Scott: Now that you have completed your review of the USGS programs, and before
you take up your own post-retirement activities, this seems like a good place to
give your own recollections of each USGS director that you knew.
Wallace: Yes, I would like to do that. I have known eight of the twelve directors of the
Geological Survey. Also I should mention the history of the Survey was written
up very nicely by Mary Rabbit, who is still around USGS, retired, and still
working on history. (Mary C. Rabbitt, A Brief History of the U.S. Geological
Survey, U.S. Geological Survey, 1974, 1980, 1984; Mary C. Rabbitt, The
United States Geological Survey, 1879-1989, Circular 1050, 1989.) We also
have an official historian for the Survey, Cliff Nelson, but his project has started
and stopped and started again. As you might imagine, it does not always get
very much funding.
I do not want to try anything like a full history, but perhaps I could provide a few stories and vignettes about directors--some things that others might not know. They were real people with human strengths and weaknesses.
Scott: You might begin by simply listing all twelve of the directors USGS has had in its
Wallace: The list begins in 1879, when the USGS was created out of four earlier
geographical surveys of the west. Clarence King led one of those early surveys
and was selected to be the first Director of the new Geological Survey. It is said
that William James considered King to be perhaps the leading intellect on the
Washington, D.C., scene at the time.
1. Clarence King: 1879 to 1881
2. John Wesley Powell: 1881 to 1894.
3. Charles D. Walcott: 1894 to 1907
4. George Otis Smith: 1907 to 1930
5. Walter C. Mendenhall: 1931 to 1942
6. William E. Wrather: 1943 to 1956
7. Thomas B. Nolan: 1956 to 1965
8. William T. Pecora: 1965 to 1971
9. Vincent E. McKelvey: 1971 to 1978
10. Henry William Menard: 1978 to 1982
11. Dallas L. Peck: 1982 to 1994
12. Gordon P. Eaton: 1994 to present
Scott: The USGS directorship did not change frequently--tours averaged over 10 years.
How did that come about?
Wallace: I believe the long tenure was related to the fact that, fortunately, the USGS was
never politicized in the sense that when Presidents changed, USGS directors
would automatically be changed. Such a pattern never developed. The director
of the USGS serves at the pleasure of the Secretary of the Interior, but the
selection has never been based primarily on politics, although each nominee
requires confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
The Secretary of the Interior picks each new director from a list of about
five or six nominees compiled by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) from
various sources, principally earth science and technical groups. Qualifications
for directorship emphasize national and international recognition for leadership
in earth science and technology, including personal scientific and technical
contributions. When selected, many directors had already been elected to the
National Academy of Sciences for their innovative research in earth sciences.
Scott: So the tradition of choosing highly qualified directors was established right at the
outset in the days of King and Powell and has been maintained throughout the
life of USGS. That is a remarkable history.
Scott: You joined the USGS IN 1942. Who was USGS director then?
Wallace: Walter Mendenhall was director in 1942 when I joined the USGS, and his
eleven-year tenure ended that same year. I only met him a time or two, when I
returned to Washington D.C. from field work in Alaska in the Fall of 1942. As
a lowly "Junior Geologist", the designation applied to entry level professionals, I
had little chance to hobnob with directors.
Scott: As you discuss the various directors, would you characterize their leadership
qualities, particularly of those you feel you actually got to know reasonably
Wallace: Yes. I want to comment on that intangible thing called leadership. We all seem
to know it when we see it, but it takes so many forms, it is difficult to define,
and even more difficult to generate. Leadership seems to be born with the
As to the ones I got to know--I had much more to do with Bill Wrather
than I had with Mendenhall, especially after I became involved with the
permafrost program in 1945. He invited me and others to lunch several times,
and was very much interested in the studies of permafrost, which was somewhat
of a departure from then traditional programs of the USGS. In fact, Bill
Wrather's interest in so many new facets of geology and his encouragement to all
of us to move ahead was one of his great contributions.
Wrather had become wealthy in the petroleum industry before he became
director of the USGS. He had a stately bearing and was gracious and engaging
in every way. Although I never attended Congressional hearings then, other
people reported that even Congressmen treated Bill Wrather with deference:
"Yes Dr. Wrather," "What do you think, Dr. Wrather?" "What can we do for
you, Dr. Wrather?"
During Wrather's tenure, of course, World War II was in full fury, and
the Survey was deluged with tasks, and given plenty of money to carry out the
work. When money is plentiful, people love their leaders, because those leaders
can see to the fulfillment of project dreams. But of course, the war and military
needs dictated the projects. We all knew we were doing important things for the
war effort. It is unfortunate, really sad, that we seem unable to manage such a
unity of purpose without a war or other big crisis. I guess awareness of a threat
to your very survival is the big motivator. I know I felt that.
Scott: Describe some of the special wartime programs.
Wallace: A Military Geology Branch was created to answer the military's specific needs,
such as tractability for tanks and other motorized vehicles at invasion sites, water
supplies for troops at battle sites, special topographic maps of bombing targets
and Army travel routes.
My own projects reflected the war orientation. First, in 1942 the mission
was to find mercury (quicksilver) deposits in Alaska to fill the shortage of that
metal needed for ammunition detonators and anti-fouling marine paints. The
project in early 1945 related to developing the North Slope (Alaska) oil potential.
Within a few months I was reassigned to explore for uranium needed for the
atomic bomb. Then only a few months later the military asked the USGS how to
cope with the ravages permafrost inflicted on airfields along the air ferry route to
the Soviet Union, and off I went again to a new project. At the outset I knew
nothing about permafrost, but neither did anybody else.
Scott: You have already mentioned the next director, T.B. Nolan, in connection with
your Nevada mapping work.
Wallace: Yes. Before becoming director, Tom served under Wrather, I believe as an
associate director, but I don't know just how many years he served. When
Wrather left there seemed to be no question but that Nolan would be the
successor. As an Associate Director, Nolan had learned all the disciplines and
techniques of management. But he also had a superb track record as a scientist
and was a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.
Tom loved field geology, and for his entire tour as director, he spent
summer months in the field working out of Eureka, Nevada, running the USGS
by telephone and mail from there. This was not motivated by anything but
personal devotion to field geology and science. The message of his example was
clear to everyone: Tom Nolan was a champion of fundamental field geology and
excellence in science.
Scott: That has to be classed as a form of leadership.
Wallace: I should say so. Leadership by example is one of the most powerful forms of
leadership, in my opinion.
Scott: Say more about Nolan's role as USGS director.
Wallace: Tom was a meticulous detailer, perhaps even to a fault. In field investigations,
he and his assistants worked at a scale many times more detailed than was
intended for final map publication (generally one inch equals one mile).
Scott: I suppose such detail documented his field observations extremely thoroughly?
Wallace: Yes, I should say so, but unless later investigators search out the original field sheets from archives, much of that detail essentially is lost. In running the
USGS, Tom also kept track of detail. One of his common evening pastimes was
playing bridge, and I learned from some of his bridge partners that during a
game, Tom would place the day's "chron file"--a pile of hundreds of carbon
copies of all correspondence in the USGS--on a chair beside him. Whenever he
was "dummy" or had a moment free, Tom would read the files. He was a rapid
reader and had an amazing memory, so he knew everything that transpired in and
around the USGS.
Scott: Did any of his penchant for detail rub off on others?
Wallace: Well, I can report one instance where it seemed to have. I stepped into the
office of Associate Director Julian D. Sears one day, and found him running his
finger down a manuscript page of water records. He seemed a little
embarrassed, and volunteered that for years he had been looking for errors in
such tables from the Water Resources Division, and he had finally found one.
He had the responsibility to review all manuscripts for approval.
Scott: He himself must have felt almost a proofreaders responsibility that the published
results should be error free.
Wallace: As essentially a chief executive officer for an office of 8,000 plus employees, he
had the responsibility to review all manuscripts for policy content, not editing.
The editing and proofreading was supposed to have been done at a much lower
administrative level. In any event, in Nolan's time there was no question who
was the boss. Nevertheless, others had great influence within the USGS,
whether they carried titles or not. Jim Gilluly was one of those.
Scott: You haven't mentioned Gilluly before, who was he?
Wallace: I want to stick to the Nolan story, but will digress for a moment. Jim Gilluly
was a senior scientist, considered by some to be the greatest USGS geologist
since G.K. Gilbert. Jim was a prolific producer of new geologic ideas. Just by
the power of his personality--he only once took on a temporary administrative
job as Branch Chief--Jim had enormous influence, on occasion perhaps more
than Nolan. But they saw eye to eye most of the time. Sometimes, however,
Jim's personality seemed to be counterproductive, making some youngsters fear
him, and inhibiting the characteristic "welling-up" of ideas within the USGS.
Scott: Thanks for that explanation. Now back to Nolan?
Wallace: One characteristic of the Nolan administration was his seeming to build a brick wall around the USGS. He did not trust the Department of Interior. On one tour of headquarters, I felt I should get to know the Department of Interior's Program Office, so off I went for a visit. At the time, I was working for Harold Bannerman in the Geologic Division's Program Office. Not many days later, I was called on the carpet for my visit to the Department, and was told, "Any contact with the Department must be through the Director's office."
That was Tom Nolan's way of trying both to protect and promote the USGS.
Scott: You mentioned that Nolan was a bridge player. Did he have other hobbies?
Wallace: I mentioned that he was a birder. Tom was an avid birder all through the years,
and having followed that hobby most of my life, we always had birds to talk
about, as well as our shared interest in Nevada geology. Other birders in USGS
were Ed McKnight, a noted mineral resources geologist, Art Baker, Associate
Director, Luna Leopold, Chief of Water Resources, and Bob Smith, who was
noted for work on volcanism, especially ignimbrites. Members of the group
aided and abetted each other, and jokes were sometimes made about the USGS
being populated by birders.
Ed McKnight was the ringleader of the USGS birders. He organized
annual Christmas bird counts for the Audubon Society at Brooke, Virginia, and
at the estate of Harry "Fergie" Ferguson across the Potomac River from George
Washington's Mount Vernon. I felt privileged to participate in the counts during
several years while on tour at headquarters. I later started a similar count in
Palo Alto, California.
Scott: There seems to have been a real camaraderie within the USGS.
Wallace: There surely was. That feeling was helped by such things as the annual Pick and
Hammer Club's annual show, a lampoon of all that was wrong with the USGS.
Laughing at oneself does help so much to keep things in perspective. Those
activities helped create personal bonds between people in very different parts of
Wallace: After Nolan, the next Director was Bill Pecora, an outgoing person and born
salesman, as well as an excellent scientist. He was known for his work on the
petrology of volcanic rocks in northern Montana as well as many other things.
Bill was the ultimate scientist-politician. It came so naturally to him. Since the
days of John Wesley Powell, I doubt that any of the other directors surpassed
Bill in this talent. He seemed to have Congress in the palm of his hand.
Congresswoman Julia B. Hansen from the State of Washington chaired the House
Appropriation Committee's Subcommittee for Interior and Related Agencies.
She seemed to like what the USGS was doing and what Bill thought the Survey
Scott: Having someone who viewed USGS favorably in such a powerful position must
have made life easier for Pecora?
Wallace: Indeed it did. I wish I knew some details, but somehow Bill Pecora early-on
managed to get the authority and money to launch a satellite, now called
"LANDSAT," earlier known by another names, I think one was "EROS" for
"Earth Resources Orbiting Satellite," which proved invaluable for studying
natural resources. This was accomplished over the strong objections of other
departments and agencies. I believe Bill and Congresswoman Hansen together
arranged this, although I can't verify that.
I should remember some of this better, because for a few years I was
deeply involved with "remote sensing," a fast-developing new discipline, based
primarily on satellite imagery. I was encouraged to help the USGS push ahead
with it, and I did some "ground truth" work along the San Andreas fault for the
infra-red imaging experiments. Bob Moxham was the infra-red specialist and my
partner in this effort.
Scott: I presume that "ground truth" refers to comparing interpretations of imagery with
what is actually found on the ground to see how they match. What did you learn
from this remote-sensing work?
Wallace: Well, I learned nothing new about the San Andreas fault, but the IR beautifully
displayed sheep droppings which had been spread out by sheet wash to form
thermal blankets over very large areas! The usefulness of that information
The techniques of remote sensing were rather primitive at first, and for
several years, technical sessions seemed to be made up of papers that said,
"Look Ma, I can tell that grass is green by remote sensing," At the time, I
thought it would take years of evolution before remote sensing--other than good
aerial photography--would really pay off geologically. In contrast, air photos
had become such an absolute necessity to me that I concentrated on them. Now,
however, remote sensing has progressed to a high level of sophistication. I
admire all the images of the planets made by an assortment of sensors.
Scott: Do you have other stories from Pecora's time?
Wallace: Oh, there are many! In terms of getting money, I think of Bill's proposal to
search for "invisible gold" under a program called "Heavy Metals," which he
built into an image of mystery and high tech. It rested on the very real basis that
abundant new gold would enhance the nation's international monetary position
and create jobs here at home. It was very reasonable, and today most gold is
produced by open-pit mining of very low-grade deposits.
Scott: You could almost say that Pecora had a vision and it became reality?
Wallace: I will say again that Bill was always several steps ahead of others. He was
articulate, even glib, but always with the talk rooted in good science and
technology. Nevertheless the politician in Bill sometimes did get the best of
him. For example, when trying to be politically correct in one direction, he got
burned in the press in the infamous "muzzling of geologists" incident.
The story revolved around the fact that Marvin Lanphere and Brent
Dalrymple, both working mainly on geochronology (dating of geologic time)
projects for the USGS, submitted criticisms to the press about the earthquake
hazards of a housing development being built on the shores of San Francisco
Bay. The developers objected strongly, and to some, the USGS was put in bad
light, especially because Lanphere and Dalrymple were not earthquake
specialists or engineering geologists.
Bill insisted that Marve and Brent cease and desist. But when the press
learned of this, the USGS was then portrayed in even a worse light--"Good
science should be heard and not hidden just because developers might suffer
financially." So Bill got headlined in the press: "USGS Director Muzzles
Geologists," and he backed down. The very positive outcome was that all of us
suddenly had far easier access to the press, whereas previously all press contacts
had to go through headquarters review.
Scott: Had Lanphere and Dalrymple by-passed the earlier process?
Wallace: Yes, they operated as concerned citizens, not as USGS staff. The greater
freedom we got has served us well, inasmuch as we could not have functioned in
the old way when we began to get into the era of fast-breaking earthquake
reporting. Almost uniformly the technical staff has displayed enormous
individual responsibility and skill in talking to the press.
Scott: Interacting with the press is always a delicate matter.
Wallace: Another time Bill's concern about politics caused some of us difficulties. During
the time I headed up the San Francisco Bay Region Project, the State Department
of Water Resources became upset with our findings. The press did us dirt by
reporting, falsely, that the USGS would be issuing a report saying the Bay would
become a "Dead Sea."
Scott: I see how that could cause quite a stir. What happened?
Wallace: After the director of the State Department of Water Resources flew back to
pound on Bill's desk, Bill agreed that the State could review our reports before
release. I happened to be in Bill's office when this happened, but the ruling really hit home when Bill returned a manuscript produced by our project and
asked me to forward it to the State for review.
Scott: I can understand how you might find that hard to accept. What did you do?
Wallace: On a Sunday I got Dave McCulloch, one of the authors, and one or two others
together. We decided that we could not have our technical findings subject to
censorship by a state agency. I sent the manuscript back to Pecora saying that he
could send it to the State, but that I would not. I suppose that was
insubordination, but I never heard another word about it.
Scott: Do you suppose Pecora sent the manuscript to the state?
Wallace: I suppose so, but don't know.
Scott: Despite a few incidents like these, however, I gather that you feel strongly that
Bill Pecora was a good director.
Wallace: No question about that. He may have been the most skillful director the USGS
ever had. Rogers Morton, Secretary of the Interior, enlisted Bill's services as
Undersecretary of the Interior. Both Morton and Pecora died before their tours
of duty ended. In my mind their combined deaths was a national disaster.
Scott: Would you elaborate on that?
Wallace: That was a period when the nation was experiencing a shortage of energy.
Morton had ideas of a national energy policy, and was thinking about the
creation of a Department of Energy and Natural Resources. He had the political
clout to pull off such a deal. Bill Pecora had the technical skills and knowledge
about earth sciences to keep policies on a realistic and practical track. With the
two of them working together, I do believe the country would have been far
ahead in energy policies.
Scott: Who followed Pecora?
Wallace: Vince McKelvey was the next. He had been Chief Geologist, that is, head of the
Geologic Division of the USGS, before moving up the administrative ladder to
Scott: Was McKelvey more or less a contemporary of yours?
Wallace: Vince was indeed a close and dear friend. We had been together in the Spokane
office, an outpost of the Branch of Mineral Deposits in the late 1950s and '60s.
I was working on the Coeur d'Alene, Idaho lead-zinc-silver deposits with Warren
Hobbs, Allan Griggs, and Art Campbell, and Vince had a big group working on
phosphate deposits in western Montana near Dillon. The small Spokane office
seemed to spawn other people who grew in importance to the USGS, including
Monty Klepper, who became Associate Director, George Becraft, who became
Chief, Office of Mineral Resources--Warren Hobbs also held that post in later
years--Art Campbell, who headed up a branch of Regional Geology in Denver,
and Dick Sheldon, who became Chief Geologist.
Several from the Spokane office moved to Menlo Park at about the same
time. Here we frequently had bag lunches together with other colleagues. I
remember that Vince was one of the first of my friends to become passionate
about the problem of global overpopulation, and he would wax eloquent about
this again and again at lunch.
Vince and I, plus ten others, formed the Homewood Investment Club
(named after Homewood Place, the street on which our office was located).
That name rather naturally became "Homeless Investment Club," especially to
our wives. But after a dozen years, after Vince had moved to headquarters, we
cashed in our ten-dollar-a-month investment after the total reached a thousand,
and recorded a three-fold profit. The main benefit, however, was the learning
we gained as well as the camaraderie.
Scott: You formed the club in order to meet regularly, each make modest contributions
to the club's investment pool, and see if you could make some money on the
Scott: How would you characterize McKelvey as director and as a person?
Wallace: The "epitome of the ethical man," would be a good way to characterize Vince.
He worried and fought to have the USGS and all its members be ethical, not just
substantively and legally so, but in image and appearance as well.
Scott: That's an excellent goal, if not carried too far. How did he try to promote it?
Wallace: One way was to issue a statement of his philosophy, which then became USGS
policy. His statement was issued within a few months of his becoming director.
I was Regional Geologist at the time, and picked Vince up at the airport when he
came out for his first formal visit to Menlo Park. His very first question was,
"Has anyone paid attention to or used my statement on ethics?" I could cite a
few examples but not to the extent he had hoped for. Vince went on to say that
he had assigned several different people the task of writing a statement
on ethics. None of the drafts pleased him, so he said, "One weekend I sat down
and wrote my own." Vince was a fine writer, and superb editor.
Scott: What else did he do regarding his ethics goal?
Wallace: Vince forced many colleagues to divest themselves of stock, some inherited, and
interests in companies that had any holdings whatsoever in natural resources, just
as called for in the 1879 Act that created the USGS. Many felt that Vince went
too far at times, because he considered that many large, diversified companies
with only a very small interest in natural resources were all off limits. Often one
could not even determine whether a large conglomerate even held interests in
Vince took a strong position against Survey personnel taking advocacy
positions, especially based on Survey findings. I had long discussions with
Vince about how to separate statements of geologic facts from the appearance of
advocacy. For example, if a USGS scientist issues a geologic map showing an
earthquake fault passing under a housing development, the developer generally
feels that the USGS has taken an advocacy position against the development. Is
stating a geologic fact an advocacy position? In my opinion, no.
Scott: In trying to put in place an ethics policy statement that differed significantly from
what was already being done by common consent, do you think he overdid it a
bit--in trying to make USGS folk so pure?
Scott: How was McKelvey in terms of program and politics?
Wallace: I would say that Vince was an excellent director as far as programs go, but
perhaps history will suggest that he ran against the political tide to some extent.
Scott: What do you mean by that?
Wallace: President Jimmy Carter was fighting the oil and gas shortages and had taken the
position, for example, that the U.S. should impose an import tax. Vince, always
the optimist, as well as knowledgeable about natural energy resources, took the
position that by applying the excellent creative power of U.S. technical people,
especially the USGS, of course, the energy shortages could be overcome.
Scott: If he was thinking about petroleum, that would have seemed overoptimistic,
considering our dependence then and now on oil from elsewhere. Recalling
Carter's position at the time, I can see why there might have been some
displeasure in the administration.
Wallace: Vince's position was not popular at higher levels of government, and he began to
be eased out. The Washington Post reported that he was "fired". (Nov. 11,
1977) Vince's tenure as Director overlapped into the next administration so that
the USGS directorship would not be looked upon as political. Fortunately, the
tradition of having the USGS remain non-political is still intact.
Scott: McKelvey's tenure was 1971-1978, so he came in during the Nixon
administration and went out after about two years of the Carter administration.
Do you have any personal asides concerning McKelvey?
Wallace: Vince was a chain smoker of cigarettes. It was long before the anti-smoking era.
He joked to me once that he hoped the cigarettes would help assure that he went
quickly. Ironically and sadly, his fate was to suffer the worst possible last years
under the terrible affliction of Lou Gehrig's disease.
But Vince kept up a remarkable correspondence. Although word
processors were new, the USGS provided a word processor at Vince's bedside,
which Vince learned to use. Shortly before he died, I had a marvelous letter
from him that he had to type one letter at a time, using a wooden pencil held
stiffly in his hand. In his final months he held the pencil in his mouth. In this
same way he wrote a touching poem about his disease.
Wallace: Bill Menard--Henry William Menard--came to the USGS after years of teaching
and research at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla, California. He was an excellent
scientist, who had explored the floor of the Pacific Ocean and had contributed
importantly to the plate tectonics revolution.
He was at Caltech when I was there as a graduate student, and we took a
course in field geology together, but I was not a close friend. I did visit his
office and lab at Scripps on a few occasions. On one memorable trip, Bill and
his student Tanya Atwater described Tanya's research on the migration of the
East Pacific Rise and other Pacific spreading centers. Tanya became one of the
major contributors to the plate-tectonic revolution.
Scott: After that, did you keep up with Menard over the years?
Wallace: No, I did not see much of him again until he became USGS Director. I have one
story that casts some light on Bill's personality. About six months after Bill
became director, I met Bill and his wife at Caltech where I had been invited to
give the Buwalda lecture. A sherry party and reception was held before my talk,
and Bill's wife came over and asked me a question, which I did not
understand at first. She asked, "What is the climate like at Menlo Park?" "What
do you mean, I asked?" "Well what do the USGS people think of Bill?" I
replied, "I would like to discuss that with him." She pressed on, but I resisted
saying more to her, because at that moment Bill's image around the USGS was
Scott: How did you handle that touchy situation, and did you have a chance to talk to
Wallace: A week or so later Bill was scheduled to come to Menlo Park, and I had a call
asking me to meet with him. We met and spent almost two hours in very
personal discussions. Bill opened with, "I thought the Survey was sort of a
closed group, but I never knew how tightly." He continued, "When I sit down
across a table from people, they just clam up and I can't get a word out of
Bill had authored a book in which he had been very critical of the USGS,
its slowness in investigations and publications and several other serious
accusations, some true, but others not. I reminded him of this and explained that
people were afraid of him, that he had power over their funds and projects, and
even their lives. Indeed, his appointment had been rumored to have been in part
political, although I saw no evidence of that myself.
I raised the political question, and he scoffed, "My God, I have been
devoted to science all my life." He also added, "I have been in office six months
and nobody has invited us to their home yet." I expressed sincere surprise at
that. We ended on a very friendly note, and after he left, I wrote him a several-page, hand-written letter to try to express my views better than I had orally.
That very day I called Dallas Peck, who was Chief Geologist at the time, and
very promptly the sociable Pecks invited the Menards to their home. The ice
seemed to have been broken.
Throughout his tenure, however, Bill seemed somewhat uncomfortable in
meetings. Although I felt he developed into a fairly effective director, he always
seemed to me to have a basic sense of social inadequacy. As for his science, he
was anything but timid or inadequate.
Scott: People come with many varieties of personality, including those in leadership
Wallace: Here is another related story. At a centennial dinner where directors of
geological surveys from many countries around the world were in the audience,
Bill was accepting a present from the Director of the Indian Geological Survey.
It was a plaque featuring a peacock. Bill held up the plaque and expressed his
appreciation, but then blew it by saying, "In this country we call them turkeys
and eat them at Thanksgiving time." I suppose he actually could have mistaken the peacock for a turkey, but as you might imagine, a gasp rose from
the international group gathered for the dinner party.
Scott: That does sound like a serious gaffe. Perhaps he thought it would be funny, and
in some circumstances, I suppose it would be. But international occasions like
that are notoriously tricky. You said something about his feeling uncomfortable
in meetings. Maybe he was just a little short on some of the so-called social
Wallace: Dallas L. Peck, another Caltech product, succeeded Bill Menard. He graduated
from Caltech and earned a Ph.D. from Harvard. Dallas was a lot younger than
I, but was a close friend--one of the gang at Menlo Park. He was always
gregarious, bright, and outgoing. So was his wife Sue. We socialized with the
Pecks, as did many other couples here in Menlo Park. Organizationally, many
of us were in the Branch of Mineral Deposits (later the Office of Mineral
Resources). In terms of his scientific pursuits, his geology was focussed on work
in the Sierra Nevada, particularly in and around Yosemite National Park.
Dallas always seemed to be striving for higher posts in the USGS.
Indeed, after he was first called to serve in some deputy capacity in Washington,
we were all sure he would move up the ladder. He became Chief Geologist in
due time. It seemed perfectly natural when the National Academy of Sciences
nominated him to be director, and he was chosen.
Scott: How did he work out as director?
Wallace: I believe that I am too close to Dallas, and it is too soon in time to provide
proper perspective. He served in a very difficult time under less-than-superb
Secretaries of the Interior. All too often the Interior Department's top post has
been filled on more of a political basis rather than on one of capabilities. I do
give Dallas great credit for keeping the USGS alive under some very threatening
People have said that Dallas always wanted to be loved, and he did put up
with a lot from the powers above. I believe that he was truly liked as a person
by everyone, but that now appears not to have been enough. A common
perception seems to be that the USGS drifted under Dallas, that opportunities
were missed, and that clear goals and plans for reaching those goals were less
clearly defined than they might have been. But we all knew that Dallas was
devoted to scientific excellence, and the USGS did survive.
One story will illustrate the type of difficulty Dallas had with James Watt,
the Reagan administration's first Secretary of Interior. At a meeting with
Secretary Watt, Dallas was enthusiastically reporting about how USGS water
scientists had used new microwave imaging techniques to map previously
unknown underground water channels in rocks a million or more years old.
Secretary Watt shook his head and retorted, "That can't be so, Dr. Peck, the
world is only 6,000 years old!" When I asked Dallas about the story, he said it
was absolutely true, and added, "What could I say or do, other than just stop
Scott: That sounds like Jim Watt, for sure.
Wallace: Gordon P. Eaton came after Dallas Peck. Perhaps others should tell you about
Gordie Eaton, from the vantage point of years beyond 1995, but I will say just a
word or two after a little over of a year with Gordie as USGS director. He is an
old USGS hand, having been with the Survey until he departed to serve as
provost at Texas A&M. Subsequently he was president of Iowa State
University, and director of the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory (later
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory), before returning in 1994 to become
director of USGS.
I must record that since Eaton became Director, the USGS has faced a
severe challenge. The Republican Party, now in control of the Congress,
presented its "Contract With America", which, in an appendix at least, calls
specifically for abolishing the USGS. With help from many sources, Eaton
successfully thwarted this action. But he has also shown clearly that he wants to
change the geologic program drastically, and to emphasize short-term needs and
solutions over fundamental, deep-rooted understanding of earth-science
problems. He has emphasized management over world-class science and
scientific excellence. He has spoken out repeatedly against "curiosity-driven"
research in the USGS.
He selected for Chief Geologist a person who is not from the Geologic
Division where superb candidates abound, a person Eaton himself praised
primarily as a manager. This clearly declared Eaton's vote of no confidence
toward the Division and its personnel. Eaton's position is, as best, difficult to
comprehend, and even can be interpreted in sinister terms. Scientists of the
Division have led the world in innovative science and application for over a
century, and no group has displayed greater dedication to serving society than
has the scientific staff of the Geologic Division.
Many senior scientists in USGS view such decisions as anti-science. In
Eaton's defense, however, we must acknowledge an anti-science, anti-government sentiment that is abroad in the United States. Perhaps Eaton will be
proven to have shifted directions in an appropriate way to permit the USGS to
survive. But the upwelling of non-administrative leadership, of which Pres
Cloud spoke so eloquently in his centennial history of the USGS (see below),
seems now to be in jeopardy. I believe that in the long run science in the USGS
will almost surely suffer. I also must report my own pessimism about the USGS
maintaining its reputation as the preeminent earth-science organization in the
world. I hope my pessimism proves to be ill-founded.
But let me end on a more optimistic note. The USGS has many superb
scientists in early to midcareer who, given the proper encouragement, should be
able to regenerate the tradition of excellence in science, dedication to individual
initiative, and loyalty to the USGS and its goal of service to society which
flourished over the past century.
Scott: This might be a good place to give your overall perspective of the USGS. You
have touched on many aspects of USGS. How would you sum it all up?
Wallace: To respond, I'll focus here on the people angle, rather than the Survey's duties as stated in its organic act and later directives, i.e., to provide factual, unbiased information on all earth-science issues. I think it bears repeating that USGS people have displayed unusual individual initiative and integrity, and have been dedicated to excellence in science and service to society. USGSers have been an unusually bright, enthusiastic group of earth scientists, with a consuming sense of individual responsibility.
Scott: You clearly have a high opinion of the USGS.
Wallace: It is also obvious that I am biased! I cannot imagine a better outfit to have
worked for, or a more exciting group with whom to have been associated. I
doubt that I can characterize the USGS as I have known it any better than
Preston Cloud did in his paper of 1980. (Cloud, Preston, 1980, "The
Improbable Bureaucracy: The United States Geological Survey, 1879-1979:
Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, v.124, n.3, June 1980,
pp.155-167.) On page 155, Cloud wrote:
The USGS, although a bureau of the Department of Interior, defies
conventional perceptions of bureaucracy. Instead of being narrow, rigid,
formal, dependent on precedent, and lacking in initiative and
resourcefulness, the USGS characteristically responds to challenges in fresh and enterprising ways. With few exception it has done so from the
beginning under nine different directors and hopefully will continue to do
so under its now tenth and future directors.
What I would stress ... is the importance to USGS distinction of the non-administrative leaderships that welled-up and continues to well-up under
the traditional Survey policy of encouraging and rewarding individual
Scott: "Non-administrative leaderships" refers to people who have no formal role in
management, yet by the force of their innovative ideas and strength of
personalities bring about major changes, new programs, new directions and
goals for the organization. Cloud's words highlight a remarkable and very
valuable USGS tradition.
Wallace: Yes, the dedication of individuals to the USGS and the encouragement of
individuals by managers to accept personal responsibility for innovation and
scientific creativity have characterized operations within the USGS. The distinct
change in these attitudes in 1994 and 1995, which places more faith in
management than in the individual scientists is a sad shift indeed. I hope in time
the great traditions of the USGS are rekindled and once again flourish.
Scott: What you have been saying is a very good statement on the importance of USGS
research and outreach. It fits right in with the powerful case that can be made
for the importance of other such publicly supported facilities in addition to
USGS, such as the National Institutes of Health, and the national laboratories
such as at Los Alamos, Livermore, etc. They provide some crucial services of
kinds that we cannot expect to get from private sector alone.
Wallace: I agree.
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