Published:August 12, 2020
This volume is dedicated to the memory of Dr. John Manley Dennison (1934-2014), student of Appalachian geology, stratigrapher, mentor, and genuine academic. John dedicated his career to studying the Paleozoic rocks of the Appalachians, principally those of the Devonian Period. His efforts are preserved in more than 300 articles, abstracts, and field-trip guidebooks. This volume, an outgrowth of a memorial symposium held to honor John at the 2015 Geological Society of America Southeastern Section Meeting, is a collection of papers written by former students and colleagues for this memorial volume. The papers represent the diversity of John’s interests, both stratigraphic and topical. We appreciate the contributions of all of the paper authors.
John Manley Dennison was born in Keyser, West Virginia, on 13 April 1934, the second of two children of Raymond Lewis Dennison and Edna Sturm Dennison. He passed away at age eighty on 2 June 2014, at his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
An early interest in rocks and fossils found while chasing cows on the dairy farm where he was raised led to his career in geology. He was the West Virginia Westinghouse Science Talent Search winner in 1950, meeting President Harry Truman in the Oval Office at the White House. He attended West Virginia University for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. His education was interrupted by two years in the U.S. Army, where he served as a rocket test engineer at what is now Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. He later learned that two of the engines he worked on as weapons systems became the second and third stage launch engines of the first U.S. satellite in 1957.
Following his military service, he earned a Ph.D. in geology at the University of Wisconsin in 1960. He then taught at the University of Illinois (1960–1965), the University of Tennessee (1965–1967), and finally from 1967–2002, at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill. His investigations were varied, but focused on the strata of the Appalachians from Alabama to New York, and their associated fossils, mineral resources, and geologic history. He received many professional honors, including the Eastern Section American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) Outstanding Educator and John T. Galey awards. He was an AAPG distinguished lecturer in 1974–1975, visiting 27 universities and geological societies.
John’s son, John Robert Dennison, is a physics professor at Utah State University and the father of John’s grandchildren Jim and Sarah Dennison. His daughter, Abigail Marie Dennison, is a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill and Stanford University and is an educator in California.
John loved time spent in the field showing and discussing places of geologic interest with fellow enthusiasts. His participation and leadership in the Carolina Geologic Society and co-chairing of technical sessions and field trips for the Eastern Section of SEPM (now the Society for Sedimentary Geology) brought him treasured friendships and collaborations.
John also led field trips for the Eastern Section AAPG (1979, 1988, 1996, and 2005); the Pennsylvania Geologists Field Conference (1972 and 1979); Appalachian Geological Society (1970); the International Geologic Congress (1989); and the Silurian Symposium (1996). He ran trips for the GSA Southeastern Section Meeting in 1992, 1994, 1998, and 1999 and for the GSA Annual Meeting in 1971. He co-authored the 2013 AAPG Annual Meeting field trip guidebook with Avary, although he was unable to go on the trip.
JOHN’S TAKE ON GEOLOGY
John probably examined more strata of the Appalachians than any other geologist. He often said that “Rocks are best examined in their home place” and “Geology is made up mostly of people, a few rocks and some interesting restaurants along the way.” (See Figs. 1–6 for chronologically ordered pictures of John in his element.)
This last quote inspired the subtitle of this volume and brings back memories of a great collaborator and friend with a legendary sweet tooth:
Contributor Tom Rossbach reminisces, “I always remember John stopping at the Buckhorn Inn on Route 250 in Virginia for peanut butter pie when we were on our way to do fieldwork at Hightown, Durbin, Huttonsville, or Elkins. I also remember him ordering pork chops and eggs for breakfast at the Waffle House in Roanoke, Virginia (telling me his wife would never have allowed him to have that at home!), when we were mapping Route 311 on Catawba Mountain. Then there were the glazed doughnuts he had ordered heated up on the grill at Bone’s Diner in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, when we mapped Kates Mountain.”
Volume editor Ken Hasson remembers “eating at Yokum’s Restaurant, near Seneca Rocks (formerly Mouth of Seneca), West Virginia, with John. There was also a restaurant in Pennington Gap, Virginia, where John liked to stop for pie.”
Contributor Bill Thomas recalls, “In 1984, John and I went together to a Geological Society of America Penrose Conference on the ‘West African Connection’ in Giens, France. On the flight to France, we talked all night, never sleeping; the amazing result was no jet lag. We gave a joint presentation—one set of slides, talking in turns—of a summary of Appalachian stratigraphy in the context of plate boundaries with Africa. Giens is between the French Alps and the Mediterranean, but our trip to the French Riviera was dampened somewhat by the fact that we were there in January. In France, we had memorable dinners of bouillabaisse, sea urchin, escargot, and pigeon.”
Lead volume editor Katharine Lee Avary recalls eating at High’s Restaurant in Monterey, Virginia. “I ate lunch there on November 17, on my way home from the 2019 Virginia Geologic Field Conference. Lots of memories were still there!”
John was extremely generous with his time, freely sharing his expertise in collaboration with other geologists. He rarely refused projects which interested him; his publications reflect the breadth and depth of those varied interests.
During his long teaching career, most of which was spent at the University of North Carolina, John always tried to ensure his current students met, or knew of his previous students. When students finished their studies with John, they had a ready-made network of professional colleagues. Many of his students maintained a long-term relationship with John, collaborating on research projects, field-trip leadership, and paper authorship. John saw good in everyone and was a wonderful mentor and champion for his students. He was effective at obtaining funding to support students’ research from state geological surveys, the U.S. Geological Survey, and oil and gas and mining industry contacts.
During the petroleum boom of the 1980s, John was one of the leaders in forming the Appalachian Basin Industrial Associates, an organization that joined petroleum companies with university geology departments that were conducting research in the Appalachian basin. This association supported research by graduate students and sponsored semi-annual scientific meetings, which generated volumes of research papers. The concept demonstrated John’s dedication to the education of students for practical application of our science.
In addition to educating and mentoring his university students, John also believed it was important to educate working geologists beyond the walls of the university. He led field trips, taught short courses, and lectured for many organizations. His talks were presented in more than three dozen states and several countries, and covered a range of topics that reflected his broad range of geologic interests.
Rocks along the Way
Fond of fieldwork and good conversation, John was a person of varied interests and great curiosity. He was among the first to apply statistics to geologic questions, among them, accuracy of measured sections. He produced a palinspastic map of part of the Appalachians, and, in a career-long project mapped numerous geologic sections by plane table survey, a method which creates a map of the exposure and landmarks, as well as a basis for thickness measurements. His fieldwork crossed state lines, and by tracing rock units over long distances and constructing stratigraphic cross sections, he was able to correlate between states, eliminating “state line faults.”
Bill Thomas remembers John’s dedication and habitually late hours: “John organized and led a series of field seminars on Appalachian stratigraphy for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. These annual week-long seminars (1980–1982) traveled from Maryland to Alabama, and John asked me to lead the trip in Alabama on the last day of the conference. After a couple of years of this schedule, he invited me to accompany him on the entire trip, during which we shared a room. Each daily routine involved numerous field stops during the day, then an elegant dinner at one of his favorite restaurants followed by discussion of the day’s geology. Finally, we got to our room about 11:00 p.m., and John got out his typewriter to prepare additions to the already very thick field guidebook. I learned to go to sleep to the clacking of John’s typewriter. We were up at about 5:00 a.m. to send John’s student helpers off to find a copy center to make the inserts for everyone’s guidebook.”
Thomas also recalls how neither rain nor lack of light stopped John from looking at rocks: “In 1974, John was riding on the bus beside me during a field trip I led in the Appalachian thrust belt in Alabama. Before we reached the last stop of the day, darkness had overtaken us, and rain had started falling. The planned stop was at an outcrop of a black shale with characteristic graptolites. I said to John that, under the circumstances, I thought I would just skip that last stop. John said, ‘No. We cannot pass up the opportunity to look for graptolites in black shale in the dark and in the rain.’ I conceded, and, to build enthusiasm among the participants, I announced that each one must find a graptolite to be allowed back on the bus. Stig Bergström, a renowned graptolite biostratigrapher, was one of the first off the bus, and he was already back with his graptolite trying to get back on the bus before everyone had gotten off.
“I learned two things from John that day: (1) it is never too dark or wet to look at an outcrop, and (2) never challenge a paleontologist to a fossil-finding contest.”
Avary remembers well John’s penchant for looking at rocks even in the dark: “John truly never wanted to stop looking at rocks even when it was dark. After the first one or two trips with John, I always brought my old Girl Scout flashlight, along with lots of other handy things in a quart plastic bucket. John always talked about me and my bucket. Black shales were always challenging to look at in the dark. If possible, John would turn the vehicle headlights to shine on the outcrop. He always had more outcrops to show people than there were hours of daylight.”
In summary, John Dennison was an encyclopedia of Appalachian geology, gentleman, and scholar of the highest order.
We thank Priscilla Dennison for reviewing this piece, which includes some text from John’s obituary, and providing photos, and Bill Thomas for the paragraph on Appalachian Basin Industrial Associates and for sharing his memories.
Katharine Lee Avary, Kenneth O. Hasson†, and Richard J. Diecchio, Volume Editors