Thursday, April 04, 2013

Reflections on Arthur A. Socolow

Art Socolow, former State Geologist of Pennsylvania, died on March 25.

Thomas M. Berg

            I first met Arthur A. Socolow in late 1964 when I came from the University of Colorado for a job interview at the Pennsylvania Geological Survey.  Much to my great pleasure and satisfaction, Art hired me to do geologic mapping in the bituminous coalfields.  I didn’t think I would stay at that first job for more than a few years, but it lasted for twenty-four.  I worked my way up from that first field-mapping position to become Associate State Geologist under Don Hoskins.  During the 21 years I worked under Art Socolow, I got to know him pretty well.

            Art was a man of strong commitments and opinions.  He was committed to public service and expected the same of those who worked with him.  He felt that all who worked in government owed the taxpayers a full-day’s work for a full-day’s pay.  Art valued traditional scientific principles and frequently adhered to long-held geological ideas that were being challenged by revolutionary concepts.  For example, he was initially reluctant to accept the notion of plate tectonics in reports of the Pennsylvania Survey, but eventually he came around.

            Art also was a man of contrasting manners.  In public, and in most personal settings, he was kind, polite, sympathetic, and good-humored.  He never condoned foul language or off-color jokes.  In the 21 years I worked with him, I never heard Art use a four-letter word.  In secluded meetings, when risqué jokes started, I could see that Art was very uncomfortable.  In many private settings, Art Socolow could be severe, bold, aggressive, and tough.  He really knew how to handle himself in an argument, and you needed to have your act together to win.

            Art had a very good understanding of what a state geological survey should be.  His conviction, as I saw it, was that the state survey should discern and provide practical, applied-geology information to help citizens solve everyday problems about mineral, water, and energy resources.  He wanted the staff to produce information about engineering characteristics of rocks, geologic hazards, land use, and environmental attributes.  Although some state surveys are lodged in universities, Art was not inclined toward that administrative structure.  He did not see the work of a survey oriented toward purely academic research.  “High science” was not the responsibility of the state geological survey.  I believe Art saw the agency as a bridge to carry pure-research results to meet the practical needs of citizens.

            Staff dedication to the work of the Pennsylvania Survey was very important to Art Socolow.  He had interesting ways of showing his appreciation for dedication which were sometimes humorous.  He always worked late after closing of the office.  I got into that habit too, when working on the new statewide geologic map.  One evening, when I had maps spread all over the floor—trying to work out some structure contours—Art stopped by my office.  He looked the situation over and said two words:  “Elephants remember.”  In his self-deprecating reference to his own girth, he expressed his appreciation to me.

            Art always expected staff members to be on their good behavior in the field.  But privately, I think he understood mistakes.  Once when Art and I were traveling in a state car through the Philadelphia region, he suddenly remembered a special outcrop he wanted to show me.  He missed the turn to the outcrop, slammed on the brakes, did a “U” turn, and drove up over the curb in the process.  I can remember him saying, “Edith would kill me if I did that in the family car!”

            When writing geologic reports, Art wanted the geologists to use language that was understandable to most ordinary people.  He really didn’t care for the many multisyllabic words for which geologists have a fondness.  When I was Chief of the Geologic Mapping Division, I remember Art reviewing a manuscript of a geologist in my division.  He had struck out a certain word that seemed too complicated.  The author saw the strikeout and scrawled “stet!” beside the word, meaning to leave the word as written.  Art later saw the stet—and with a heavy red-wax pencil—scrawled a line through it, redrew his strikeout, and then wrote, “I’LL STET YOUR STET!!!”

            Art never seemed too concerned about walking into someone’s office unannounced.  I think he got a bit of a kick out of it.  One day, I noticed a shadow behind me when I was working at my desk.  I looked around and saw Art holding a clipboard, and pulling out a tape measure.  I asked him if I could help him and he said, “Nope.”  I continued working as Art measured my desk.  I guess he was trying to solve some kind of space problem.

            Although some felt his management style was sometimes indelicate or thick-skinned, I have no doubt that Art sincerely cared about all who worked at the Pennsylvania Survey.  I know that if Art believed he had offended a staff member, he would call that person at home and apologize.

            When Art was getting ready to retire in 1986, I asked him what he would miss the most.  With little hesitation, he said he would miss the daily phone calls that he would take from citizens who needed help.  He loved to talk with ordinary people who needed assistance locating a water well, or who couldn’t understand a problematic foundation condition.  Art Socolow also greatly enjoyed assisting the mineral and energy industries in Pennsylvania.  With his extensive experience in economic geology, he was an enormous advocate for those industries.

            After I was appointed State Geologist of Ohio, I attended an annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Boston.  I called Art in advance and asked if my wife and I could stop by to visit him and Edith at their Gloucester home after the Boston meeting.  The Socolows were most gracious and actually put us up for a night at their retirement house.  The next morning, Art took me out to his favorite Cape Ann beach to collect “pet rocks,” the wonderful cobbles that had been eroded from the igneous rocks of the Cape Ann Complex.  It was fun to stroll on the beach with Art and chat about our state-survey experiences.

            I will always be grateful to Art Socolow for his guidance and personal care.

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