Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering


Memorial Seminar
and Installation
Thursday, February 24, 2011

The M. Gordon Wolman Fellowship

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Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering

M. Gordon ‘Reds’ Wolman: 1924 - 2010

In a 2009 Johns Hopkins Engineering magazine feature on Wolman, Erica Schoenberger, a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, which Wolman helped establish, said, “I don’t think it’s possible to imagine Hopkins without Reds. He’s worked in every corner of the university, from Engineering to Public Health to Central Administration. Everyone knows him. He knows everybody. If you did a poll to determine the person who most represents the Hopkins ideal, everybody would say Reds. It would be a landslide."

Edward Bouwer, chair of the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, said, “There are few parts of the university that have not experienced his blend of wisdom, humor and warmth. Reds was not only one of the university’s most renowned intellectual leaders but a favorite and cherished member of the community. His cheerful service, combined with his good-natured wisdom, has influenced decisions and decision-makers around the world.”

Grace Brush, also a professor in the department, added, “I will forever miss conversations with Reds, just dropping by his office with some question or thought-and leaving with an encyclopedia of ideas.”

Word of Wolman’s death was delivered to the Johns Hopkins community on Feb. 25 in an e-mail from university President Ronald J. Daniels and Nicholas P. Jones, the Benjamin T. Rome Dean of the Whiting School of Engineering. “One of the most distinguished and beloved men ever to grace this university has died,” they said.

The message said that Wolman had been a faculty member since 1958 but pointed out that “as the son of the equally legendary Professor Abel Wolman, Reds had been a Johns Hopkins man almost literally from birth. He grew up at this university, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1949 and returned as associate professor and chair of what was then the Isaiah Bowman Department of Geography.”

Abel Wolman, known as the “father of sanitary engineering,” pioneered the chlorination process in public water, helping to bring clean drinking water to people worldwide. His interest in natural resources influenced Reds Wolman’s education and career plans. Reds Wolman received a bachelor’s degree in geology from Johns Hopkins in 1949, then earned his doctorate at Harvard, also in geology.

He worked as a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey from 1951 to 1958, and then was offered the position at Johns Hopkins as chair of Geography. He eventually played a key role in combining that department with the Department of Sanitary and Water Resources to create the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering within the Whiting School. He chaired DOGEE from 1970 through 1990 and held the B. Howell Griswold Jr. Professorship in Geography and International Affairs from 1975 until his death.

Outside the campus, Wolman conducted important field research with students and colleagues, tramping along waterways making careful measurements regarding flow and depth, stones and soil, and compiling data to help make predictions about future changes in river systems.

“Professor Wolman played a central role in defining rivers in a modern, quantitative and generalizable framework that still provides the standard against which new models and concepts are evaluated,” said Peter Wilcock, a Johns Hopkins professor of geography and environmental engineering. “The understanding and the methods developed in this work form the foundation of modern river geomorphology, engineering and restoration.”

In an interview with Geotimes in 2004, after he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Council for Science and the Environment, Wolman said of his research interests, “I went from behavior of natural rivers and how they formed to how they behaved in the environment, which led to water quality and then to a variety of resource policy issues.”

In 1988, when Wolman was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, its citation said, “An innovator in hydrology, geomorphology and geography, Wolman changed thinking about natural landscapes, their human modification and their interactions with societies in several ways. In relating catastrophic with moderate natural events, his ‘magnitude-frequency’ theory is widely accepted among scientists and engineers dealing with rivers, floods and erosion.”

In 2002, Wolman was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, which lauded him for “outstanding contributions to fluvial processes, water resources management and environmental education.”

He also served on many state, national and international panels devoted to environmental and health issues. In recent years, despite health problems that required him to use a walker, he continued to teach and to participate in field excursions.

Wolman is survived by his wife, the former Elaine Mielke; children Elsa Katana, Abel Gordon Wolman, Abby McElroy and Ricka Wolman; sons-in-law Tom Katana and Peter McElroy; daughter-in-law Deborah Wolman; and grandchildren Abel and Leo McElroy.

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that memorial contributions be made to The Johns Hopkins University, 126 New Engineering Building, 3400 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218, to benefit the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering.
--By Phil Sneiderman

Learn more about Reds Wolman

(Image of Reds Wolman: Jay Corey, November 2009)

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Memorial Installation: "The Meander"

Following the "Wolman Pebble Count" installation in February 14 - March 14, 2011 in the Mattin Center, the stones contributed by students, colleagues and friends from around the world will become part of a permanent installation. Stay tuned here for more developments. To be a part of this project send a stone (with a description of where it's from and why you chose it) to:

Wolman Pebble Count
Johns Hopkins University
Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering
Ames Hall 313
3400 North Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218

Guest Book:

May 29, 2010, from Pepper White, BES '79:

I guess you could say that Professor Wolman--I hesitate to call him Reds even now, is a lot of what I'm all about, even if I didn't know it as it was happening. When I was a senior in high school, trying to figure out where to go to college, what to do with my life, I was reading the college guide and I discovered that Johns Hopkins had a major in environmental engineering. I didn't even know that such a thing existed, and that's why applied to Hopkins. The seed had been planted at Earth Day #1. When I came to the campus for my admissions office interview, I also meandered over to the DOGEE floor. I don't remember with whom I talked, but there were two graduate students on the floor that were very kind to me and bright and I wanted to be like them. They were part of the atmosphere that Professor Wolman's leadership brought about. At my 15th reunion, in 1994, I meandered about the DOGEE office and found Professor Wolman in his office. "Let's go down to the quad and have a Coke" he said. We had a delightful chat for about half an hour. He made the time for one of his former students. I remember one time him talking about interstate highways. He said that some environmentalists didn't like them, but who in their right mind would not take the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Pittsburgh if that's where they were going. Hopkins is my alma mater--soul mother. Professor Wolman could be thought of as an "alma pater"--soul father for many of his students, in helping bring about an enlightened worldview. My career in energy efficiency as an environmental service came in large part from my undergraduate days at Hopkins. I was especially inspired by his comments in the video about engineering as a service, and by Professor Boland's comment about being as good as Professor Wolman thought we were. Thanks to him and to the wonderful gifts that Hopkins gave me.

May 22, 2010, from Mark Murphy:

Reds Wolman was chair of my PhD committee and if there is nothing else of distinction I can claim in my career it is that he decided that I was worthy of a degree.

April 11, 2010, from Mandy Ward:

On days when I was lucky, Reds would come and offer me a bite of his lunch. This wasn't because I had any particular desire for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (my opinion of which Reds was perfectly aware), but because this would always be the precursor to some lively lunch conversation. Reds was truly an inspiration and I can't remember a single one of these lunches that I did not enjoy. And learn from. Reds touched my life in a wonderful way and I am glad to have known such a warm and humorous man.

April 11, 2010, from Walter A. Lyon:

Today is the day and this is the hour when many of us who knew Reds will want to remember him for who he was and what he did. Reds was born six weeks after I was born. He in Baltimore and I in Cologne Germany. I got to know Reds as a contemporary at Hopkins where his distinguished father stopped me one day when I was taking pictures of the Hopkins campus and talked me into his graduate program in Sanitary Engineering. Reds' academic work continued the philosophy of his distinguished father by having a deep understanding of the role of a professional in the society which he served; the notion that the technical stuff was easy but the social and economic stuff was very hard and needed the attention of the professional. Reds also understood and practiced his father's notion that;"You can get a national reputation; but you're not a professional unless you practice your profession in your community. We will miss Reds for who he was and for what he practiced- a true professional and a great human being.

April 09, 2010, from Douglas Helms, Historian, NRCS, formerly the Soil :

My conversations with Dr. Wolman were mostly by telephone. I certainly enjoyed the talks, in fact enjoyed them so much that I was sensitive about calling too often. My questions and ostensible reasons for calling were usually some aspect of the Soil Conservation Service's hydrologic, climatic and physiographic research efforts in the 1930s and 1940s. One would hope that his contributions to public service will be remembered along with the scientific and academic achievements. He certainly had a heritage of public service from his father. While working on a piece about the movement for erosion and sediment control laws in Virginia and Maryland, I discovered his studies of sedimentation from construction sites in Maryland. These studies supported the need for state laws. That was but one example of a long career of public service. I will miss our conversations.

April 07, 2010, from Arthur Brooks:

My first introduction to Reds was in the USDA Sleepers River research watershed in Danville Vermont the summer of 1966. Reds was visiting Martin Johnson, who was head of the research project and a DOGEE doctoral candidate with Reds. I was wading in the stream looking for insects for my Master’s thesis at the University of Vermont that dealt with the influence of stream temperature and velocity on the distribution of aquatic insects. Reds was more interested in the size of pebbles in the stream, but kept asking embarrassing questions about the insects in the stream that I had never considered. W e had a wonderful afternoon with me asking about pebbles and Reds asking about insects. Together we learned a great deal and the thesis was much the better for it. Subsequently, I ended up at Hopkins in the DOGEE doctoral program looking at bugs around power plant outfalls while Reds kept asking biological questions of me in seminars, over the copy machine and wherever I happened to meet him. Our daughter received her BA in English from Hopkins in 1992, which brought us back to campus during her undergrad days, 20 years after we left campus for Milwaukee. We never failed to meet Reds in his office or strolling the campus cleaning up the landscape. He still had the questions, I had a few more answers, but there were always a few that left me thinking. See a photo of Reds and the USDA crew.

April 05, 2010, from Pierce Linaweaver:

My affiliations with Reds started in the ‘60’s on the faculty at Hopkins. Later as a White House Fellow I served for one year as an Assistant to Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior, and had the opportunity to interact with one of the Department’s key Scientists, Luna Leopold, U.S. Geological Survey, with whom Reds had a particularly strong personal and professional relationship. Luna Leopold and Reds, along with John Miller wrote the foundation book on the evolution of streams and river systems titled “Fluvial Processes in Geomorphology” in 1964. After my D.C. sojourn, Reds attracted me to return to Hopkins and join him on the faculty of the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, affectionately known as DOGEE. Reds was Chair of the Maryland Geologically Survey Commission on which I served under his leadership for many years after I left Hopkins. As a JHU Trustee, I had the pleasure to observe Reds on two different occasions when the then JHU Provost went on to other opportunities, and Reds stepped up to meet the leadership and wisdom that only a senior statesman like Reds could provide. He ably served as Interim Provost to further advance Hopkins strong faculty and significant overall research efforts during these two periods. Many of his distinguished awards such as the prodigious Benjamin Franklin Award (prior recipients include Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison) far surpassed his direct professional achievements within his field. He was truly a man of the world and greatly contributed to overall mankind. We will miss him dearly. Pierce Linaweaver April 5, 2010

April 04, 2010, from Jeff Clark:

Reds was shaping my interest and career in geomorphology even as I was in high school. In 9th grade Earth Science we discussed the concept of magnitude and frequency in natural processes. In college as luck would have it I worked with Jack Schmidt, a Reds disciple. For gradate school I naturally choose Johns Hopkins and DoGEE. Although Reds was not my research advisor, I did get the opportunity to take his geomorphology course and the benefit of his sage advice. Reds was always busy even late in his career. If he was in his office he was either on the phone or meeting with someone. Eventually, I learned to catch him at the end of the day, when we could talk uninterrupted. I fear he may have been late for many a dinner because of me. Now things have come full circle. As a professor at a small college, I employ the "Wolmanic" method of field inquiry to impart the same appreciation of nature's form and function that Reds has to thousands before.

March 29, 2010, from James Harry Johnston, PE (MSE-DoGEE, 1979):

Thanks to Reds, I carry a fondness for "alluvial, fluvial, pluvial geomorphology" wherever I go. It's still hard to pass through a highway cut or by a meandering run without stopping.

March 24, 2010, from Michael S. Switzenbaum:

I started my undergraduate education at Hopkins in the late 60's. For two years I struggled and did not enjoy school very much. I took a leave of absence and when I returned in the fall of 1971 I decided to major in a relatively new department - Geography and Environmental Engineering. The first DOGEE course I took was "Man and Environment" from Professor Wolman. I loved the course and the instructor! I often think back on Reds and this wonderful course. He taught us how to think critically and holistically. In addition, Reds always seemed to have time to talk with me and his kind manner and good humor was much appreciated. I feel blessed for having him as one of my teachers.

March 18, 2010, from Joanna Crowe Curran:

Reds was a tireless promoter of inter-disciplinary research. The complexity of the natural environment is great, and only research that crosses traditional disciplinary lines can approach the understanding of the environment necessary to engineer appropriate solutions where needed. The emphasis on inter-disciplinary learning is a big part of what created DoGEE and what makes DoGEE and Johns Hopkins Engineering special.

March 17, 2010, from Robert Newbury:

I and all of Reds Wolman's students have undoubtedly been touched by his passing. Every one has a fond memory of his gentle teaching methods and encouragement. I learned how to take students out of the classroom into the river valleys to learn from observations...."play, the handmaiden of work" as Reds put it. For the 42nd year, I will be taking students into the upper Missouri and Canadian Shield to sample streams with a Wolman eye and a "pebble count". What an enormous lesson Reds taught. It has lasted 42 years.

March 17, 2010, from Chris Neuzil:

My first hint of Reds' personality came through before I set foot on the Hopkins campus. In the Navy and anticipating separation, I had applied to a number of grad schools. The anxiety of waiting to hear was relieved a bit when I went to sea; there was no mail for a few days. I was standing watch on the ship's bridge when a radioman handed me a message. What I thought was just another fleet operational message was, in fact, a telegram from Reds. Having been in the Navy, he knew mail might take a while reaching me. That simple, generous act made my decision to attend Hopkins an easy one. I will never forget it.

March 15, 2010, from Himanshu P. Shukla:

I read with sorrow the announcement of the passing of Reds Wolman. He was as others have said truly a wonderful human being and a great man. I was blessed to have him as one of my undergraduate advisors and to have studied in DoGEE during his tenure as Chairman. He ran a very exciting and open-minded department which encouraged intellectual exploration irrespective of disciplinary boundaries at a time when most other fields defined themselves very narrowly. It is only in retrospect that I understood how different and wonderful was the education I gained in the department due to his particular intellectual vision. He was a teacher in the best meaning of that word but more than his excellent lectures, Reds was truly a kind and generous person, who was forever willing to help one move forward intellectually or personally and over years he was even willing to listen to and give advice to his students' children. While most comments have rightly focused on Reds' immense academic and institutional contributions and some have noted his lifelong involvement with Hopkins right from his childhood as his father was such an important and iconic figure at Hopkins. I did however note a missing element in the public 'bio'. It is probably an omission only a former Hopkins undergraduate and varsity letterman (fencing) like myself would regret. Reds was a captain of the Hopkins lacrosse team, an Honorable Mention All-American in Lacrosse in both 1947 and 1949 and he won '49 the Erlanger award for outstanding senior. The '47 team was probably the greatest lacrosse team in Hopkins history with 12 All-Americans including 5 first team members. I was fortunate to have sat besides Reds at a number of games over the years and while his comments were always surprisingly insightful; given his modesty, I didn't learn until well after graduation when spending some idle time with the stats book of his accomplishments on the athletic field. Reds was has been pointed out by many a "Hopkins Man" through and through and in every way.

March 14, 2010, from Charles U. Wood, Jr. A&S '70:

My first encounter with Dr. Wolman was when I elected to take his course on "Physiography of the United States". I recall him saying at the beginning of the first session that those who thought the it was going to be an easy, undemanding course, should leave now, and save themselves some grief. I stayed, completed the course, and was glad that I did. Dr. Wolman was a fantastic font of knowledge, and he was more than willing to share with us. He was not only an accomplished scientist, distinguished in a variety of fields, but he was also affable, approachable and a genuinely nice person. In various encounters over the years after I graduated, he always displayed a great sense of humor, and a joie de vivre unmatched by few. Dr. Wolman is truly a part of that pantheon of scholarship that makes Hopkins great. I truly miss him as a person, honor him as a great educator, and am certain that his memory and legacy will live on.

March 11, 2010, from Don Lauria, UNC, Chapel Hill:

I was so saddened when I learned that Reds had died. I knew him a bit as a colleague, but more importantly he was a friend. A warmhearted delightful authentic person who touched me deeply. I think it was Ed Bouwer who said that Reds epitomized the Hopkins ideal. What a tribute! But that boundary seems too tight. What Reds epitomized is human authenticity. I dont need to extol his virtues, others have done that. I would like to draw attention to what has been unsaid because most of us take it for granted. Reds made himself the superb human being he was. He had help, of course, his family and friends and students and colleagues, but he was the one largely in charge of the first and unique edition of himself a classic. Thus he is an important model for young people, especially the students and junior faculty at Hopkins and elsewhere who may (or may not) be asking: What shall I make of myself? Reds successes and superb qualities didn't just happen. They weren't in his genes. It wasn't just environment that accounted for who he was. Although we cant pin down the causes precisely, he became who he was because of his hard work, his struggles and joys and disappointments and loves and choices and actions. What a success story! He enriched my life, I will miss him sorely, and I am diminished by his death.

March 05, 2010, from Robert Carl Zimmermann (Ph.D., 1966):

It is so seldom that one person combines such a first-rate mind with so much warm, humorous, and wise humanity. He was an incredibly positive influence in so many lives, including my own. Reds will be sadly missed. Just one anecdote to show what kind of a person he was. In the 1960s, he was once given a sarcastic lecture on driving and parking on the JHU campus by a campus cop who had assumed he was a wayward student; Reds (ever ready to confess his driving sins) listened politely, agreed with the cop, and never once revealed he was by then a Departmental chairman...But then rank and status never meant much to Reds, who was known for spending hours offering friendly advice and encouragement even to the lowliest of undergraduates. And where else but at Hopkins under Reds (and the late John Goodlett) was a hopeless interdisciplinarian able to pursue his interests in plants, stream morphology, runoff, European forest and landscape history, Spanish water law, international rivers, mine-waste reclamation etc.

March 02, 2010, from Peter Wilcock:

Prof. Wolman's career was defined by fundamental contributions to our understanding of rivers, supported by pioneering work in developing interdisciplinary environmental education and an extraordinary commitment to the application of research to river management and policy.

In his Ph.D. research at Harvard University and subsequent work with Luna Leopold at the U.S. Geological Survey, Prof. Wolman played a central role in defining rivers in a modern, quantitative and generalizable framework that still provides the standard against which new models and concepts are evaluated. The understanding and the methods developed in this work form the foundation of modern river geomorphology, engineering, and restoration. Building on this work, Prof. Wolman addressed a fundamental problem in river science: the magnitude and frequency of the processes that shape rivers and their ecosystems. Is it the rare and destructive storm that sets the size, shape and composition of river channels, or the small, persistent flows, or something in between? With his colleague John Miller, Prof. Wolman demonstrated that relatively common floods do the most work in shaping river channels and, further, that there is remarkable consistency in the frequency of these 'effective' floods. This result has guided interpretation of rivers and challenged river theory for the past 50 years, while also providing a key element of modern channel restoration and design. Prof. Wolman's contribution extends to the pervasive impact of urbanization on rivers. With his colleague Asher Schick, he documented the impact of urbanization on stream channels, developing a characteristic sequence of events that defines the standard model against which impacts and remediation are evaluated.

Committed to the idea that environmental stewardship requires knowledge that is both deep and broad, Reds played a leading role-by personal example, by academic leadership at Johns Hopkins University, and by advising many academic and research programs-in defining the nature and scope of effective, rigorous, and interdisciplinary environmental education.

The link between science and society was not an abstract theme for Reds, but a path to action. Reds contributed sustained service and frequent chairmanship of National Academy Commissions, Boards, and Committees dealing with water management and policy. He also provided expert guidance to Resources for the Future, the World Health Organization, the International Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Savannah River Plant, and the State of Maryland among others. His indefatigable service, combined with his good-natured wisdom, influenced environmental decisions and decision-makers around the world.

For those who knew him, Reds' professional accomplishments merely provide context for his greater personal contributions through his inspired combination of warmth, wit, and genuine affection for all he came into contact with.

The whole exceeded the sum of the parts. Reds was a distinguished scholar who played a central role in defining our modern understanding of rivers, a visionary academic who pioneered integrated environmental education, a devoted citizen who worked tirelessly to apply an understanding of rivers to their protection and wise use, and an extraordinary human being who inspired and delighted generations of students and colleagues, all friends.

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