WAR VETERANS AS COASTAL MENTORS


Harley Jesse Walker, better known as Jess, an Emeritus
Professor of Geography at Louisiana State University.

This week I learnt of the death of Harley Jesse Walker, better known as Jess, an Emeritus Professor of Geography at Louisiana State University. He was Head of School when I arrived as a raw graduate student in late 1962, served on my exam committees , and over the years provided occasional support and encouragement. He also was helpful to Andy Short who conducted PhD research in the Alaskan Arctic in a region well known to Walker.

Jess was 93 this year. He belonged to a particular generation that I had to privilege of studying and researching with in the 1960s. In Australia that generation included Joe Jennings, George Dury and Trevor Langford-Smith. But in this blog I wish to focus on a group at LSU that provided me with considerable guidance and inspiration. In a memorial comment on Walker, Kenn Mathewson wrote that Jess  epitomised what Tom Brokaw termed the Greatest Generation:  “From the depression era deprivation, to daring service in WWII, to post-war boom and building, the trajectory was clear—upward and onward”.

On arrival at LSU, I was introduced to a range of staff who had either served in the War or played a key role behind the scenes. As noted by Brokaw, many of these folk had endured the Depression. In Walker’s case, it was moving to California at the time of stock market crash then living in a tent camp near Morro Bay where his father went fishing and bartering for food with farmers. He joined the Marines and served in the Pacific theatre as a pilot. Others, such as Bill McIntire and Jim Morgan also fought in the Pacific and became familiar with coastal environments during that horrific period. Phil Larimore, the incredible cartographer for the Coastal Studies Institute, lost his leg at the landings at Anzio in the Italian campaign. The doyen of coastal studies at LSU, Richard Joel Russell, otherwise known as Doc, was  older but by this time was assisting the war effort with advice through contacts in Washington. These contacts became invaluable as he built up the Coastal Studies Institute in the 50s and 60s with the support of the US Navy Office of Naval Research, Geography Branch. With the passing of Jess, this generation has moved upward in a spiritual sense leaving behind a legacy of scholarship, a passion for field studies and friendship.

As a student, I  had less to do with Walker than with the others mentioned above. Jess was an efficient administrator at a time when others of higher rank at LSU were focussed on research and graduate teaching. Russell was the classic academic who could read the qualities of a student and then trust that student to get on with their research. Joe Jennings was similar. During the war many died in landings in the Pacific because their craft got impeded by “Beachrock”. This was of great concern to the Marines and the Navy. Russell and his students were active in studying the distribution and character of this material for many years. However, my one attempt to convince him of an occurrence near Narrabeen was met with rebuff. This puzzled me at the time until I saw that Sydney was outside the limits of one of his maps of beachrock distribution and thus did not fit his theory! A lesson for me: rigid views from elder scientists must be handled with care especially when you have reason to disagree, a not altogether easy situation to live with. Yet I found I had his trust and was rewarded with opportunities to travel to Mexico, the UK and South Carolina where I did field work using a US Navy jeep for travel.

McIntire worked closely with Russell in travelling to distant lands including Australia. Mac, as he was affectionately known, was a gentle giant of a man with great curiosity and desire to help. He would get us up at 5am in winter for a trip from Baton Rouge into the Mississippi delta. His interests spanned archaeology and geomorphology inspiring fellow graduate students to think and read widely. He and Jim Morgan in the late 50s conducted one of the most inspiring delta studies of the time on the Ganges-Brahmaputra building on their background work as post-war students under Russell in the Mississippi Delta. Mac also was interested in refining Holocene sea level histories for different regions and I can still recall his delightful graduate seminar on this topic. It was one of the great joys of being at LSU to participate in graduate seminars with folk like him and Russell. I was extremely lucky to be there at a time when these three along with Bob West, Fred Kniffen, John Vann and Walker were at their peak.

And along with this staff were fellow students who have carved great careers in coastal studies—what a time!

– words by Prof. Bruce Thom