University of New Mexico from 1947 through Ď50.
Gerard:Yes, I had one year there in Ď46-Ď47; then from Ď50 to Ď52.
Doel:Iím curious in general how these things are developing.
Gerard:I had a year at New Mexico. Just on the spur of the moment, after I had the cure with antibiotics. Instead of going back to Cornell, I took a year at the University of New Mexico.
Doel:Were you dissatisfied with Cornell or did you just want a change?
Gerard:No. I think they said I had applied too late to get back in. I had sent them the stuff I did at Columbia and they said okay, weíll put that in your records, but I really hadnít made my application in time. Then on the spur of the moment, a friend of mine had left a copy of the bulletin from the University of New Mexico at my house, because she was going there for the first time. And I picked this up and said, oh she forgot this thing. I looked through it and in the back was an application form, on the last page. I tore it out, sent it in, and two weeks later I got a response saying youíre accepted. I said okay, what the hell? Out I went. Took mostly courses in geology and had a wonderful time enjoying the landscape. I did a lot of traveling around on weekends to study the back country around Albuquerque.
Doel:Had you been there before or was this the first time?
Gerard:I had never been there before. Got on an old DC3 out of LaGuardia airport. Stopped at every damn city from here to Albuquerque. Took a whole day to go puddle jumping from place to place. Columbus, Ohio; St. Louis, Missouri, God knows what else. Finally got there and enrolled. It was a really good place to study geology. After one year, I went back to Cornell where I continued with courses in hotel administration. After another year and a half at Cornell, I realized I preferred geology to the hotel business. Somebody in the geology department at Cornell knew somebody who was signing people up for some work in Alaska for the summer. But one had to go before the term was out. Few students were willing to drop their spring term and take off, but to me it was no problem.
Doel:When did you need to be up in Alaska?
Gerard:I think sometime in May.
Doel:And courses were running later.
Gerard:Yes. It was necessary to go through some indoctrination on the west coast first, including shots and travel papers.
Doel:Iím curious. You mentioned you went to the west coast; you had training for a while or was it not even training?
Gerard:No. It wasnít training, just a brief indoctrination and filling out forms. I had to go first to Minneapolis to fill out some papers, and then to Seattle to get the shots; then a flight to Fairbanks and from Fairbanks to Point Barrow. And then from Point Barrow we flew in a little Piper Cub down into the tundra area north of the Brooks Range. We did structural geology mapping on the North Slope. There were six in our party, and four similar parties measuring structure on a big piece of real estate called the Navy oil reserve. This is now producing Alaska oil.
Doel:Right. How much was known about that region at the time that you got there? Clearly even the Brooks Range was not well re-conned at that point.
Gerard:No, there had been some pre-war reconnaissance geology studies up there. They had found some lime stones that seemed to be petroliferous. They smelled of oil. No one had done any exploratory drilling until after the war. But there was some indication from the geology that there might be potential oil.
Doel:Fairbanks had been the center for Land Lease.
Gerard:The Navy had at some point along the way acquired all this real estate and sort of directed that it be called an oil reserve because of its potential, about which very little was known. By the time I got there, there had been some geophysical companies working for the government and the Geological Survey was there to produce geologic maps.
Doel:Right. And was this, this was the U.S. Geological Survey not the state survey?
Gerard:Yes, the U.S. Geological Survey Center in Minneapolis was in charge of the Alaska district. I was one of two assistants assigned to a field party. We had two weasels [vehicles] that were placed out on the tundra during the winter time. There were also a number of food caches that were placed out during the winter, and there was fuel for the weasels dropped by parachute at these locations. So aerial photographs, weíd go from place to place finding these food caches and making camp for a week at each location.
Doel:Supposedly the food was always found?
Gerard:Well, sometimes the food barrels put out in the snow would collapse and then fall into the river and the food cache would be carried away. So youíd have to have enough left over from the last food cache. Maybe shoot a caribou to provide a little extra sustenance until you got to the next one. It was a new experience bumping along the tundra in a weasel from camp to camp, fighting the mosquitoes and sleeping on the ground. So with room and board provided, it was a great way to save money, especially since there was a salary bonus for being in Alaska. At the end of the summer, you got your one big check. In those days, for a student, it was good pay. More than any summer student job I ever had. I needed all the money from this work to pay for tuition at the University of New Mexico in the coming year. Before this my parents had been paying my college costs.
Doel:Sure. They had been paying for it?
Gerard:Yes. Theyíd been supporting me. Iíd had a little job here and there, but I wasnít really self-sustaining. So I said, no problem. Iíll work my way through from here on. Itís too bad students canít do that nowadays, but in those days you could. Going back then to a state university was one of the ways that one could extend the funds. So I took my USGS summer earnings, flew back to New Mexico, and enrolled again, paid my tuition, and with a night time job was able to keep a roof over my head and go to school at the same time.
Doel:What kind of job did you have then?
Gerard:Well, by then I had acquired training as a bartender, so I worked as a bartender in a saloon in Albuquerque. It was a fairly nice saloon. Iíd do it a few nights a week. It wasnít an everyday thing. And I could make enough with that and the money that I saved to share an apartment with a couple of guys. There were four of us. We paid twenty-five bucks a month a piece for food into the food kitty. And something like half of that, into the rent kitty. And that was all it cost in Albuquerque in the early 1950ís. So if you made a few bucks, saved a little in the summer time, it was possible to get along. Thatís how I financed two more years at the University of New Mexico.
Doel:Did you work back in Alaska again for subsequent summers?
Gerard:No. I went back to Alaska later on.
Doel:Right. But that was later, during the McGill period.
Doel:Iím curious. In some ways it makes sense, but Cornell both because of the cost of the school as well as a feeling perhaps that the training you were getting at New Mexico was better suited for geology than that?
Doel:Iím curious just by all the factors that came into play.
Gerard:Well, at Cornell, they werenít too interested in me. I didnít have outstanding grades, only good enough to stay in. One of the deans would say to me, ďYou know, of all the students that I have here, you seem to be less interested than most. Are you sure this is what you want to do?Ē And I said, no, Iím not really sure, but itís getting less and less attractive to me. And he kept saying, well, we have a hell of a long waiting list here. And maybe this is not for you. And I could only agree.
Doel:This is the dean of the hotel school?
Gerard:Yes. So it was sort of a mutual understanding that I was not cut out for hotel school. They couldnít throw me out because my grades were a little above the minimum required. But they werenít too much above, because I was cutting classes like accounting. Cost accounting courses were not something I could really dig into. And I would cut class all the time and was doing very, very marginal work in business courses. Hotel Engineering, on the other hand, I loved that. You get to design buildings and that was fun.
Doel:What were the more intriguing classes that you recall from New Mexico?
Gerard:I had a field course one summer that I thought was very, very worthwhile. It was field geology course where we spent the summer at a ski resort on top of the Sandia Mountains, just to the east of Albuquerque. The place obviously didnít have any snow in the summer time so they turned over the cabins and the facilities to the geology department, and we would take bus trips and car trips to interesting areas around the state; sometimes for a couple of days at a time. It was a great place to study geology, the staff was first rate, and the countryside was always interesting. There was also a lot of cultural stuff to see. You got to appreciate the Indians and their history. I still have some pre-Columbian artifacts I collected at that time.
Doel:Youíre turning around to look at the wall behind us here.
Gerard:At the time weíre talking about, the late forties, early fifties — digging in Indian ruins was maybe not something that people were encouraged to do, but it wasnít an outstanding crime.
Doel:It certainly is in the context as we understand it today.
Gerard:Today such activity would probably a serious misdemeanor or a felony. But in those days a lot of local people did it, and a lot of students who were out in the field would come upon obvious ruins and scrape around and sometimes pick up pottery. Two of the pieces up there were dug from Anisazi graves, probably Pueblo 2 period, maybe eight or nine hundred A.D. Some of them, a couple of others, more recent. The black piece down at the bottom is a pot by Maria of San Il Defonoso piece. She was a famous potter. Thatís probably worth more than my car.
Doel:This is a glazed bowl which could be nine inches across at its widest point, just to describe it here.
Gerard:That I got much later, it was a gift.
Doel:But you have a number of items, close to dozen, on the shelves youíre talking about.
Gerard:Two of them are ones that I dug up. The little vase at the very top, that small piece next to the wooden Indian. And then, on the middle shelf, the blackened pot. Thatís a cooking pot. Again, from a grave. Both of those are from the four corners area.
Doel:And youíve clearly gotten enough pieces that you really could put it back together.
Gerard:Yes. I broke it with a shovel when I was digging it up so I had to patch it together. And the other pieces, some of them are late nineteenth century, early twentieth century modern pieces. And that one thatís really patched down on the lower shelf, next to the black pot, is a mocha or earlier chimu from the west coast of Peru. It is quite old, perhaps 500 to 1000 B.C.
Gerard:My wife and I have gone back many times to the southwest. We met and married out at the university.
Doel:When was your marriage?
Doel:Right around as you graduated.
Gerard:Yes, in our graduating year. And thereís a Two Grey Hills Navajo rug up on the wall that we got a few years back, quite a few years ago. Weíve been out there a number of times since.
Doel:Was your wife in the university?
Gerard:Yes, she was a student of anthropology at the university there.
Doel:Were there other interesting courses there that we havenít covered yet?
Gerard:I did a couple of courses in sculpture which I enjoyed. That and the geology, and a few courses in poetry were the ones that I found the most memorable I guess. The Geology Department had outstanding teachers. The head of the department whose name was [John D.] Northrup was a specialist in historical geology, and paleontology. He had a fine collection of fossils from the area. He had a collection of dinosaur models as well. Some of these needed to be worked on. I volunteered to work in his lab to reconstruct some of these pieces. I was good at sculpture and working with my hands, and I restored. It didnít hurt my grades any to have a special relationship with the head of the department. But I did it more so because it was fun. The teaching there was first rate, and I think remains one of the better schools for undergraduate and graduate geology.
Doel:Iím curious. When you look back on it now, did you find that you were exposed to a broad range of techniques and methodologies? Or did you find that there were things that in retrospect you didnít have as part of your training?
Gerard:I think it was very complete. The curriculum that they had, if you were majoring in geology, I think prepared you for the major elements of geological training as an undergraduate. I was not exposed to the work as a graduate student there. So I canít really comment on graduate program. But I think the undergraduate program was very well rounded and the necessary background to continue in the earth sciences. I enjoyed the informality of things in the southwest in general, as compared to an Ivy League environment that I had witnessed at Cornell. I found it a more comfortable social and educational style.
Doel:As an undergraduate, did you have virtually all your interactions with the professors during the regular school day or did you meet any of them after hours?
Gerard:Not much after hours although, I used to baby-sit for one professor. But in the field course you lived with these guys, and that got to be much more intimate than just classroom contact.
Gerard:But in general it was strictly contact in the classroom. And we would hang around in the department a lot in between. I mean, if you had a free afternoon, you might end up just sort of browsing in the mineralogical collection just to acquaint yourself with things that might be of special interest.
Doel:Realizing that weíre coming close to the time at which we have to end this interview, you need to leave for the airport soon. Perhaps I can just ask what you were thinking to do at the point that you got your degree from New Mexico. You enrolled very quickly in McGill. How did that come about? How did you? What were you thinking about?
Gerard:Well, I realized that if one were going to continue in some branch of earth sciences, that youíd have to get some graduate training. And the McGill training, like most of the things I have done in life, was sort of spur of the moment. I saw an announcement hanging on a bulletin board. It said there were a limited number of scholarships for a summer field course in the geography of the Canadian Maritimes. It was held in a small college in Stanstead, Quebec. Just north of the Vermont border. They had some very well known geographers. Sir Dudley Stamp was one of the persons who was giving a leading course there.
Doel:At McGill itself.
Gerard:No at the summer school.
Doel:At the summer school? Okay.
Gerard:So I said what the heck. I donít have anything lined up for the summer. We had just had our first child during final exam week. My wife delivered our first son during exam week and had to take two days off. She then had to take the exams after coming out of the hospital. After that she immediately flew back home. And I drove back with our meager household goods the following week. Her folks who lived here in Palisades.
Doel:I see. Okay. Thatís interesting that you met out there although your backgrounds coincided.
Gerard:Thatís right. She came home with a degree in anthropology and a several weeks old baby. We were here for a couple of weeks and then we drove to Vermont to spend the summer with our new youngster.
Doel:How was that experience in the camp when you went up?
Gerard:It was a small junior college that was turned over to the McGill geography department. We had some rather intense courses such as a complete study of the system of mapping in the British Isles that was carried out under a wartime program by Sir Dudley Stamp. And then we had a field trip to the Canadian Maritimes looking at land forms, agricultural activity, and economic geography of the different provinces. Very satisfying stuff if you like landscape and earth sciences in general. So with that, I picked up a couple of credits and was able to apply to McGill graduate school for fall term.
Doel:Had you thought of applying to any other place at the time?
Gerard:No, I just sort of followed opportunities without much planning. The only academic planning I ever did was to study for the hotel business, which turned out to be a wrong choice. I was content to follow whatever opportunities that seemed interesting.
Doel:I understand. So how much chance did you have to look over what McGill had to offer? How much did you become acquainted with McGillís geology department when you were?
Gerard:Well, I got to respect the British system of higher education, which to me was a real revelation. They treated you like an adult which was something rather refreshing. And they were high class individuals as far as I could determine. They were well educated. They were articulate. They were, all of them, very intensely devoted to their discipline. And I thought you canít do much better than that in terms of being with people who are really motivated, and who thereby have a good chance of motivating you. So I went on with this at McGill. And I consider that it was the best instruction Iíd ever gotten. They were stimulating lecturers. I spent just one year in Montreal at McGill. My wife was taking courses in genetics at the time; interested in physical anthropology. She was always an excellent student and did very well. She wasnít really working on a degree, but she was a matriculated student and got credits for it. I was taking rather a full course considering that these courses are very intensive. They have quite a different system.
Doel:Iím wondering. I think what youíre saying about the difference between British and U.S. systems are very important. And I was curious what particularly comes to mind when you say that. You mention that you were treated more as an adult in McGill. What else particularly do you remember?
Gerard:Well, for one thing it was interesting that a course would be not just for one semester. It was for the whole year. In other words, if you took a course in the geography of the British Isles, you started in September and you went right on until the end of May. Every course ran the full year. During a course there was never a quiz or some kind of an examination. There was a lot of class discussion and occasionally a paper or a report during this time. When you came to the end of a full year course with no interruptions, you then sat for the exam. And you sat the whole day for one exam from nine in the morning until five on the afternoon in this one exam. You could bring books, walk out of the room and go have lunch, go to the library, do anything you wanted so long as at the end of that time you turned in a really thick report on whatever it was that you had selected to answer. Youíd pick out one or maybe two subjects out of a list often. The mandate was simple such as: ďSay everything you can about the map that you have selected from this table.Ē If it were a course on the geology or geography of the British Isles, youíd go up and youíd take one of the big sheets from the land use survey map series and you would write a paper on everything that stood out to you based on the course. I can remember one map that I chose which showed the River Trent. I began by writing a line from The Stropshire Lad by [A.E.] Houseman, ďSay for what were hop yards meant, and why was Burton built on Trent.Ē And then I went on to discuss the fact that the River Trent flows through an area of gypsum which gives a certain mineral quality to the water which is used to make very fine beer, combined with the hops that grow along in the valley. From there I went on to describe the Roman roads that could be seen on the map, medieval features, and modern land use and economic geography.
Doel:Very interesting. So it involved a lot of geography as well as physical geology.
Gerard:Yes, that is what I meant by treating you like an adult. You were obliged to really have a grasp of the entire subject, not just a whole lot of facts that you could fill in on with a few words here and there. I thought it was a fine example of an educational process.
And I do want to ask you some additional questions on these themes, but realizing that you probably need to leave in a few moments, let me bring this session to a close right here. And thank you very much for you time.