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Memories of SSU

Terry Wright

Professor, Geology Department 1969-2001

A geology dig from the 1970s

A geology dig from the 1970s

            William H. “Terry” Wright III, Ph.D. Geology, arrived at a newly forming Granola U in August 1969, fresh from upbringing in New England and graduate school in the Midwest.

I was predestined to be a geologist by my name. My mom didn’t like any of the names derived from William so she, a creative Radcliffe graduate, realized that “third” was “Tertiary” in Latin and named me after that word. You geologists all know that Tertiary is the third great subdivision of geologic time, ranging from 64 million to 1.7 million years ago.

            I grew up in an active outdoor family, camping, yachting, skiing, rock climbing and mountaineering, from a ramshackle cabin base in Franconia, New Hampshire. When I went to college at Middlebury, Vermont, I wanted to find out how mountains were made, but it turned out that no one knew how that happened. Then the plate tectonics revolution started in the early 1960s, and I grew up geologically with the concepts of seafloor spreading, subduction and convergent plate boundaries as models for mountain building. My license plate frame says, “Subduction leads to orogeny”; the back one reads, “You can’t have subduction without spreading.”

            At Sonoma State College, field trips were a specialty supported by the department and the administration, with four or five per semester in decrepit state vehicles to Yosemite, Death Valley, Grand Canyon and coast ranges. These were more than trips. They were social experiences aimed at a healthy mix of academics, campfire parties and great companionships that developed over the years. Vehicle breakdowns and miraculous solutions to fluid logistics problems taxed my abilities, but I had been brought up to be resourceful and creative solving problems on the road, in the field, and with people.

            We were night driving down to Bishop on 395, south of Lee Vining, when a cloud of smoke enveloped the leading van. Lights blinking, it pulled over. On inspection, we found a bolt had ejected from the engine block and all the water was draining out onto the highway. Several students drove back down the highway, swept the shoulder with flashlight and headlights and found the missing bolt! Reinsert the bolt, but the threads were stripped. I always asked the most mechanical student in the class to bring a tool box.  Temporary fix with locktite and aluminum foil.  Then the mechanic dude says, “My uncle owns a motel in Lee Vining, and my cousin works in the county shop, maybe they can help.” Soon the van reappears. We were in the field by 8 a.m. doing our mapping project.

            Outstanding memories accumulated: twenty years of Grand Canyon geology float trips, many with Extended Education, and others organized on my own and with Tom Anderson. Hikes of all kinds, usually with a major geologic lesson at the end: the great unconformity of Blacktail Canyon, the travertine falls and Havasu Canyon, the black lavas of Lava Falls rapid, and countless other geological gems.

            My children, Heather and Kailen, gave me new reasons to share my love of geology and the outdoors. The both got A’s in geology at SRJC with Dick P.B. Shore. Heather went on to excel as an Anthropology major at SSU, following in her mom’s (Marge Lyser) footsteps. Kailen is now a geography graduate student at UCSB and routinely using geology in remote sensing.

            In 1991, I took a year off to teach at Wellesley College near my parents and old haunts of New England.  I returned to find a changed institution. The suits had taken over and everything was rules, and liability was foremost. Needless to say, this had its effect on field trips; they expected us to be cops.

            In 1995, the Benziger Family Winery called in search of a geologist to advise them on an educational tour of wine production, starting in the vineyard with the geology and soils. The tour stop of geology, with topographic models and soil reconstructions, is still an integral part of their tour.   I have published and actively led field trips on the geology of wine for winegrowers, the Geologic Society of America, the California Academy of Sciences, and the like. Check out my website,, and click on “Terroirs.”

            In Spring 2001 the time came to FERP.  I would teach full-time in the Fall, mostly my specialty classes, Structure, and field classes. On my semesters off, I traveled to China, New England, the Colorado plateau, Grand Canyon, Rogue River, and time and again to the Bishop area of the east Sierra. I survived congestive heart failure and have now rebuilt my heart to its original strength. I found my plot in Benton, a small high desert town ensconced at the foot of the White Mountains, ten acres of high desert sage and dirt. Many friends of like mind are there. Skiing in Mammoth and great fly-fishing are less than an hour away, and unexplored geology all around. I have established the Benton Geologic Field Station on the property.

            I am there now and raise a glass to all of you who have made SSU the great institution it is, in spite of the obstacles in your path. Your work is all worth it. I run into students all the time who have learned geology and a bit about life and how to have fun,  who are full of  questions  about who is doing what and compliments about what they learned at SSU.