Departmental History

History of the Geosciences and Natural Resources Department

(Prepared by S. Yurkovich, L. Kolenbrander, and J. Neff, Sept. 2009)


Prior to its designation as a regional university within the UNC System in 1967 there was but a single Science Department at Western Carolina College (WCC).  The Science Department Head was Clinton F. Dodson (MS in Biology).  The department offered courses in Biology, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, and Physics and three science degrees (BS in Biology, BS in Chemistry, and a BSED in Science Education).  Neither geography nor geology had a degree option and courses were offered in support of other WCC programs.  Geography offered four courses through the junior level, six at the senior level, and three graduate courses.  Geology offered only two or three freshmen courses.  At this time five faculty taught earth sciences.  The dates after the following faculty names indicate their dates of appointments at WCC.

W. Newton Turner (1937), PhD – Professor of Geography and Geology

Tyson A. Cathey (1944), MA, – Associate Professor of Geography and Geology

Earnest Marshall (Mark) Smith (1961), MS, Assistant Professor of Geology

Carl R. Hill (1965), MA, Assistant Professor of Geography

Arden W. Horstman (1966), PhD, Assistant professor of Geology

On July 1, 1967 Western Carolina College became a member of the UNC System and its name was changed to Western Carolina University.  Simultaneously the University reorganized into four Schools: Arts and Sciences, Business, Education and Psychology, and Graduate.  Dr. Gerald Eller, a member of the Science Department with a PhD in Biology was the first Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.  During the 1967-68 academic year Dean Eller began the task of forming departments within the School.  He selected Dr. Cliff Lovin, from the history department, as the Assistant Dean.  The School of Arts and Sciences was subdivided into three divisions: (1) Natural Sciences and Mathematics with Professor Clinton Dodson as Chairman followed shortly thereafter by Dr. Joseph Bassett, (2) Humanities with Dr. J. Bennett as Chairman, and (3) Social Sciences with Dr. Max Williams as Chairman.   Heads of the newly formed departments reported to their respective Division Chairman who relayed information to the Dean.

Eller (2001) states “The first four new departments of the new School were formed from the existing Department of Science.  This department, … began decentralization in 1963 when biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science, were placed under separate chairmen, who were allowed to function almost like department heads.  These four program areas became the first four new departments in the School.  The existing Chairman of each program was elevated to Department Head.”  Thus, Tyson Cathey became the Acting Head of the new Earth Science Department.  Eller (2001) also mentions two decisions that were made once the institution was elevated to University status: (1) Department Heads needed to have the doctorate and (2) all position openings would be advertized nationally. 


The Early Years of the New Department

Tyson Cathey was the Acting Head of the new Earth Sciences Department in 1967.  The five full-time faculty Ty Cathey, Carl Hill, Arden Horstman, Mark Smith, and Elizabeth James (Astronomy/Science Education) began developing a new curriculum and advertizing for a new Department Head.  John Chapman was hired as the Department Head the following year and the implementation of two new degree programs a BS in Geography and a BSED in Earth Sciences began.  During the 1970-71 academic year the BS in Geology degree was initiated.  During that same year Elizabeth James was moved to the Science Education program headed by Dr. Richard Berne.  A chronological listing by academic year of departmental faculty can be found in Appendix A with an abbreviated list of their credentials in Appendix B. A list of part time faculty is located in Appendix C.

Earth Science has always been housed in Stillwell Science Building (except for a renovation that occurred in 1988-89).  The department has been located on the second (now called the third) floor of the building and has seen its space expand and contract.  At some times the faculty occupied nearly all the rooms on the floor and at other times that space was given to other departments with higher needs.  In addition, when the original football stadium was dismantled (located where the Natural Sciences Building and rear parking lot are today) the department inherited the football locker rooms on Stillwell’s ground floor.  One could sit in ST 355 (current room number) and watch the football games on rainy days.  Those locker rooms became the bulk storage space for all departmental stuff.  We probably were the only department to have both toilets and showers.

Stillwell Building was completed in 1952 and had not been maintained very well.  Similarly, in designing new degree programs little money was invested in purchasing equipment and materials for the geology and geography labs. As a result there was a lack of infrastructure to support class activities and very little to support scientific research.  The geology labs housed stereo – and polarizing microscopes, a few Brunton Compasses, and lots of topographic maps.  The operating budget for the department was stagnant for decades.

The introductory geology and geography courses were always filled as they were a key component in our General Education program at that time.  Most introductory geology classes were taught in a room that had 72 seats while geography classes were a bit smaller at about 40 students.  Each introductory geology class had a two hour lab.  Our usual teaching load of lecture plus labs in geology was at least 17 contact hours per term.  Enrollment in upper division geology and geography classes ranged from a handful to about fifteen students. 

The formative years of the new University were a struggle and at times tumultuous as the number of Presidents (and their philosophies) changed often.  President Paul Reid retired in 1968.  President Alex Pow served from 1968-1972 and resigned because of very poor health.  Then a rapid succession of Chancellors and Acting Chancellors began with Mr. Frank Brown (1972), Dr. Jack Carlton (1972-73), Dr. Hugh McEntre (1973), Mr. Frank Brown (1973-74), and then Dr. H. F. “Cotton” Robinson (1974 -1984). The titles of President and Vice President were changed to Chancellor and Vice Chancellor during 1972.

No discussion about university life would be complete without a discussion of tenure and promotion.  Here is a brief look at what transpired during these early years.  WCC’s roots were in teacher education.  When the transition to University status occurred the Dean, Vice-Chancellor, and the Chancellor (particularly “Cotton” Robinson) began demanding that faculty become more productive professionally.  There was a difficult adjustment period when faculty who had been hired to simply teach were now expected to write, publish, give professional presentations, and submit proposals.  A great deal of discussion focused on how to evaluate the newer faculty by the older established faculty who had received tenure and promotion by different guidelines often without even submitting resumes for consideration.  Beginning with Chancellor Robinson, expectations were that faculty at WCU would be required to meet higher tenure and promotion standards in three areas:  teaching, research, and service.


Department Changes

Prior to 1967 there was a single Science Department.  In 1963, that department was subdivided into four areas biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science.  In 1967 Earth Science became a standalone department offering degrees in geography (1968), geology (1970), and earth sciences education (1968).  During the 1980-81 academic year a fourth degree BS in Geography – Planning was brought on-line.  Three years later a new BA in Geology was initiated.

The Department of Anthropology and Sociology was split in 1984 and Anthropology joined the Earth Sciences Department - hence a name change to the Department of Earth Sciences and Anthropology.  This change added three additional faculty to the department.

The BSED in Earth Sciences was eliminated as a degree program in 1985.  The next name change occurs in 1988 – we became the Department of Geosciences and Anthropology.

Anthropology was removed from the department in 1997.  At that time, Geosciences then combined with Natural Resources Management to become the department we have today.

In 2001 the BS in Geography – Planning and BA geology are eliminated as degree offerings.  The BS in Geography was deactivated as a degree in 2002.


Department Faculty (Geography and Geology)

At the conception of the department Tyson Cathey taught cultural and physical geography while Carl Hill’s duties were in physical geography, surveying, and air photo interpretation.  Mark Smith focused primarily on physical geology and Arden Horstman covered historical geology, sedimentation, stratigraphy, and paleontology.  The hiring of John Chapman in 1968 added other disciplines structural geology, and oil and gas exploration to the curriculum.  From this nucleus the department increased rapidly in size over the next decade.

In 1969 two new faculty were hired; Yvonne Phillips, a cultural and regional geography specialist and Tom Wilcox who developed courses in mineralogy, optical mineralogy, and economic geology.  The following year Ralph Triplette a land use planning specialist joined the staff.  Steve Yurkovich was hired in 1971 to teach the petrography and petrology courses.  In 1972 Ralph Scott a physical geographer was brought on board to instruct in cartography and air photo interpretation.  Jeff Neff, an economic geographer, was hired the following year.

In 1974 Gary White replaced Ralph Scott.  Gary taught cartography, remote sensing, and weather and climate courses.  In addition, Don Josif, joined the staff and taught cultural and physical geography.  The geography program continued its expansion while the number of geology faculty remained constant for the next dozen years or so. Geography saw the addition of Gerald Tyner, a cultural geographer in 1976 who stayed with us for two years.  Barbara Bailey, a cultural geographer, replaced Tyner in 1978.

In 1980 as Gary White headed to Nepal for a two year stay on an USAID project, Bryan Middlekauff, was retained to teach Gary’s classes.  Barbara Bailey left to join the State Department in 1981.  Middlekauff left in 1984 to take a tenure track position at Portland State University.  Also, in Gary White’s absence, Julie DeGalen, Bryan Middlekauff’s wife taught cartography.

With the retirement of John Chapman in 1985, Bruce Idleman was hired to cover our structural geology and tectonics classes.  The faculty within geography and geology remained the same until 1993.  There were three geographers, Neff, Triplette, and White and four geologists, Idleman, Horstman, Wilcox, and Yurkovich.  The size of the department decreased from twelve (7 geographers, 5 geologists) in the mid-1970s to the seven mentioned above.  This was due, in part, to the small number of graduates within the two programs.

With Arden Horstman’s retirement in 1983, Jim Reynolds, a seimentologist/stratigrapher was hired. Ginny Peterson joined the staff as the new structural geologist/tectonicist in 1984 replacing Bruce Idleman.  Her husband Jon Burr taught introductory courses and, later, mineralogy when Tom Wilcox retired in 1997. In 1997 Rob Young joined the staff as the new stratigrapher/sedimentologist and Tom Rossbach covered soils and hydrology and paleontology.  Mark Lord was hired a year later, in 1998, as hydrologist/geomorphologist.  Tom Rossbach left at that time to accept a tenure track position at Elizabeth City State University.

The Blanton J. Whitemire Distinguished Professorship in Environmental Sciences was established in 1999.  After a national search, Jerry Miller, a geomorphologist was selected from a pool of outstanding scientists.  Though much of Dr. Miller’s duties are interdisciplinary in nature he holds the rank of Professor of Geology within our department. 

With Ralph Triplett’s retirement in 2003 the number of geography faculty stood at two: Neff and White.  Geology continued to grow.  In 2003, Nick Allmendinger was brought in as a fixed term appointment to teach soils/hydrology and Erik Caldwell had his part-time position increased to full time.  Erik taught the introductory courses.

In an unexpected move Ginny Peterson accepted a tenured position at her Alma Mater, Grand Valley State University in the spring of 2004.  Cheryl Waters-Tormey joined the department to teach the structure/tectonics courses.  Laura DeWald was hired in 2004 to Head the Environmental Sciences Program.  She holds joint appointments in Biology, Chemistry, and Natural Resources. The following year Ben Tanner, low temperature geochemist/ wetlands specialist, Patricia Hembree – science education, and Blair Tormey, instructor in geology, joined the staff..  

Gary White retired in 2006 and only Jeff Neff remained in geography.  Also, Nick Almendinger left for a position in the private sector and Erik Caldwell began a new career as a high school science teacher.  The fall of 2006 saw Dave Kinner join WCU from the USGS where he worked as a slope stability specialist.

With Rob Young’s appointment as Director for Center for Developed Shorelines in 2007, Susan Barbour Wood became the newest staff member to teach sedimentation and stratigraphy.  By the fall of 2009, there is still one geographer but now the number of geologist stands at nine.

Finally, no description of departmental history would be complete without mentioning the real people who ran and supported the faculty.  At the earliest times their job descriptions were termed Secretary and most recently Administrative Support Associates.   Although there have been numerous faculty changes since 1967 there has been little turnover in our support staff.  These include:

  • Freda McCall – August 1970 – August 2001
  • Melissa Allen – August 2001 – August 2003
  • Holli Thompson – Oct. 2003 – July 2007
  • Anna Thompson – August 2007 - present


Milestones and Benchmarks (selected at random) for the Department

During the 1970s numerous faculty were hired in the new department, and for some of these newcomers, there was a sense that the department lacked a sense of direction.  As a condition for accepting the Department Headship in 1980, S. Yurkovich requested that the department undergo external review.  The faculty developed a self-study document that was sent to both external and internal reviewers.  The external reviewers for Geology were from James Madison University and the University of Georgia.  

The faculty who taught geology produced a laboratory manual Exercises in Physical Geology, A Laboratory Manual, in 1974 by Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

The decade of the 1970s also saw the start of successful grant writing by departmental faculty.  Chapman, Wilcox, and Yurkovich submitted an NSF proposal for an X-Ray diffraction machine.   The money from that grant plus a gift of an old X-Ray generator from a private company gave the department its first major piece of equipment.  A grant from the NC Board of Science and Technology by Yurkovich provided other small equipment pieces and the setting up of a small wet chemistry lab.  This was followed by a successful grant to Gary White from NSF that allowed the establishment of a series of weather stations around the county.  White’s grant also provided the department its first computer in 1980 – an Apple II with 64K of memory.

Tom Wilcox and Gary White led sixteen students to the Colorado Plateau and the Southern Rocky Mountains for two and a half weeks in May of 1980. The geography and geology students were enrolled in a course specifically designed for such a summer program.  This was the first of many successful summer field trips run over the ensuing years.

Gary White took a two year leave of absence in 1980-1982 to work with the Center for the Improvement of Mountain Living.  He spent the time in Nepal working on a hydrology/geomorphology project with counterparts from the Nepalese government.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s students were actively recruited to participate in faculty research led by Gray White and Steve Yurkovich.  Many students became co-authors of papers given at geography and geology conferences and at the NC Academy of Sciences meetings. Jim Reynolds took students to Argentina in 1994 and 1995 and Ginny Peterson took a student to Canada in 1995.  These were the first international experiences for students involved in summer research.

As new faculty continued to join the department the number of proposals and awards continued to increase.   The records of these grants can be found in WCU’s Research Office.   A large NSF grant to Peterson, Lord, and VanderVoort (Physics) brought the department its first major pieces of geophysical equipment (seismograph, ground penetrating radar, and magnetic susceptibility) for use in geology and physics courses.   Since that time nearly every member of the geology faculty has received external funding for teaching and research projects.  Many of those grants have brought funds to recruit students into research.

Geology received large collections of minerals and rocks from Dr. Rueben Swanson (retired Professor of Religion and Philosophy at WCU), Mr. and Mrs. Robert Campbell, and Mars Hill College.  Tom Wilcox supervised a number of majors to catalog these specimens and inserted them into the departmental collection.

Ginny Peterson and Jeff Ryan (WCU alumnus and Professor of Geology at University of South Florida) received funding in 1997 from the NSF for a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) grant to study ultramafic and mafic rocks in western North Carolina.  For each of two years twelve talented undergraduate students from across the USA were brought to campus for 3-4 weeks to do field work then went to USF for an additional 3-4 weeks to do petrology and geochemistry of the samples.  After a one year break a second grant was received to continue the project.  S. Yurkovich, J. Burr, and S. Kruse (USF) joined that second project.  Two WCU students participated in the grants each year for the four year study.  These were the only two REU - SITE grants ever received by WCU until that time.

The first renovation to Stillwell took place from 1988 – 1989.  The building’s energy systems were upgraded; new windows were install, and finished with a new paint job.  Faculty were distributed in a number of other campus buildings during that period.  A major overhaul of Stillwell took place from 2005-2009.  The building was effectively gutted, walls removed, rooms reworked, classrooms and labs were designed to meet the needs of each department, and all rooms were wired for state-of-the-art computer technology.  This renovation was done one wing at a time and faculty played musical offices during this period.  In addition, the department space increased by nearly forty percent.  The basement of Stillwell is now a series of research and class laboratories that are nicely equipped.

While this renovation was in-progress the University was receiving funds from a number of non-university sources to establish biotechnology and forensics programs.  Geosciences became the beneficiary of some of these monies.  We were able to purchase a dozen new microscopes, a new X-Ray diffraction machine, rock cutting equipment, another ground penetrating radar unit, a CN analyzer, and numerous other smaller pieces of equipment.  With the hiring of Ben Tanner the university committed to developing a geochemistry lab - the first of its type within the department.

The Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines was moved from Duke University in 2007, where it was under the direction of Orrin Pilkey, to Western Carolina University.  Rob Young, a student of Pilkey’s, assumed the Directorship of the Program.  It is housed in Belk Bldg. and is separate from Geosciences and NRM and the Director and Program reports to the Dean, Research and Graduate Studies.

Under the leadership of Jerry Miller, Mark Lord, Larry Kolenbrander, and others The Institute of Watershed Research and Management (IWRM) was established at Western Carolina University in 2007.  The Institute is an interdisciplinary association of faculty from across the university who are devoted to the promotion of sustainable watershed management through research, education, and outreach.  Jerry Miller is the Director of the Institute.


NRCM (NRM) Program History.

Western Carolina University was authorized to offer the bachelor’s degree in Natural Resources Management in 1984.  The curriculum for the degree program was developed by a team of representatives from academe and resource management professionals from the U. S. Forest Service and the U. S, National Park Service.  The proposed degree program met with some opposition from NC State University, but their objections were satisfied and the program was authorized to begin offering classes.  The program included concentrations in Forest Resource Management, Water Resources Management and Land Use Planning.

The first Program Director, Lawrence Kolenbrander was hired in summer, 1985 and the first classes were offered in Fall 1985 to a group of seven students; two from WCU and another 5 transfer students from Haywood Community College.  Kolenbrander taught courses in the core curriculum and in the Water Resources Concentration.

Part time instructors were used to present the courses required in the Forest Resources Concentration from Fall, 1988 until spring, 1993.  Douglas Staiger, Chairman of the Agriculture and Biology Department at Haywood Community College and James Vose, Forest Ecologist with Coweeta Hydrologic laboratory taught these courses.

Peter Bates became the second full time faculty and joined the NRM Program in the Fall of 1993.  Bates took over responsibility for teaching the courses in the Forest Resources Concentration.

With two full time faculty, the program grew to over 100 declared majors in the mid 1990’s.  Courses in Geographic Information Systems were added to the core requirements and a GIS lab was made available through funding from the National Science Foundation.  The proposal and grant were written and coordinated by Kolenbrander, Idleman, and Yurkovich.

Reorganization of the Geosciences and Anthropology Department joined Anthropology with Sociology and the NRM Program was combined with Geology and Geography to become the Geosciences and Natural Resources Management Department.  Larry  Kolenbrander was appointed department head at that time.

Dan Tinker was hired as the third NRM faculty. Tinker taught the GIS classes and began to develop courses in Landscape Ecology and Landscape Analysis.  He stayed with NRM for two years before being lured away by the University of Wyoming.  Tinker was replaced by John DiBari.  DiBari continued to teach the GIS and Landscape ecology courses.  Joni Bugden Storie was hired as the fourth NRM faculty and replaced Gary White as the remote sensing specialist in the program.  DiBari left after 2½ years and was replaced by Ron Davis.  Davis teaches the GIS courses and also has a background in Wildlife Management and offers courses in that area.  The NRM program eliminated the Land Use Planning Concentration and began offering a concentration in Landscape Analysis that trains students in advanced GIS and remote sensing techniques used in natural resource analysis.

The Natural Resources Management Program (NRM) Program changed its name to the Natural Resource Conservation and Management Program (NRCM) in 2007.  Larry Kolenbrander retired from the GNRM department in summer of 2008 after 23 years of service.  Brian Kloeppel was hired as his replacement and joined the faculty of the NRCM program in fall of 2008.


Department Heads

Earth Science – Newton Turner (1963 - ?)

Earth Science – Tyson Cathey (? – 1968)

Earth Science – John Chapman (1968 – 1980)

Earth Science – Steve Yurkovich (1980 – 1984)

Earth Sciences and Anthropology – Steve Yurkovich (1984 – 1987)

Earth Sciences and Anthropology – Jeff Neff (1987 – 1988)

Geosciences and Anthropology  - Jeff Neff (1988 – 1992)

Geosciences and Anthropology – Ann Rogers (1992 – 1997)

Geosciences and Natural Resources Management – Larry Kolenbrander (1997 – 2006)

Geosciences and Natural Resources Management – Mark Lord (2006 – present)


Other Major Administrative Rolls of Departmental Faculty

Newton Turner

  • Director of Graduate Studies, 1953 – 1965
  • Academic Dean, 1965 – 1967
  • Vice President  for Academic Affairs, 1967 – 1971

Yvonne Phillips

  • Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, 1972 – 1985
  • Interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, 1985 - 1986

Steve Yurkovich

  • Director, MicroNet, 1987 – 1989
  • Associate Dean, Research and Graduate Studies, 1990 – 1997
  • Acting Dean, Research and Graduate Studies, 1997 – 1998
  • Associate Dean, Research and Graduate Studies, 1998

Rob Young

  • Director, Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, 2007 – present

Jerry Miller

  • Director, The Institute of Watershed Research and Management

Copyright by Western Carolina University      •      Cullowhee, NC 28723      •      828.227.7211      •      Contact WCU
Maintained by the Office of Web Services      •      Directions      •      Campus Map      •      Emergency Information      •      Text-Only

Office of Web Services