Alumni tour through Grand Coulee grandeur

rock
The famed Yeager Rock looms over the tour group. The rock, called an erratic, was carried by glaciers hundreds of miles before being deposited here.

By Daniel Le Ray

“It’s a continuation and extension of the education that they got,” Professor of Geology Pat Spencer said.

This past August, Spencer – along with Robert Allen Skotheim Chair of History David Schmitz – led 17 alumni on a trip to Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River. For Spencer, alumni trips are a chance to share his geological expertise outside of the classroom and have some fun with colleagues and former Whitties.

For Mal ’63 and Nancy Gray Hawley ’63, this was their fourth alumni trip. It’s all about learning something new while getting reacquainted with fellow Whitman graduates, Mal said, adding, “One of the magnets is the opportunity to connect with former classmates.” On this excursion, the Hawleys were joined by alumni from as near as Walla Walla and as far as Barnstable, Mass.

The Hawleys had also long been interested in the history of the Missoula Floods – glacial floods that impacted the Columbia River Gorge during the last ice age – so “the opportunity to learn more about the events that impacted the landscape from Missoula to the Willamette Valley was too good to pass up.”

The group started their trip at the margin of the ice sheet that had covered North America more than 20,000 years ago. “We were looking at geological features that developed right at the edge of that ice,” Spencer said. “We drove west from Grand Coulee Dam and followed the glacial margin for about 50 miles, looked at some of that geology and talked about the Missoula Floods.”

“Having both Pat and David on the trip was an inspired idea,” Mal Hawley said. “Pat Spencer is just terrific. His ability to interpret geological events for us laymen is unmatched.”

While Spencer talked geology, Schmitz talked about the historical context, from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s understanding of the causes of the Great Depression through his quest to create jobs and balance in the U.S. “At the time construction began, there was no demand for the power it would generate, the irrigation water it would provide or the improvements to navigation on the river,” he said. But with the onset of World War II, the dam and the infrastructure supporting it allowed for the expansion of wartime production and agriculture in the Northwest.

This cross-disciplinary approach is one of the reasons the Hawleys keep coming back. Mal Hawley describes the trips as “not only intellectually stimulating, but also just plain fun.” There is also value in reconnecting with former classmates and meeting other Whitman graduates.

“The interaction with other alumni reminded me of the collegiality that was at Whitman when we were there,” he said.

The first trip took place more than 35 years ago with the goal of bringing alumni together, building a network across graduating years and showing former Whitties the quality of teaching that current students still enjoy. Previous outings have taken Spencer to the Galapagos Islands and on a river rafting jaunt down the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon, while Schmitz’s first trip landed him in Vietnam in 2004.

Though this alumni trip was a little closer to home, Schmitz explained, simply and succinctly, just why they have remained so popular: “It just reminds them of the value and power of a liberal arts education.”