Remembering Howard Shifflett (Geology teacher extraordinare)

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by Jim Connolly

Howard Shifflett November 19, 1927 - May 25, 2014

Howard Shifflett
November 19, 1927 – May 25, 2014

This past weekend I received the news that my first geology teacher, Dr. Howard Shifflett, had just left us after an 84 year career as an extraordinary human being.  I first met Howard in 1971 when I took my first geology classes at Long Beach City College.  I wrote about it in an essay that was part of David Kuenzli’s book “Diving Deeper: Mastering the Five Pools of Happiness” (2010; Dog Ear Publishing).  Howard was the person responsible for igniting my lifelong passion for geology and the extraordinary planet that we live on.  After writing the essay (reproduced below), I did some investigation and discovered that Dr. Shifflett (he was Mr. Shifflett when I took his classes and working on his Ph.D.) had a long career as a teacher of geology at LBCC and went on in retirement to lead numerous geology-related tours for anyone who was interested.  My only disappointment was that I was not able to reconnect with Howard before he passed, but I was happy that his son Mark found my essay online and has been able to share it with his mom and others who knew Howard as students, colleagues and friends.  It is my hope that publishing this on the NMMW Website and Blog and adding a link to it on Howards memorial page will help get the word about this extraordinary man out to more people who knew him.


Amazed by the Earth

James R. Connolly

In 1971, after a tour in the Army, I was living in Southern California and working for an airline to pay the bills. Bored with the corporate world, I cut back on my work hours so I could take a few college classes.   I was introduced to Geology for the first time by a Long Beach City College instructor named Howard Shifflett.  In the first class, Mr. Shifflett handed out a sheaf of stapled pages that were mostly blank.  This was to be the text book for the class – an outline that I was to fill in myself from the subjects he covered in his lectures.  Listening to his lectures, I became fascinated with the idea that the earth is a living, ever-changing system that you could understand by careful examination of its features.  The jagged mountains, the flowing streams, the hills and valleys and the different types of rocks and minerals that formed them told an intriguing story of how our planet came to be as it is.

I had majored in chemistry in my first failed attempt at college, finding it somehow too abstract and artificial.  To me, Geology was solid and physical.  To see ripples of sand in a stream and recognize these same structures frozen in the layers of gloriously colored rocks that I had seen in the deserts of the southwest got me more excited about science than I thought possible.  Over the weeks, as Mr. Shifflett’s magical outlines began to take shape, I knew I had found my calling.

The second course, “Field Geology,” was open to those who completed the introductory course.  It was in the field that Mr. Shifflett’s lectures really came to life—in the ever-startling landforms of Death Valley, the dramatic volcanic landscapes of Mono Lake, the stark majesty of the Mojave Desert and the rugged peaks of the Sierra Nevada.  My previous experience with science was in my head.  Geology, in contrast, was in not only in my head…but also in my hands, my eyes and my heart!  In an odd but compelling way, I began to feel more in tune with the the earth and its rhythms.

The earth, as you may know, is continuously being re-created by competing processes that operate in both tension and harmony.  The slow, uniform geological processes of weathering, erosion, transport, deposition and burial gradually grind down giant mountains, move them as sediment hundreds or even thousands of miles away, and transform them into new rocks.  The catastrophic processes, including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis and meteorite impacts, punctuate the slow and steady processes with bursts of high energy as they push up newly formed mountains by powerfully energetic jerks or knock them down with explosive force often causing great catastrophes including mass extinctions, enormous destructive floods and other events that reverberate through eons of time.

Somehow, all of this made grand, internal cosmic sense to me.  Though our human time scale is much different from that of the earth, the slow and steady processes, punctuated by abrupt, energetic ones still seem to me today to be a good model for understanding the evolution of our lives.

After Mr. Shifflett’s classes, my life was changed.  Thirty-seven years after my first Geology class including a career as a professional geologist, I still find the endless shaping of our planet by geologic processes a source of awe and wonder.  Someday soon, after retiring from the work-a-day world, I look forward to sharing my excitement about geology with a new generation of students, young and old. Perhaps I can even help a few of them make the connection between their own lives and that of the awesome planet that is our home.  Thanks Howard. I am still filling in your magical textbook!

(from: “Diving Deeper: Mastering the Five Pools of Happiness” by David Kuenzli, 2010, Dog Ear Publishing)

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