Dr. L. Frank Brown, a Teacher for the Ages

A while back I wrote something about crossroads that we all encounter in our lives–certain events whose significance at the time we often are unawares. There are events, however, whose significance is well realized at the time. Events which shake us and leave us changed.

I had a teacher once whose words spoken with a quiet intensity changed my life forever. It was on a limestone hillside in Texas many years ago. It was spring and the Bluebonnets and Indian Blankets covered the land in the warm sunshine, and the song of Meadowlarks filled the air. Students in my Historical Geology class were every where over the hillside, but I only had eyes and ears for Dr. L. Frank Brown who was my teacher.
I had just caught a young snake whose identity I didn’t know, and I was a bit disappointed that Dr. Brown, a geologist, said he didn’t know what kind of snake it was when I asked him. The snake must have been a guide, leading me to my teacher, for Dr. Brown motioned to me and another student as he knelt down and picked up the fossil of a clam from the limestone outcrop that we stood upon.

“Look at this!” he said, holding the fossil out in his hand, his voice intense and directed right at me. “This area is filled with these broken clam shells. Look…you can see where the shell was broken after death, and you can see that the broken edges of the shell are smooth and worn. These shells of these clams were washed back and forth by wave action to form this ripple mark made of clam shells which was on the floor of a shallow Cretaceous sea. If you could find an adjoining ripple bed, you could calculate the depth of water that these shells were in by the distance between the ripple marks. These clams were probably just offshore, their shells worn smooth by the wave action. Listen! Smell! Can’t you just hear that ancient sea and smell the tidal flats these clams lived in?”

And so, in an instant was my life changed forever. That moment was inscribed on my being never to be erased. I can remember it exactly. The sun warm on my neck and bare arms, the snake wriggling in my hands totally forgotten, the buzz of grasshoppers, the smell of that good Texas country…engraved forever along with those simple intense words spoken with a fervor that spoke excitedly of momentous secrets being revealed.
I simply felt doors swing open in my mind and through them I had a far off glimpse of lands never before dreamed of. The idea that from a few simple observations the ecology of a land gone to dust over sixty five million years ago could be deduced was something absolutely inconceivable to me. And it was far more than that…it was an introduction into a way of looking at things that I had never experienced.

I finished the course with an “A,” and received in the mail a copy of Loren Eisley’s The Immense Journey with an inscription on the front page by Dr. Brown congratulating me on my achievement of making the highest grade in the class. In the future I took additional courses from Dr. L. Frank Brown—two semesters of Invertebrate Paleontology and a course in Sedimentology/Stratigraphy. All of these courses involved weekly field trips with some of them extending all week end. The Stratigraphy course also involved one on one trips with Dr. Brown who dedicated all his weekends during that semester to his students. I often wondered how his wife tolerated his being gone constantly.
In all of these courses, Dr. Brown taught with an intensity and enthusiasm which captured and riveted the attention of his students. His dedication and single-minded pursuit of teaching excellence has remained with me all my life. It was quite simply impossible to be around him without catching the fire that he gave off—a fire that made one want to know more about the secrets of the universe that he imparted with such ease and facility.
When he had to leave our school at the end of my senior year, all the students were devastated and appalled. He burned so brightly that he showed most of the other faculty in the Baylor Geology department to be dim and dusty cinders. He had to move on. This was my first glimpse of what envy on such a level could do to the best and brightest.

I never saw Dr. Brown again. However, because of his incredible influence I went on to finish my Bachelors, then my Masters and eventually my Doctorate. I have taught many hundreds of students since those days, and every day that I do so, I think of Dr. Brown and wonder just how he would explain a particularly difficult concept, or how he would try and enthuse students in the subject that he loved so much. What a role model he was!
And just before he left I had intended to write him and tell him how much he had influenced and changed my life, but…I never did, he left before I wrote the letter. And all these years I have regretted not writing that letter…until now. I recently to my astonishment found him online and wrote him at his email address repeating much of what I have just written. I can’t begin to say how pleased I am to tell him how much he changed my life.
I don’t think it would be an invasion of his privacy to provide this link to his profile. You can go here and see how he has progressed since he left the narrow strictures of Baylor University.

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