4 June 2018

Losing Ron and Declan

Posted by Callan Bentley

Last week, I lost two of my colleagues, Declan De Paor and Ron Schott. Both were involved in Google Earth for On-site & Distance Education (GEODE), the 5-year project I serve as PI on. Declan had battled various forms of cancer for many years, and most recently had developed several brain tumors. His passing was preceded by knowledge of his condition, while Ron’s death was unexpected and therefore shocking. Both geologists were important to me personally, and I wanted to commemorate them here, outlining both their roles in larger geo-society, but also what their influence meant to me.

Declan taught at Old Dominion University, where he directed the planetarium and had an appointment in the department of geophysics. He was a structural geologist (as is his wife, Carol Simpson, who served as provost at ODU for many years), but he was more known in recent years for his innovation and promotion of digital geology teaching tools. Many of his collaborations through the years were with Steve Whitmeyer of James Madison University, and it was the two of them who contacted me about six years ago to start developing a proposal that became GEODE. Declan was exceptionally clear-headed and proactive as a thinker. I remember first meeting him at a GSA meeting in Pittsburgh, as he mediated (with a martini) about a way to solve a technical issue with his planetarium, and delightedly coming to a solution right before shaking my hand. He was gleeful in that moment, and keen on sharing his insight with me, and it was emblematic of his positive attitude about all things, including problems. He smiled very easily and exuded charm and sincerity. His Irish accent added to this effect. I’m grateful to Declan and Steve for bringing me into the fold of Principal Investigators, giving me an opportunity to learn project leadership. Declan also initiated the nomination process that led to my GSA fellowship last year, an honor I’m quite grateful for. Declan retired recently and moved to the island of Mallorca in the Spanish Mediterranean, and I’m glad he got to enjoy living there for some time before his passing away. My condolences to Carol and his surviving family.

Ron Schott was a giant in geoscience outreach on the internet. He was an early adopter of just about every technology you can think of: Google Earth, GigaPan, Twitter, Google+, geological apps for augmented reality. He was always pushing to innovate for the public good with these technologies, making publically-accessible “Geology Office Hours” on Google hangouts and inventing new geo-ed hashtags like #weatheringWednesday and #btgt (“Been there; GigaPanned that”). He was the king of “Where on Google Earth?” so much so that the players of that game invented “the Schott Rule” in his honor. He was kind and inclusive, encouraging and thoughtful. His omnipresence on geology Twitter was pretty much unmatched. When I announced his death there last week, the outpouring of grief was unprecedented. Ron was unlucky in work: he didn’t get tenure at Fort Hays State University in Kansas, nor at Bakersfield College, but he was absolutely dedicated to public outreach via the web and he stayed in Bakersfield anyhow. The online world was his domain, and he excelled at that work. Nobody did more to push GigaPans on the geology world. Ron had almost 1500 to his name. Though I ended up in the PI position on GEODE, Ron was the pioneer, and in many ways I was following in his footsteps. When I was a GigaPan tenderfoot, Ron connected me at a conference with Gene Cooper of Four Chambers Studio (later to branch out and become GIGAmacro), who also became a GEODE collaborator. Without that connection, I’m not sure what my digital legacy would look like: our team’s GIGAmacro images of geological subjects are one of our major contributions to digital geology. Without Ron, I wonder if it would have happened. Prior to that, I had launched a geology blog aimed at my students, but it was Ron who encouraged me to open up the comments so other people could interact with it. That was huge – if he hadn’t nudged me to have the blog be a conduit for a two-way conversation, I wonder if it ever would have developed into what it became, and I wonder how much of my personal success would never have manifested. It’s an interesting question – how much of a catalyst can one person be for another’s life path? The commemorations I’ve seen play out on Twitter the past few days have shown me that I am not alone in having been seriously and positively influenced by Ron. He has manifested hundreds of other instances of proactive awesomeness, helpfulness and growth among my peers and his followers online. My condolences to Ron’s sisters and surviving family.

Both of these geologists were great people. Both of them will be sorely missed. We are lessened by no longer basking in their glow.

Rest in peace, gentlemen.