River expert is flooded with praise by colleagues

June 04, 1995|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Writer

CHADDS FORD, Pa. -- More than 40 years ago, M. Gordon "Reds" Wolman trudged along the banks of the Brandywine here pretty much by himself, earning his doctorate in geology from Harvard.

Yesterday, the 70-year-old Baltimorean, who has taught at the Johns Hopkins University for more than four decades, hiked onto the river's flood plain trailed by a mob of perhaps 100 admiring colleagues.

They showed up here, at Hopkins and at the American Geophysical Union's spring meeting at the Baltimore Convention Center to pay homage to Dr. Wolman, an internationally-recognized authority on the forces that shape rivers, and to his work on environmental issues.

The three-day celebration of Dr. Wolman's career wasn't just inspired by his scholarship, said Peter Wilcock, associate professor of geography and environmental engineering at Hopkins. "If he weren't such an extraordinary person, if he hadn't touched so many lives personally, nobody would want to do this," Dr. Wilcock said.

Dr. Wolman -- "Reds" because of his carrot-colored hair -- is the hTC only child of the late Abel Wolman, the internationally known sanitation engineer and public health advocate. The elder Wolman, who died in 1989 at the age of 96, designed water and sewerage systems for cities around the world, and his research helped lead to the chlorination of drinking water.

For almost four decades, Abel Wolman and his son both taught at Hopkins in related fields. In another family, this might have led to competition and conflict. In the Wolman clan, it seems to have led to lots of talk -- about sewerage, sanitation, sediment, erosion and water quality. "It was a 50-some year conversation," Reds Wolman recalled Friday.

Father and son talked shop on walks, at birthday parties and other gatherings -- to the annoyance of some family members. Once Reds Wolman, worried that no one was answering the phone, checked on his parents. They were in their bedroom with the lights off.

"My father said, 'What did you think of that report on the Patuxent River?'" Dr. Wolman recalled. "I said it was all right, but . . . ," Reds Wolman's mother protested that it was 12:30 a.m.

Reds Wolman grew up in a rowhouse on Eutaw Place, but his mother wanted him to learn, as she put it, that "milk does not come out of a bottle." So he spent summers at a farm on a bluff along a river north of Mystic, Conn.

He loved farm life, joined Mystic's 4-H Club, and brought his zeal for agriculture back to Park School in the fall.

Streams and rivers fascinated him. He wrote to his 4-H adviser in Connecticut: "I think the 4-H club should do more in soil erosion." Impossible, the agent wrote back. "Erosion control wasn't easy to do when you were 13," Dr. Wolman conceded.

Dr. Wolman graduated from Park, spent a semester at Haverford College and then, with the outbreak of World War II, was drafted into the Navy -- he wound up serving aboard a rescue training boat based in Long Beach, Calif. After the war, he completed his undergraduate work at Hopkins and went on to Harvard.

In the early 1950s, Dr. Wolman worked as a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and an associate professor at Hopkins. Then, in 1958, at 34, he became chairman of Hopkins' Department of Geography.

In 1964, he co-authored "Fluvial Processes in Geomorphology." "There really isn't a better survey of how things work," said James Pizzuto, associate professor of geology at the University of Delaware.

Over the years, Dr. Wolman's interest in natural rivers led him to work on erosion, sediment control, water pollution, land use policies, even energy policies -- issues important to all watersheds, including the Chesapeake Bay.

"The core of his work is how rivers work," said Dr. Wilcock. "But he's always gone beyond that, into the impact of humans on water quality."

In the early 1960s, Dr. Wolman wrote a report detailing how runoff from construction was choking Maryland's rivers and streams, prompting the first state regulation of the problem. After passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, he worked on a National Research Council committee set up to look over the shoulder of the National Water Quality Commission.

"That's what got me involved in environmental policy," Dr. Wolman said.

He continues that work today -- he sits on the steering committee of the Oyster Roundtable, a group trying to save the state's oyster population.

For 20 years, Dr. Wolman was chairman of Hopkins' Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering.

"He made the department," Dr. Wilcock said, hiring "head-strong," independent scientists and nurturing a "creative" atmosphere.

Along the way, Dr. Wolman made friends as easily as he makes conversation. Steven M. Stanley, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Hopkins, remembers meeting the legendary Abel Wolman for the first time. He tried to think of something to say.

"I'm a good friend of your son's," Dr. Stanley announced. "Big deal!" said the elder Dr. Wolman. "Who isn't a good friend of my son's?"

Scientists came from as far away as Australia and Singapore to honor Dr. Wolman this week. More than 160 were expected at a Hopkins banquet last night.

Dr. Wilcock noted when plans circulated to honor Dr. Wolman, some colleagues called asking, anxiously, if he was retiring or ill. Neither is the case.

Now is as good a time as any to celebrate Dr. Wolman's career, Dr. Wilcock said. "His father worked until he was 96. We've got to do it sometime."

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