Alumni Voices

The Road To Geography

We asked Rob Britton (B.A. '73, M.A. '76, Ph.D. '78, geography)--who has just announced his retirement from a long career as a communications executive for American Airlines--to send us his reflections on his nine or so years in the Department of Geography.

Britton, who grew up in Minnesota, has lived and worked in Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas, for many years. But he returns regularly to the Twin Cities for a tonic dose of Midwest air. When we contacted him to ask for an essay, he exulted, "Hooray for reconnection, and with an assignment to boot!"

In a letter to the college a few years back, Britton said, "The words University of Minnesota prompt a flood of images: running across the field in Memorial Stadium, at age 9, on a snowy night in 1961; learning about the etymological origins of hoosegow in Larry Mitchell's English class; standing at the corner of Oak and Fulton , hitchhiking to my afternoon job . . . ; burrowing into the sub-basement of Wilson Library to write my dissertation. . . . These are just a few images from a mental file of thousands." A few more follow.

By Rob Britton

My traveling-salesman father was my first geography teacher. He was highly social, and it got lonely on the road, so he relished a young rider in summers. His livelihood depended on Midwest farm and town economies--when they did well, he did, too. He grew up in rural Montana; he knew crops and livestock, and could explain it all to his suburban son. He came of age in a poor neighborhood in Chicago and thus had a basic understanding of how to read urban health from clues in the landscape, and from visiting with buyers at, say, Herberger's in St. Cloud, or a little dress shop in Hibbing.

At the U, it took three tries (political science, sociology, and journalism) before I understood that geography fit me best. My first course, physical geography from Professor Ward Barrett, seems in hindsight to have been an unlikely attractor: the MWF lectures were on closed-circuit black-and-white TV. Boring! But what brought it all to life were the TuTh tutorials by an energetic T.A. named Ken Smith and the positive reinforcement of an A on the midterm. The hook was set the next quarter, when a Canadian visitor, Andrew Burghardt, taught a 3,000-level course on his native land; I had traveled a lot in Canada in previous years, and the course validated much of what I saw.

Because I worked every afternoon and commuted (carless, by thumb), I wasn't able to spend much time in the department. Still, there was a welcoming atmosphere, which attracted me to grad school after a year of hitchhiking, flying, and working around the world. And when John Adams called with news of a Bush Foundation fellowship, life really got sweeter.

The department boasted the nation's top-rated geography faculty, and the breadth of talent and interests was remarkable. Three areas were especially interesting to me: a strong urban and regional interest anchored by the great John Borchert; a cultural focus rooted in rural landscapes, well advanced by John Fraser Hart and Cotton Mather; and a deep emphasis on economic development in poor countries, best represented by Phil Porter. I ended up in the latter camp, aiming to understand the role of international tourism in Caribbean economic development; it was a natural outgrowth of my fascination with travel.

A huge range of visitors made their way to the West Bank. Three come to mind. Peirce Lewis, a hugely talented observer of U.S. urban places, visited from Penn State. J. B. Jackson, cranky but brilliant, came north from New Mexico to talk about the changing American landscape. And a fellow student, Rob Freestone, arrived from Australia and quickly became a "best mate"; after-school pitchers of 3.2 beer at Culla's lubricated some of the most memorable conversations of my graduate career. All three were compelling because they embraced real geography, without the diversions of excess ideology and goofy "theory" that were beginning to wash over social science.

Those years were truly a liberal education in the best sense. After my Ph.D., I lived the academic life for several years, teaching and doing research and some freelance travel writing. But for a range of reasons I departed the academy, headed to business school, and recycled myself into the airline industry. It was a good place to be--complex, geographical, and with the fringe benefit of free flying that still causes my geographer friends to drool. Much has changed, but I still think of myself as a Minnesota geographer.

Moment of Truth

By Dennis Maetzold (B.A. '64, geography)

I think it was winter quarter 1961. Professor Cotton Mather was discussing the differences between the Carolinas in his Geography of the Eastern United State s class. I remember thinking, "Hey, this is really good stuff." Shortly there after I changed my major to geography and away from a premed focus (never mind that organic chemistry just didn't click for me).

That moment of truth in Professor Mather's class told me that I had a fascination for the land and its "whys." Why are Minneapolis and St. Paul different?

My interest in the whys of the land helped shaped many areas of my life. I joined the Navy to see the world (the sign in Dinky town said I would). I didn't actually see all of the world , but I did see much of the Pacific and Southeast Asia and a large portion of the U.S. After leaving active duty, I spent 22 years in the Navy's Reserve Intelligence programs asking military whys. I also joined a large Twin Cities bank looking for branch bank locations asking not whys but wheres based on my study of American cities under Professor John Borchert. I later managed branch banks.

Love of geography carried over into my personal life. My wife and I travel the U.S. by car enjoying the prairies, forests, and mountains. We stop in small towns and walk down Main Street. We have the lunch special at a local eatery, and we stay at a drive-up-to-your-door motel. We ask ourselves, what makes this town tick?

When our daughter was young, we set a goal to visit every state with her by her 18th birthday. In August 1999 we accomplished this goal when we set foot in Anchorage. We think our love of the land rubbed off on her, although she said that she is writing a book about her travels to be titled "They All Looked the Same to Me." We think she is kidding, but she is a Carlson School of Management grad, you know.

In the end, I think my geography studies didn't create my interest in the land, but rather helped me put everything in context. I have answers to the whys. I know why Minneapolis and St. Paul are different--it's their geography.

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on July 23, 2008 11:59 AM.

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