He started his career, famously, as a geology student who was not at the top of his class, yet he eventually took his place among the most honored geologists of his era.
He was a professor, author, world-traveler, statistics whiz and an aviation aficionado, too, yet what he loved most was being in the field, with the rocks, discovering again and again the beauty and brilliance of geology.
And what he learned, he enthusiastically shared with others. Because what he valued most, a core of his moral compass was giving back to help others.
And now that legacy is about to continue.
A new named grant has been established by the AAPG Foundation in the honor of legendary, award-winning geologist Paul Potter, thanks to the generosity of his family and of the AAPG Eastern Section.
The Eastern Section Paul Potter Memorial Field Geology Grant was approved thanks to a $50,000 donation that the Eastern Section leadership hopes will grow in coming years.
It will be given to a student studying within the AAPG Eastern Section, for research with a strong field geology component.
“The Paul Potter Estate gifted the (bequeath) directly to the Eastern Section to do with as we see fit, no strings attached,” said Donna Willette, the current ES president. “There was a clear, immediate consensus with the ESAAPG board … to use the money to deliver a Student GIA in Paul Potter’s memory.
“We decided the focus for the grant should be on a field geology grant,” she continued. “He was all about the rocks and getting out to see the rocks, (and) currently, expenses for field geology work are quite high, not to mention that typically students aren’t paid while out in the field. Field work is becoming a critical expense – and we need field work.”
The Paul Potter Memorial GIA will be available for the 2023 AAPG Foundation’s Grants-in-Aid season.
The Foundation’s GIA program provides financial assistance to graduate students whose thesis research has application to the search for and development of petroleum and energy-mineral resources, and/or to related environmental geology issues.
The annual grants are intended to cover only work directly related to student’s thesis work, especially field work.
And that’s something that would have made Paul Potter very happy.
His Brilliant Career
Paul Potter, who in 2016 was the recipient of the Sidney Powers Memorial Medal, AAPG’s highest honor for science, died July 4, 2020, at the age of 94.
A native of Springfield, Ohio – despite his work around the world, the U.S. Midwest would be a constant throughout his life – Potter served in the U.S. Army during World War II before getting degrees in geology and statistics (master’s) at the University of Illinois, and a doctorate in geology from the University of Chicago in 1952.
He often spoke of being something less than a straight-A student, even when it came to geology. But his curious nature and focused eye on details helped carry him to the heights of his profession.
He began his career with the Illinois State Geological Survey and began consulting in the 1950s – including for Shell, Schlumberger, Total and Petrobras.
He became an associate professor of geology at Indiana University in 1963, then received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which took him to Johns Hopkins University, where he began a collaboration with Francis Pettijohn.
Together, they produced the seminal books, “Paleocurrents and Basin Analysis” and “Atlas and Glossary of Sedimentary Structures.”
In 1972, the two then-noted geologists were joined by Raymond Siever to produce another significant book, “Sand and Sandstone.”
Potter joined the faculty at the University of Cincinnati in 1971 – during his time there he also established himself as not just a teacher but perhaps the leading expert on the impact of landslides in the region. He retired there in 1992 as professor emeritus of geology.
But those touchstones tell only part of his story – and can’t begin to define his decades-long influence as a geologist, professor and mentor. As noted in the AAPG EXPLORER when he received the Powers Medal, he:
- Authored or co-authored “a seemingly constant stream of papers and seven influential books.”
- Did field work “just about everywhere,” with a focus on 16 of the United States, Saskatchewan, Ontario, the Bahamas, Mexico, Spain, France, Italy, Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Guyana, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile and Peru. (“After about 10 years, I get bored with what I’m doing,” he told the EXPLORER.)
- Taught in Mexico and Indonesia in his “retirement” years, returning to Cincinnati during the summers to teach and advise students there as well.
- Amazingly, served as an assistant professor of geosciences at Brazilian universities in the 1990s – amazing, because of the personal challenge it entailed.
“I went when I was 67,” he recalled, “because if I’d had to put down my age as 70, I thought, ‘No one would give a job to a 70-year-old man.”
Still, on his way to Brazil he thought, “Should I be doing this?”
“And I said to myself, ‘Paul Potter, if you don’t have the guts to do this, you aren’t going to do anything,’” he said.
Not only did Potter have a career filled with activity, he also had one filled with excellence. In addition to AAPG’s prestigious Powers award, he received the SEPM Pettijohn Award for Excellence in Sedimentology, the Mather Medal for contributions to Ohio geology studies, the AAPG Eastern Section’s Outstanding Educator Award, the Easter Section’s John T. Galey Memorial Award and the AAPG Jules Braunstein Award.
His final publication with the Ohio Geological Survey was a map of the Little Miami River Watershed, published just a few months before his passing.
In Memory and Honor
As cited in the EXPLORER, Potter suggested four major lessons a professional geologist should learn:
- Learn how to work with people.
- Learn other sciences.
- Learn how to write and communicate well.
- Give back to society.
The fourth suggestion was something he learned from a European professor during a field trip to the Adirondacks, who said, “Every geologist should … give back to the community.”
The AAPG named grant in his memory and honor will ensure that the lesson continues.
For more information on the AAPG Foundation’s Paul Potter Named Grant – either to apply or, just as importantly, to support with your gifts – see the Foundation website at foundation.aapg.org.