Remembering Professor Emeritus William R. Dickinson

Bill and Jackie Dickinson

One of our most cherished and accomplished colleagues, William R. Dickinson, died in his sleep on July 21, 2015 in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, where he was conducting field work. Bill was not only an incredibly accomplished scientist of astounding breadth and depth, but also one of the most engaging, encouraging, and inspiring figures our field has seen. His beloved wife and constant field companion, Jackie Dickinson, passed away May 7, 2015. She had many friends in the Department and will be missed by the entire Geosciences community.

If you wish to post a tribute, please email your post to aliciasat

Bill Dickinson crouches in the field in New Mexico

Bill and Jackie Dickinson sitting in a restaurant booth
Jim Abbott writes, "For the past several years we would meet for breakfast about twice a month. I had bought a new camera and was showing it to them. They smiled. Click.
After Jackie passed away he and I still met."


I am saddened to hear of Bill’s passing.  Although I was not one of his classroom students, he accompanied us on some of our field trips.  I enjoyed talking to him and Jackie on those trips.  Bill always provided a unique perspective on the practical application of field geology.  He challenged students to approach problems from different angles, even if it led them to a potential solution that was contrary to generally accepted conclusions.  This usually generated great professional discussion between Bill and the field trip guide.

Unfortunately, I was too timid of an undergrad to engage Bill and Jackie in more conversation.   If so, I would have learned that we were from the same area of Tennessee.  I have a picture, somewhere in my collection, of Bill and Jackie on one of our field trips.  I have always been fond of that trip.  It now bears more significance as a reminder of how fortunate I was to know, and learn from, him.
 - Chris Notgrass, BS ‘90

I first met Bill in 1975 when I was a student on his introductory
field geology class on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada.  Bill’s
passion and enthusiasm for geology infected a number of us as students
and everyone in the class appreciated his down home accessibility.  No
one felt naïve asking him questions.   Bill was a cherished mentor to
- Dwight Harbaugh, BS, MS Geology

I was indeed saddened to learn of the passing of Bill Dickinson in July (and Jackie in May). Bill’s intellect and analytical skills in the field, lab and conference quickly elevated him during his Stanford years. Sedimentary geoscience was changed forever in the 1970s. Bill methodically and convincingly explained the relationships of sedimentation to different tectonic settings, leaving the long popular geosyncline theory in the dust. He focused an enormous amount of energy studying sediment provenance using detrital modes and new zircon technology. Bill was a field geologist his entire life, one of his traits I most admire.

I grew up in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, and was eventually captivated by geology as an undergrad at Lehigh University. After receiving my BS Geology degree in the early 1970s, I was passionately driven to live and work somewhere in the western US. I received my MS Geology degree from the University of Oregon, and worked as a geologist for Union Energy in Casper in the late 1970s. A great job, but something seemed missing. I applied to the University of Arizona and was accepted to the PhD program in Geosciences in 1980. My geologist colleagues at Union asked me why I would want to leave such a lucrative job with full-time use of an assigned 4wd vehicle, paid travel, full expense account, etc. I told them I had a once in a lifetime opportunity to study at what was becoming the best Geosciences graduate school in the world, with Bill Dickinson as my advisor.

Late summer 1980, I moved to scorching hot Tucson, and quickly acclimated to my new life at the University of Arizona. Bill Dickinson had 3 PhD advisees in 1980; Tim Lawton, Paul Heller and myself. Tim was beginning his work on foreland basin sedimentation in Utah. Paul Heller and I were formulating our plans to study early Tertiary forearc sedimentation in the southwestern Oregon Coast Range. As our field work progressed, WRD came up to Oregon for 2 weeks to join what he called “the 2 Paul charge”. We spent many days brainstorming, as we traversed the winding roads between the Oregon coast and the western Cascades.

The Geosciences Department at U of A had become a very exciting, dynamic place in the early 1980s. A steady parade of famous geoscientists visited the department nearly every week. Since I often worked on the large map tables in Bill’s spacious outer office, I was introduced by Bill to many of them during their visits. What a great experience for a grad student; discussing my field area turbidite stratigraphy with Arnold Bouma, structural deformation sequences with Albert Bally, and impact stratigraphic signatures with Walter Alvarez, (and many others).

I will always remember Bill Dickinson as a scholar, teacher, mentor and friend. Bill was indeed a revolutionary geoscientist, tirelessly pursuing our noble cause: to truly understand the Earth!
- Paul T. Ryberg, PhD '84

Art Saller shared these photos:

Bill Dickinson and Walt Snyer at Battle Mountain NevadaBill Dickinson leaading a field trip to Death Valley in 1979

Bill Dickinson with a group of studentsBill Dickinson and a student

A tribute to William R. Dickinson by Regents' Professor Emeritus George H. Davis, September 27, 2007, on the occasion of the "Tectonics & Ore Deposits" Symposium held in Bill’s honor.

Bill Dickinson was honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award at Stanford University’s commencement exercises June 14, 2015

William Richard Dickinson (1931-2015)—A Personal Farewell, by Timothy F. Lawton, PhD '83

Bill Dickinson's niece, Whitney Ingersoll, has shared some recent family photos with us.

Photo of Bill Dickinson and his siblings

William (which all the close family call him) and I grew up on a farm in Tennessee when gas rationing was in effect, so we spent summers entertaining ourselves riding Daddy’s Arabian horses that he raised as a business. In 1946 Daddy moved A photo of William Dickinson and his siblings as children with their ponies.the horses to the Santa Ynez Valley near Santa Barbara and we continued to ride the mountain trails there. I wrote a book recently , No Trail Untried, that includes some tales of teenager (and younger) William as a very expert horseman, calf roper, Scoop Polo player and “stunt rider.”

Following is an excerpt from No Trail Untried by William's sister, Maxi Dickinson Decker.

Presbyterian hymns were pretty, but the Saturday afternoon double feature, Western movies were more fun. This functional babysitter for William, Edith and me provided endless material for reenacting the horsemanship prowess of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Wild Bill Hickok. Since horse shows were cancelled because of the war, I discovered alternative modes of horsemanship down on the farm with the help of cowboy movies.
       A little red wagon and team of Shetland ponies (Mickey Mouse and Ol’ Paint) aided us in initial trick practice. Each western film provided new ideas to be perfected during the long summer days. I was about twelve years old. William followed five years younger and Edith trailed two years behind him. Rufus, the baby, was never allowed to join us in the back pastures. Although we kept our more active stunts surreptitiously hidden from Mother's knowledge, she must have had an inkling and protected her baby Rufus from harm. I think she felt we “older guys” were pretty adequate horsemen, and never (?) worried unduly when we took off for the barn to play our games.
      If our movie heroes could leap from porch roofs to the backs of strategically placed horses, land unscarred and gallop off to safety, why couldn't my siblings and I? No one told us that the movie actors employed stand-ins. “William, let’s don’t use saddles. They’d be pretty ouchy if we landed wrong. Don’t see how Roy Rogers can land in the middle every jump.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” he agreed, “and let’s use the barn down by the creek. Mother and Uncle Sandy won’t be snoopin’ around spoilin’ our fun down there.”
I scaled the shed roof by climbing a tree and jumping from the limb to the roof. “Lemme try it at a walk first,” I directed. William carefully walked Mickey under the edge of the roof and I landed, plop, onto his soft back. ”Nuthin’ to it,” I joked, as I took the lead rope and nodded for William to scale the tree. He conquered the walking jump as easily as I did.
      Landing on a moving target was harrier. When we got to the trotting scene, I clutched for mane and barely hung on. William slid off - - once, twice and again. We took turns practicing our jumps for several days, leading the getaway horse by the barn loft, first at a walk, then a jog and finally a canter. Edith watched from the safety of a nearby stump, assessing our technique.
After we'd completed our jumps a satisfactory number of times, I decided it was Edith's turn. I cared deeply for my little siblings and perfected each stunt with careful attention to timing and agility before allowing either her or William to try one. After all I had no other playmates; they were not expendable.
      Edith balked when she looked down from the roof. Her agility was not perfect and the height filled her with consternation. I explained the necessity of learning escape methods like the cowboys used and threatened to send her back to the house to play in the nursery with baby Rufus if she didn't comply. She began to cry and I climbed up with her and explained how to do it. She finally passed the test, acceding halfheartedly to my holding her hands and aiming her carefully toward the back of a stationary Ol' Paint that William held tightly. After all, she had not reached her sixth birthday, so William and I yielded to her fears and gave her a passing mark sans a moving target.

- Maxi Dickinson Decker
Santa Barbara, CA

Yesterday I received the very sad news from Clark Burchfiel that Bill has passed away while on a trip to Tonga.  Clark, who is now in Macedonia, had learned of Bill's passing from Kip Hodges.  The overseas locale of Bill's sad event suggests that it was unexpected, and therefore even more tragic and stressful to his family and friends than had he left us from his native Tucson.  

Plain and simple — Bill was a force of nature and a giant of science!   I can only imagine the shock and sadness that now envelops his family, his friends,  and your department today and in the days ahead.  I first met Bill a bit more than 60 years ago, when as an undergrad at Stanford he was my TA in a geomorphology class taught by Art Howard.  In no way could I have EVER anticipated then that our future Cordilleran tectonic interests and careers — his, and mine, and Clark's (he was also at Stanford)— were to be so intertwined for half a century.  

Bill's passing comes only three weeks after that of Hans Laubscher , who left us at the age of 91.  They are reminders (as if we needed them) that the clock continues ticking for our generation.  Bill and Hans, you and Clark and I and many others of our age have been scientifically blessed by having careers spanning the years of transition from the belief of a static compositional earth to the astoundingly dynamic planet we know today.  From my perspective few geologists contributed more to that conceptual transition than Bill — with his role in the organization of the 1971 Asilomar Penrose conference on what would come to be known and accepted as plate tectonics.  Clark and I were at the conference and its impact on us contributed to our 1972 AJS paper on  the tectonic evolution of the southern Cordilleran orogen.  Our scientific indebtedness to Bill, and that of many others, was born at that time.  It continued throughout the years.

He was a great guy and he will be truly missed.
- Greg Davis
Professor Emeritus of Earth Sciences
University of Southern California

All of us, I think, can only be representatives of the many students, colleagues, and friends that Bill accumulated over an exceptionally long and productive career. Think for example of his many Stanford colleagues, many of whom predeceased  Bill. Most of us can contribute only snapshots of our interactions with Bill's career--even myself who crossed paths with Bill's work repeatedly from 1967 on, when I was a graduate student.  By the time I met him, he was already a star of our profession--in each of several parts of our profession actually, each leaving behind entire fields of study--archaeological geology, then plate tectonics, then sedimentary provenance and dispersal, then extensional tectonics, then new tools of sediment tracing--to name just a few.  Few geologists knew of them all; Jackie used to tell of archaeologists in the SW Pacific astonished to learn that Bill had done anything else, so important was Bill's work in that field.  

I'd like to contribute just two snapshots here.  One is of 1970, possibly the greatest single moment for both Bill and our profession. All the attendees that survive would agree that Bill's Penrose conference made us realize that not only was plate tectonic history the most comprehensive view of earth history, but that our field areas, our specialties were parts of that plate-tectonic history wherever and whatever those might be.

I'll skip way ahead to Bill's GSA presidential address of 1994, actually after his retirement from the UofA.  Bill spoke not of any conventional topic, nor of any field for which he was already famed, but instead of man's heavy-handed influence on Holocene history, long preceding the industrial period.  There he anticipated a growing awareness that we can never go back to any idyllic former period.  At the other end of the topical spectrum, about the same time he realized that understanding the geometry of long transcurrent faults required analysis with spherical geometry, and so mastered the math to do that.

In aggregate, I think that Bill's  guidance to our profession was the greatest of any figure in its history.  That it seems tragically cut short after only 55 years, when he was in things up to his elbows right up to the last, only strengthens my conviction.  
- Eric R. Force
UA adjunct professor of geosciences, formerly USGS

I knew Bill over many years, mostly on Academy affairs, and joint interests in Polynesia. His knowledge was vast and his judgement impeccable. The community has lost a man of many talents.
- Stanley Hart
Senior Scientist Emeritus
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

I am Bill Dickinson’s sister. I know little of his accomplishments, as he did not talk about himself, but when I would try to congratulate him in public on any accomplishment I did know about, he always interrupted, “Science is not one man’s accomplishment, Edith. This project took many other people.” Always gracious, always large-hearted, in both his professional life and his outlook politically and socially.

Bill was called William by the family and when I heard that he was “Bill” to others and called him that, he said, “Why aren’t you calling me by my name?” William was a man of the greatest humility, simplicity, and astounding intellect that I have ever known and will ever hope to know.

He sustained me in childhood. I have known no other person in my life with the kindness and patience he had (he was a little over two years older). And he has been my rock in adult life: supportive, non-intrusive, and helpful in any way he could be. I agree absolutely with Jackie, when I would call and ask how she was. “I’m fine! I have Bill!” Yes. We all had Bill. And how often since July 31 have I wanted to call and ask a question, or just talk.

Bill and Jackie had the only marriage I have known that followed the 30’s Hollywood “happily ever after” script. They clearly adored one another. They had no arguments that I knew about, though Jackie could and would occasionally call him down. Jackie was older than William and he assumed there would come the day he would have to take care of her. That, he did, with the most loving and careful concern. I was worried how he would get along if she went before him, for they were truly each one-half of the whole. Fortunately, he was able to complete his Fiji/Tonga work the last two weeks of his life, and he did have other projects on the stove that he could concentrate on, but it was only 2+ months after her passing that he went to sleep and never woke up. Physically it was a heart attack, but truly, his heart had been broken when he lost Jackie.

William taught me touch football with his buddies; he taught me Marine holds that no one, no matter how much bigger than I, could break. That was probably why I had the courage to overpower Eddie Mathews (the baseball Hall-of-Famer) in jujitsu  classes my mother had me take in my teens to make sure I could protect myself. Over and over did I throw Mathews, to his great dismay.

At one time, on vacation from Stanford, I had a writing/philosopher friend who came to the house for discussions. – not to exactly discuss, but to argue with college-age energy. Mother had a large living room at the back of the house where we could make as much noise as we wanted. And we did. One afternoon, arguing philosophy at full tilt for at least an hour of shouting at one another, a big figure loomed up from behind the grand piano in the corner of the big room. What?!? We were both stunned, and I cried out, “Oh, William, I am so sorry! I didn’t know you were here!” “What?” he asked. He had been reading, and he had no idea we were even in the room. That was his power of concentration.

In later years whenever we would email a question or open a discussion, William either answered forthrightly, “I don’t know about that,” or he wrote a dissertation on the subject. We never knew if his encyclopedic brain had all the information stored, or that he took the time and effort to research the subject.

My mother, in her memoir, wrote: “I am, of course, proud of William. Who would not be? Though he remains aloof from his family, I know he cares very deeply about us all and is on call if he is needed. I hope his brothers and sisters know it. His strength, though silent, is a blessing to the family.” I say, William was a blessing to the whole world, not only the family, and I am sure he came forward for others besides his family. We have lost a very great man indeed. But before our losing, he was able to complete a huge life work and, thanks to his son Edward’s efforts, he was laid to rest in Tonga with overwhelming respect and love by the native people and by geologists and archeologists who had worked with him over the years. Strangely, and answer this as you may, the fence around the side of the cemetery where he was buried was planted in cactus – the only cactus on the island. So in a sense he never did leave Arizona, and his spirit remains with everyone there. How often we may say this, but I mean it from the bottom of my heart this time, “Thanks, William, for being you.”
- Edith Dickinson Tipple
Santa Barbara, California

Bill Dickinson coached me through a BSc (1958-1962) and an MSc (1962-1964) and was one of the most inspiring teachers and mentors I have met then or since.  I especially remember him leading a few of us through the revolution from “geosyncline theory” to plate tectonics as soon as it appeared, and showing how a leader can recognize a great new idea and pounce on it.  Bill had immense impact on the lives, values, science and attitudes of generations of young scientists.  He also showed me how a teacher should interact with students – something that generated some reaction when I later applied his training in Europe, where Profs (and even the lower orders) were still regarded as gods (and expected to act that way). I only met Jackie at the beer party opening the 2007 celebrations – Bill greeted me raucously (how could he recognize me, in the dark, after 40 years??) and Jackie turned around and told me how much she enjoyed her recent tour (with Bill) through my old MSc area along the San Andreas Fault.   I felt like had I never left home.  Typical of Bill, and of Jackie.
-Bill Griffin
Distinguished Professor
Macquarie University
Sydney, Australia

I just wanted to say thank to those putting on the event of October 23rd for “Bill” Dickinson.
My mother was his oldest sister and in his Tennessee family he was known as William. To those in his professional family you knew him as Bill.
No matter his name, to all of us, we knew him as one of the most caring people we have encountered. To his oldest living nephew (that would be me) he was a real beacon in my life. To those in his professional life he certainly set high standards for all of you.
I wish Tennessee were closer to your university so I could attend the event, but so be it. My spirit is always around William.
I wish I could write Dickinsonian but this will have to suffice. To each of you, thanks.

- James McGavock Fleming
Columbia, Tennessee

I met Bill Dickinson in the early 1990s. Two of his students (Ray Ingersoll and Tim Lawton) had been collaborators of mine, and Bill and I had shared interests in the Mesozoic rocks of the Southwest and of northern Mexico. Since that meeting, Bill and I were always in contact about our common research interests, which led to fieldwork (with Jackie) and several co-authored articles and abstracts.
I greatly admired Bill Dickinson. He was a world class geologist and a generous and enthusiastic collaborator. Bill was in no way dogmatic--he was one of the most intellectually honest scientists I have ever worked with. He was also a real gentleman. Indeed, the worst thing I ever heard him say about any scientist was in reference to a real %$&#, who Bill called an “odd duck.”
Bill is rightly regarded as one of the giants of sedimentary geology. He was a true intellectual leader in our science, from his work on the relationship between sedimentation and tectonics to his use of detrital zircon in provenance studies. And, Bill Dickinson understood how important paleontology is to deciphering Earth history. As a paleontologist, I really appreciated that.

I consider myself very fortunate to have known Bill Dickinson and to have worked with him. I miss his spirit, our collaboration and his wise counsel.
- Spencer G. Lucas,
New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science

I took Geos 101 from Professor Dickinson at the UofA back in 1988.  (I would’ve taken Pete Kresan’s great intro class, which everyone recommended, but doing so would have conflicted with Mineralogy and Crystallography, 10 AM, MWF, taught by Eleanour Snow, which I was also taking that first semester.)
All things considered, and with all due respect to Pete, whom I sure will understand, taking Intro to Physical Geology from Bill Dickinson was not a bad way to begin one’s formal education in earth science, and, in hindsight, a great privilege.

- Bill Erickson, BS '92

I was most fortunate to have Bill Dickinson as my Department Chair for six years and as a valued and trusted friend.   I first met Bill in 1969 when I was a graduate student at Stanford University.  While many geologists at the time were either struggling to comprehend or struggling against plate tectonics, Bill was daily throwing out obsolete views of Cordilleran geology and replacing same with insightful interpretations based on the plate tectonic evolution of western North America.  When our paths crossed again ten years later, we were colleagues in the UA Department of Geosciences.
Bill Dickinson and I had two long-standing arguments about paleomagnetism and Cordilleran tectonics.  I argued with Bill about paleomagnetic evidence for crustal block rotations in the Transverse Ranges of southern California.  Bill thought geologic ties prohibited vertical-axis rotations but he was so intellectually honest that he had no reservations about reevaluating his own research with a fresh eye.  I recall Bill bursting into my office one day to tell me: “You paleomag guys got it right. I was wrong. Now I need to go back to the drawing board to figure out how these rotations work in the evolution of the San Andreas.”  What developed was extraordinary.  A few years later, Bill Dickinson wrote GSA Special Paper 305 on Kinematics of Transrotational Tectonism in the California Transverse Ranges and Its Contribution to Cumulative Slip Along the San Andreas Transform System.  That special paper is one of the best geological publications I have ever read.
I lost my other argument with Bill Dickinson about paleomagnetism.  Then again I actually won by becoming Bill’s co-author on several publications concerning paleogeographic inferences derived from paleomagnetic studies of Mesozoic and Cenozoic rocks in western North America.  In both arguments, I was astonished how quickly Bill could home in on the most uncertain logical steps in numerous paleomagnetic interpretations, whether or not the original authors recognized those steps in their own methods.
Bill Dickinson shaped my scientific life as he did those of many others in the department over many years.  I was very saddened to hear of Bill’s passing so soon after Jackie left us.  Both were delightful people with great spirits that will stay in our heads and hearts.  

- Bob Butler
Department of Environmental Studies, University of Portland
Former Professor, UA Geosciences (1974-2004)

I have known Bill for the past 20 years, but of course knew of his work for much longer than that.  I always enjoyed seeing him - a breath of fresh air coming in the room when he stepped through the door. Bill Dickinson left few areas of geology untouched. He used the mineralogy of sand grains to give great insight into how tectonic provinces on Earth differ from each other.  His work provided a unifying theme that could be applied across the entire globe and in very different geological settings. He applied his extensive knowledge of mineralogy not only to the distant geological past, but also to the understanding of trade routes across the Pacific Islands through the examination of the temper of pottery sherds.  He bridged the disciplines of geology and archaeology.  He was past President of the Geological Society of America and served on many National Research Council committees for the National Academy of Sciences.   He was interested in just about everything, and his enthusiasm had no bounds in science. He was a great inspiration to all those who knew him – we will miss him.
- Thure Cerling
Chair of Geology Section, National Academy of Sciences
Distinguished Professor of Geology and Geophysics and of Biology, University of Utah

Few of his colleagues in Geosciences realize that the had a parallel career as the leading archaeological scientist in Pacific archaeology - 124 of the publications in his massive cv are archaeological. He contributed in two areas: tracking Polnesian migrations into the Pacific by petrographic identification of temper fragments in the pottery they brought with them; and reconstructing the paleoshorelines of Pacific islands at the time of first settlement. He was revered by Pacific archaeologists, who held a symposium in his honor at the Society for American Archaeology meetings in San Francisco in April 2015, and a large banquet for him in Chinatown. He was thrilled, and in great form.
- David Killick

Professor of Anthropology
Adjunct Professor, Materials Science and Engineering

University of Arizona

I was greatly saddened to learn of Bill Dickinson's death and, from the recent Geosciences newsletter, Jackie's death in May. Bill and Jackie were one of the most wonderful couples I have ever known. You may know that Bill hired me at UA, and he was an immeasurably valued colleague and friend. I have so many stories. When UA advertised the position I eventually was hired into, I called Bill, whom I knew slightly from our days in California (him at Stanford, me over the hill at UC Santa Cruz). The ad was slightly ambiguous, and I asked him outright what kind of "paleoclimatologist" they were looking for. I knew he’d been doing wonders for the department, and was interested in being part of it. As always, Bill was candid and forthright, and my years at Arizona were among the best of my career.

One of the first things Bill said to me after I started there was that, if he asked me to do something, I could say "no". At the time, I was one of only two women faculty, and he was acutely aware that women were often asked to carry an extra service load in the interests of diversity. I very much appreciated his sensitivity and interest in making sure that such demands of the institution not take precedence over my success as a teacher and researcher. A few years later, when we were talking about a new NSF award program directed toward mid-career women, I told Bill I wasn’t going to apply because I objected to the implied discrimination against men. He laughed and, while not necessarily disagreeing with me, told me in his inimitable way that someone would get the money, so it might as well be me (and I ultimately did, along with five other UA scientists, besting all other universities). Bill would often confide in me about various issues he had to deal with and, in doing so, he taught me a lot. Even though I was already well along in my career when I came to UA, Bill was truly a mentor.

But best of all were the informal times with Bill, who always had Jackie at his side. Bill was serious about science, but he maintained a sense of the more amusing aspects of our profession, and we would laugh over academic follies. Jackie always had her own take on these situations, too, and in addition she was a wonderful storyteller. She was delighted and so encouraging when I was learning to fly. I never stopped smiling when I was around them. As they were on so many, Bill and Jackie were a big influence on me.
- Judy Parrish
Professor Emerita
University of Idaho
Former Professor, UA Geosciences (1988-2003)
Past President, Geological Society of America

Bill Dickinson showed me how the scientific method could accommodate creative thought and leaps of intuition. Bill connected the dots where no one even saw dots, and had great fun doing it. Bill inspired me to be the best scientist and lawyer I could be.
- Rob Risley, MS '83