George Davis | Tribute to William R. Dickinson

When WRD came to join us in the Department of Geosciences here at The University of Arizona in 1979, it underscored and affirmed for us that we were moving in the right direction.  It was a thrill when the official word circulated that Bill, and Jackie, would be joining us!  The whole process was memorable, for Bill – when asked why Arizona? – would say, ‘southern Arizona is the only place I know where you can find chimichangas!, and the only place I know where you can find such incredible conglomerates, of every age and description.  He called them “the Conglomerates of Chimichanga Country!” 

Bill’s coming here stepped up our program another notch, …another jump-shift, because of his seminars and courses, because of the outstanding PhD and Masters students he brought with him and attracted, because of his establishment of the Laboratory of Geotectonics (with tight, productive relationships with exploration companies, petroleum, mining), and because of the chance for us to see up close how he tenaciously would focus on 1st order questions.

As Provost I saw that big hitters commonly defer from taking on department head responsibilities…and I understand this completely, for there are too many other things to do!  Why would anyone do it?   But Bill recognized the importance of departmental leadership, particularly at the time he would be serving, and agreed to do so  -- immediately following my stint.  Just as I was stepping down, and just as Bill was ready to step in, the Dickinsons, Coneys, and Davis’ went out to dinner, at a Chinese restaurant.  At the end we cracked into the fortune cookies expecting positive notions, and if not that, neutral statements, and yet, unbelievably, Bill’s read:  “A giant wave is about to crash over your head!”  Well, it didn’t.  His leadership moved this place.  You can imagine the quality Bill exuded among Science heads!!  It was good for us!! And for the University.

Speaking of the university, I was asked to be on a university/community panel to discuss creativity in research and teaching, and how it can be fostered.  I asked Bill for his insights.  Bill gave me a specific example, describing to me in “Dickinsonian language” the path to creative discovery about who we are as a human race, especially in relation to our planet and our environment.  He wrote:

Our very ability to forecast the environmental future with any accuracy depends upon the blending of insights from diverse intellectual wellsprings.  1) From humanism, History, which bases insights principally on the written record but without even the most rudimentary facts about Pleistocene climates and landscapes.  2) From social sciences, Archaeology, with a primary focus on strictly human prehistory prior to the advent of comprehensive written records.  3) From the physical sciences, Quaternary geology, but almost entirely divorced from considerations of human behavior.  4) From the life sciences, Ecology and Biogeography, but with minimal attention to prehistoric antecedents. Each of these disparate approaches has led to only partial understanding of the full tapestry of the Holocene past, i.e., the last 10,000 years.  Casting off discipline-oriented blinders will permit us to achieve a more integrated vision of Holocene history by working from the premise that environmental and human history are parallel tracks along the same road map across an ever-changing Holocene landscape.

Finally….on September 18th my wife and I watched, on PBS, the New York Philharmonic perform Dvorak’s Carnival, with Yo Yo Ma as soloist.  And ever since, anticipating this evening, all I could think of is Bill, and his relationship to all of us.  I had learned that Carnival is the 2nd of 3 concert overtures collectively referred to as “Nature, Life, and Love.”  The running theme represents life force, which Dvorak called “Nature.”  Yo Yo Ma, while being interviewed, emphasized that the piece combines everything (sound familiar?), and though Yo Yo Ma as soloist plays some unbelievably challenging, nearly impossible  phrases, he insists it is not a showing off, ...because it is in combination with the orchestra.  Yo Yo Ma observes that the proper description, when the impossible is achieved in concert with others, is elation.  That elation showed, not only as Yo Yo Ma played, but even more when the piece was completed and all could see Yo Yo Ma amidst delighted virtuoso musicians across the entire orchestra, across all of the instruments and sections.  Every performer who came into view glowed with delight not only in playing together, but in being led in by someone of unparalleled capacity.    I think I’ve made my point.   We are in the tectono-philharmonic, and Bill has made AND is making our music even more fulfilling by his passion, intensity, joy, good humor, …and the mastery with which he plays.  

Bill, you’ve lifted us up, and we – as well as tectonics of course – are better for it.

[September 27, 2007, on the occasion of the
“Tectonics & Ore Deposits “ Symposium held in Bill’s honor]