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Dr. Robert Matheson Norris

1921 - 2012, Santa Barbara

Professor Emeritus Robert Matheson Norris, a co-founder of the Geology Department at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of numerous publications, including The Geology of California (with RW Webb) died peacefully and in the company of his beloved wife Virginia, daughter Betsy and son-in-law Bob, at his Santa Barbara home on 31 August 2012. He was 91.

Bob Norris was born in Los Angeles on 24 April 1921. His mother, Jessie Matheson Norris had been born in San Diego, California in 1891 while his father DeWitt Norris, a landscape architect, was born in Troy Ohio in 1883.

From very early, Bob showed signs of the traits that would serve him so well in later life. He had an exceptional memory and to the end of his life could effortlessly recall street addresses, telephone numbers and the names of neighbours and family acquaintances from as early as age four.

Bob also had a gift for acute observation. As a pre-schooler, he had, among other fascinations, an interest in telephone poles, insulators and electrical wires. To the great amusement of his kindergarten teacher his diligent study of their detailed characteristics, allowed him, to quickly recognize if a set of wires belonged to the Los Angeles Dept of Water and Power or to the rival Southern California Edison Company.

With a wide ranging curiosity, a methodical nature and a determination to finish anything he started, Bob happily took to schooling.

In 1932, as the Great Depression ground on, the bank foreclosed on his family’s home in Griffith Park. But, just before they lost the house, (to the chagrin of his very practical mother) Bob’s father took the family on a two-week trip to Owens Valley and the Mammoth Lakes area.

Riding in the back of a Model A stake-bed truck with his much loved younger brother Ken, Bob couldn’t have known that one day he’d be leading groups of Geology students on field trips through the same areas. In later years, he often said that for both he and Ken (who went on to become a prominent naturalist) the experience was an important factor in their subsequent professional interests in the natural sciences.

Like many of his generation, Bob’s academic career had to be set aside for wartime service. He’d completed undergraduate work at UCLA when in 1944 he became a commissioned Ensign in the US Naval Reserve. He served in the Pacific theater and saw action aboard an LCI as a Lieutenant (jg) at both Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

On returning to civilian life, Bob went back to UCLA where he earned his MA before going on to do his Ph.D. work at Scripps Institute under Professor Francis P. Shepherd.

In the fall of 1949 at the UCLA homecoming celebration, Bob and Virginia Oakley went out for the first time. And that, he would later say is when their wonderful life together began. They were engaged about Thanksgiving of 1951 and were married on 5 January 1952. However, Bob was due to lead a research field party on the Texas Gulf Coast, so the young couple made the drive from California to Rockport, TX for their honeymoon.

In October of that year son Don arrived and they were a family. Jim followed in December 1954 and daughter Betsy made her appearance in November 1956.

A lectureship at the then Santa Barbara College in 1952 marked the beginning of Bob’s long and distinguished career as both a Geology teacher and researcher.

Together with his mentor and friend, Robert W, Webb, he helped transform the tiny Santa Barbara College Geology course into the University of California at Santa Barbara’s highly regarded Geology Department.

Bob taught introductory physical geology, geomorphology, the geology of California and lead - every spring for many years - the field mapping class at Tick Canyon. He also has the distinction of having organized and taught the first University of California course in Marine Geology outside of Scripps Institute. (It was this course that lead Bob Ballard of Titanic fame to embark on a career in marine exploration.)

One of the constants in Bob’s research career was his interest in geomorphology - and in particular, shoreline erosion processes. His love of the outdoors was an abiding passion and he will be remembered by hundreds of students for his enthusiastic leadership of departmental field trips to the mountains and deserts of California. A good many of those students will no doubt remember their visits to a rustic desert cabin built by Bob and his brother Ken in the Mojave desert.

In a lifetime filled with professional and civic accomplishments, Bob took a quiet pride in the role he played assisting the man who founded the University of California’s Natural Reserve System, his dear brother Ken. A modest man, Bob was surprised and touched to learn in 2003 that an interpretive trail with his name had been created at his favourite reserve, the 9000 acre Sweeny Granite Mountains Desert Research Center.

Bob is survived by wife Virginia, son Don (Christine), son Jim, daughter Betsy (Bob), grandson Aaron and granddaughter Ariel. He was predeceased by grandson Jack.

‘I have had a wonderful life and find it truly impossible to say how very fortunate I have been.’
- Robert M. Norris

A funeral service will be conducted at The First Congregational Church (2101 State Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93105 ) at 1100am on Saturday 15 Sept 2012. A celebration of Bob’s life for his many friends, colleagues and students is planned for early in 2013. For more details, please visit: www.bobnorris.org

In lieu of flowers, gifts to the Granite Mountains Desert Research Center would be appreciated.
(Checks should be made out to “UC Regents” and mailed to Granite Mtns Desert Research Center, PO Box 101, Kelso, CA 92309. Please include a note stating that the donation should go to the GMDRC)

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