LAWRENCE — Nearly 90 years after Robert "Bob" Harrison (class of 1938) had the adventure of a lifetime as a University of Kansas geology student, his family has made it possible for future students to enjoy and learn from the same experience.
The Harrison Family Fund at the Douglas County Community Foundation donated the funding through KU Endowment, which enabled the KU Department of Geology to buy 600 acres of land outside of Cañon City, Colorado, for $360,000. Known to generations of KU geology students as Blue Ridge, the property is the location of key mapping exercises in GEOL 560, a course every KU geology major must complete to graduate.
The course is part of what students call their "field camp" experience, which takes students out of the classroom and immerses them 24 hours a day in the wild in two different states. In Utah, they camp and stay at a research station and hike through the desert to complete mapping exercises. In Colorado, they stay in cabins at KU's facility 13 miles outside of Cañon City, and they hike through the mountains to do their work.
Bob Harrison's daughter-in-law, Beth, is the steward of the Harrison Family Fund. She said the decision to support the geology department was based on a conversation her late husband, Phil Harrison, had with his parents, Bob and Pauline Harrison. When discussing the distributions for their funds, one of the first decisions Bob Harrison made was to support the field camp, which he attended in the 1930s.
"It was a life experience that he never forgot, and he wanted to be able to assist future KU geology students to have similar opportunities," Beth Harrison said.
With the permission of the owner, Ron Gifford, students have been given free access to Blue Ridge for decades, but the family recently decided to sell the property, said J. Douglas Walker, the field camp director and Union Pacific Resources Distinguished Professor of Geology. If the property had been sold to a hostile owner or was subdivided into many properties with different owners, KU could have been blocked from what Walker calls a wonderful location to learn geologic mapping.
"It's an invaluable geologic exercise that they couldn't get anywhere else in the vicinity," Walker said. "The geology is well-exposed and clear. Students can make a large number of supporting measurements in the area on the outcrop. They can just walk up to the rocks and make observations."
Blue Ridge also provides students with an opportunity to map metamorphic rocks, which are created when an existing rock is subjected to high heat and pressure.
"To a geologist, it's a compelling example of metamorphism and deformation, and now thanks to the Harrison family, Blue Ridge is going to be preserved for future generations to use," Walker said.
Besides funding for the purchase of Blue Ridge, the Harrisons also support scholarships that pay for students to attend field camp and replace the wages they are unable to earn during their summerlong field experiences.
"We are deeply grateful for all the Harrisons have done for our students," said Jennifer Roberts, geology department chair and professor.
Bob Harrison was born in 1916 in St. Louis. Bob and Pauline Gill married July 28, 1938. Although he earned a geology degree, Bob Harrison spent most of his career in business, taking over the Gill Real Estate and Insurance Agency in Lawrence, which was owned by Pauline's parents, M.R. and Blanche Gill. He owned the agency from 1952-1993. He owned and developed properties in Kansas and Hawaii. Beth Harrison remembers her father-in-law as being well-respected by the business community.
He served as president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors and the Lawrence Board of Independent Insurance Agents. He was a member of the Noon Kiwanis Club, the board of trustees for Independence Inc. and Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, and he was a 61-year member of the Lawrence Masonic Lodge 6 A.F. & A.M. Pauline Harrison died in 1999. Bob Harrison died in 2011 at the age of 95.
Phil Harrison had a career in higher education, which included work at Indiana University, before he and Beth returned to Lawrence so that he could join the family business. Phil Harrison was known as a wordsmith with a talent for writing contracts and a great sense of humor. Beth and Phil Harrison were married in 1968. She taught music in McLouth, working as the band director, for four years before joining the Gill Agency. Phil Harrison worked at Gill until it was sold in 1996. He died in 2011.
KU Endowment is the independent, nonprofit organization serving as the official fundraising and fund-management organization for KU. Founded in 1891, KU Endowment was the first foundation of its kind at a U.S. public university.
Top photo: KU Geology's Field Camp facility outside of Cañon City, Colorado, includes a recreation hall-kitchen, which is also used as a classroom. Behind the recreation hall are two of the cabins that house students during their field courses. Left photo: Geology student Carson Rufledt uses an app called Strabo to complete a mapping exercise on the top of Blue Ridge in 2017. Strabo was developed by the KU geology department. Credits: Diane Silver.