• Recollections of Bob Hordon

May 19, 2018

I first met Bob in January 1965.  Both of us were sitting in a waiting room to meet Bill Hance, the chair of the geography department at Columbia University. I was there to enroll as a masters student, and Bob in the doctoral program. Also in the room was Mike Woldenberg, already a doctoral student.  Bob and Mike were my big brothers through my stay at Columbia. They both persuaded me that I should enroll in the doctoral program. Bob, in particular, seemed to think that I had more academic talent than I had demonstrated as an undergraduate, and that I needed to get serious.

Fast forward to 1968, and I was finishing my PhD at Columbia. Bob managed to convince John Brush, chair of the geography department at Rutgers, to hire me as a one semester instructor.  At Rutgers, Bob and I were housed in one of the old two-story houses constructed for J&J workers on Senior Street (now a parking lot) off of College Avenue. My office was adjacent to Bob’s, and he figured that the only way to get me to stop working was by bringing me to his home where we would talk, eat pizza and play cards. I quickly learned that Sheila Hordon was a super bridge player, and that Bob really treat me as if I was his little brother.

I moved back to Columbia for a few years, but Bob and I continued to work on water resource problems, helping the state with some water supply analyses during the drought of the 1960s, and later water quality work. We blended Bob’s encyclopedic knowledge of water resources with my mathematical modelling capability. We had some funds from Department of the Interior to support this work. I recall how much I enjoyed working with Bob. He had so much energy and was always so encouraging.

I don’t know of any surveys of physical geography teachers, but Bob had to be one of the best of his era. He trained with Arthur Strahler who arguably was the first star quantitative physical geographer. Strahler taught geomorphology with a goal of introducing models into the science. Bob’s soil science teacher was Leonard Zobler, and John Oliver was his climatology instructor. They were super teachers, scholars, and Bob and I learned a lot by working with them. However, Bob became such a strong teacher because he just loved the subject and his enthusiasm was obvious to his colleagues and students. He had a library of photos and diagrams that he used to support his command of theory. In short, Bob’s efforts to teach physical geography were nothing short of amazing.

Water resources were his academic passion. I recall working on a water supply project that required testifying in court about the interaction of ground and surface water. After Bob finished testifying, the judge smiled called Bob the encyclopedia of water, which led to a lot of smiles and some laughter in the audience. The more complicated the problem, the more Bob would perk up and start asking questions. Most recently, I was reminded of Bob in March 2018, when I was at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico where transuranic waste is stored about ½ miles below the surface among massive salt beds. A debate occurred at the NRC meeting about the likelihood of hitting brine and how to manage that possibility. I recall thinking that Bob Hordon would have loved being part of that debate.

Bob’s second academic passion was his map collection. He collected U.S. Geological Survey maps, local maps, and he stored them in his map case. He was always trying to get more maps and how to find the space to add another map case.  

I will always remember Bob for encouraging me to use my mathematical and writing skills to build my career.  It is fair to say that if I had not run into Bob in 1965 and not had Bob encouraging and prodding me, I suspect I would have taken a much less interesting career path. Bob was a scholar and kind friend. I will miss him.    

Michael Greenberg