Earth Matters: Lessons learned from those who came before, come after

Too often, we underestimate the impact and worth of our teachers and mentors. Similarly, we do not always realize the great things being done or the lessons being learned by those we mentor.

Two of my Penn State geography professors, Fred Wernstedt and Wilbur Zelinsky, passed away within a few weeks of each other last summer after impressive academic careers and long retirements. It reminded me of the many worthwhile lessons passed onto me during my college days.

Wernstedt was my undergraduate advisor during my time at University Park and taught me climatology. As an advisor, he always challenged those in his care to think about how their education would prepare them for their professional careers. Despite a demanding teaching and research load, he always had time to talk with us.

I loved his climatology course and sincerely could not wait to get to class. I can still recall his lesson on California’s incredibly diverse climate. He presented us with a dozen pages of climate data and told us to compute each town and city’s climate category and then plot them on a map of the state. California has nearly every climate found on the planet, and the map was, at first, a confusing mess.

Then Fred started to explain why things were the way they were, how the mountains impacted temperature and how the subtropical high made for the extremely dry climates in southern California. He helped bring together a hundred things I had learned in my other geography classes. All the sudden, the complicated map started to show patterns that I had not seen.

Zelinsky was very different from Wernstedt, more aloof than his colleague but still an impassioned teacher. He was a cultural geographer and had done research on a variety of rather unique things, including the geography of both cemeteries and religious affiliation.

His “Historical Geography of North America” class became the place that history, geography and sociology all came together. His semester project was a fascinating map analysis in which we were to compare and contrast two places at two different points in time. (Penn State’s incredible topographic map library had maps going back to the 19th century, so it was possible to see changes over a very long period.) I looked at one place I had bicycled through – Big Meadow, Va. – and another town I planned to visit on my bike – Harlem, Mt.

Like Wernstedt, Zelinsky taught us to see things in ways we had not seen them before. Several other geography professors shared that gift. Greg Knight and his “Human Use of the Environment” class taught me that our most profound modern environmental problems did not always have straightforward solutions. Landform specialist Pierce Lewis not only explained (with both enthusiasm and humor) why America’s varied landscape was so diverse, but also how it affected the way humans used it.

Three dozen years later, I am preparing to say goodbye to two exceptional Penn State Altoona environmental studies interns, Janelle Thayer and Josh Clark. They remind me that not only the student, but the mentor too, can feel rewarded by their experience.

Somewhere in the great beyond, Fred Wernstedt is smiling, satisfied that his student learned the most important lesson of all.

John Frederick (jfrederick@ writes on environmental issues every other Saturday.