Bob Carson Leaves 40 Year Legacy of Enthusiasm

Audrey Kelly

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Even when the current managing editor of The Pioneer and ASWC senator balked at the slope ahead of her, Bob Carson was unafraid. Granted he had years more of experience with sledding down sand dunes, but it’s also doubtful that someone would deduct awesome points for such a badass habit.

After a half-hour hike through desolate sand dunes, Bob had stopped our ragtag little group (some of us who had pulled on an approximation of “snow” clothes two minutes after jumping out of an alcohol-fueled slumber –– the managing editor, certainly not this trusty reporter) at a high point in the rolling humps ‘n’ bumps of Juniper Dunes. He threw down a sled.

“So, who wants to go first?”

The pause was more awkward than those that occur during Friday morning Encounters. All of us eyed the slope, which was way steeper than the word “sand dune” implied, with trepidation.

Just as someone was about to burst from the paused-ness of it all, Bob sat down on the sled and pushed off, raising what I had previously would have described as “wizened” hands into the air as he hollered with childlike abandon.

That was my first experience with Bob Carson –– watching him going shooting down what I assumed to be a dangerously steep sand dune, fully expecting to stumble down to find his bones and guts scattered in a 10-foot radius from the crash site.

Obviously he didn’t die that day; instead, he will be retiring from Whitman College this May after working at the school since 1975 as a professor of geology and environmental studies.
He moved to Walla Walla upon accepting what was then the one and only geology position at Whitman with his wife, Clare (who comes up in almost every conversation you have with or about Bob ––apparently they come together like peanut butter and jelly), and his nascent family. They knew that Whitman was the place for them when a squirrel fell out of a tree right in between their two dogs.

“We knew it was paradise,” said Bob.

According to Bob, the reason they hired him in 1975 was because he was already a member of the American Alpine Club, a whitewater boater at a time when the Outing Program was just beginning, and because he was the most enthusiastic of the candidates.

According to students of Bob, the reason he has been such a lasting and impressionable figure on campus is also because of his enthusiasm and the care he has for each individual student.

“Bob was always so encouraging and proud of his students. He wanted us to be critical thinkers and to not just take information at face value, but to understand the basis for different positions and question what we didn’t think was right. He was always up for adventure and loved to explore new places with his students and family,” said Ellie Leonard, a student and mentee of Bob’s who graduated in 1999, in an email.

Environmental studies-geology senior Shannon Blair reveals that Bob’s reputation has spread beyond the confines of our squirrel-paradise campus.

“Before coming to Whitman I worked with a guy from Walla Walla in New Mexico, and he said I had to take a class with Bob Carson,” she said.

Following advice from the faraway lands of the Southwest, Shannon managed to get into Environmental Studies 120 with Bob the spring of her first year.

“[Bob] was really friendly in office hours, which I appreciated as a freshman. He was interested in what I was doing, and by the end of freshman year I knew that I wanted to do ES and Geo and that Bob would be my advisor for both,” said Blair. “[During my time here] Bob has had a very positive influence for my academic life, but also he gives me advice on personal things when I’m stressed.”

While Ellie only majored in one of Bob’s fields of study (environmental studies), she said that Bob’s love for geology sticks with her to this day.

“The classes and trips that Bob led piqued my interest in geology and, although it wasn’t my major, I will always have a great appreciation for the geological sciences thanks to Bob,” she said. “When going on road trips with my family, I always smile when we drive by road cuts remembering all of the field trips with Bon and the number of times we pulled over for a quick roadside geology lecture. He could tell the story of Washington geology in a way that could make anyone want to become a geologist. Just ask him to tell you the story of the Missoula Floods and you’ll see what I mean.”

Apparently road trips with Bob are quite the experience, as Blair also commented on what they can be like.

“Bob knows everything along the road; you drive along and there’s continuous commentary,” she said.

“It’s funny to watch [Bob and Clare’s] relationship because Bob is so full of energy and Clare kind of has to calm him down. When they’re driving together Bob gets so talkative, and then all of a sudden Clare will say, ‘Bob, Bob! We have to turn here!'”

It’s a good thing that Bob is fun to travel with because that is perhaps where students get to interact with him the most. My pen could not move quickly enough to scrawl down the myriad countries and places that Bob has taken students too –– everywhere from nearby Juniper Dunes for sand-dune sledding to Nepal and the Caribbean. Students have gone with Bob to assist with research, as well as just for the sake of travel. He looks forward to more travel in his retirement.

“I’m not going to stop traveling, I’m just going with older people!” he said.

“Bob’s spirit of adventure and curiosity were contagious and led me to join two of his international field trips. These trips were hands down my best experiences at Whitman. He taught me to not be afraid to ask questions, to push myself and to take the time to really understand the world around me and the people in it,” said Leonard.

Bob has helped students to question and push boundaries in the context of travel and also to be aware of the state of their environment in the Pacific Northwest and its deterioration. He has been an influential force in the growth of the Environmental Studies Department since his arrival on campus in 1975, just five years after the first Earth Day and what is considered the beginning of environmental awareness.

Indeed, Bob’s final words at the end of the interview urged for Whitman students to push towards change.

“My generation has screwed up badly, and we have to fix it,” he said. “There are all sorts of problems in the world, but I believe climate change is the worst. The poor are going to be the ones that suffer the most, and so it has to be on the top of everyone’s agenda.”

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