Peter Coney – a great teacher

Structural Geology & Tectonics Division Fall Newsletter
Volume 18, Number 2, September 1999


In May 1998, at The University of Arizona graduation ceremonies, Peter J. Coney was awarded the coveted College of Science Career Distinguished Teaching Award. The very next day, which was Peter’s first day of retirement, “The Senior Partner” was diagnosed with lymphoma. He died
February 20, 1999 at age 69. On that day the world lost an extraordinarily gifted, deeply insightful scientist and intellectual. Those personally touched by him lost a dear friend. All of us who have dedicated our professional lives to structure-tectonics lost a major player. Our hearts go out to Peters
wife Darlene, their son Michel, and their daughter Marian.
“Renaissance man” applies to Peter Coney. His intellectual interests and artistic talents covered tremendous scope. His grasp of concepts at fundamental levels in multiple disciplines was uncanny. Peter consumed the literature and exposed the essence of observations and relationships routinely and effortlessly. He always seemed to know what to ignore (it’s a non-problem) or to avoid (that’s just mop-up). Peter had the gift of grasping the core elements of complex systems. He would coin language that would capture the imagination and trigger the reactions of others: “suspect terranes,” “metamorphic core complexes,” “mid-Tertiary ignimbrite flare-up,” “exploding water cushions,” “asthenosphere to the grass,” “good ole Yankee American continental crust.” He presented ideas with authority. A student remarked quietly to me during one of Peter’s interview lectures: “He looks like a trucker who owns his own rig.” On field trips this geologist-trucker always had chocolate-chip cookies on his dashboard.
How could someone have such a reach and be so productive, yet not be a complete geoholic? How did he have time while addressing the special challenges of field-oriented global tectonics to build all of the furniture in his house (with the exception of one leather chair); to construct and operate an HO model railroad line in his backyard; to build from scratch a scaled 5-foot replica of the Queen Mary, using the original construction blueprints which he pulled off of the WEB; to paint marvelous landscapes and portraits; to probe the considerable depths of writings of Henry, Noam Chomsky, and others; and to sit around and play guitar or banjo. Never hurried, seldom stressed, rarely impatient, always contemplative, ever well-read, incessantly surprising, Peter invested his efforts and his devotions in things that counted most: family, students, colleagues, and IDEAS. In the way he lived and thought, he ignored fastidiously the goading expectations of popular society. In pursuing ideas he seemed to do his very best to ignore the normal protocol of “how to succeed in science.” Certain people in high places recognized Peter’s wisdom instantly. One was President James Armstrong, Middlebury College, who drew Peter into his immediate advisory group when Peter was still Assistant Professor.
After earning his BA degree in geology from Colby College and a MS in geology from the University of Maine, Peter went to Paris and earned a petroleum engineering degree from the École Nationale Supérieure du Petrole. As part of this program he carried out field investigations in the French Alps. Peter thought about the earth panoramically, and it was in the French Alps where he really learned to give expression to his panoramic vision through developing the “Coney” touch in artistic and insightful rendering of structure sections. Peter carried out his PhD program at the University of New Mexico, attracted there by the reputation of Vince Kelley, who became Peter’s research advisor. The University of New Mexico was also the source of a life-long treasured friendship with Wolf Elston, who was a member of Peter’s research committee and mentor.
Peter’s PhD research in Cordillera Huayhuash (northern Peru) was a first and deliberative step in coming to experience firsthand the entire Cordillera. His PhD research-goal statement to advisor Vince Kelley was to understand the Cordillera of North and South America…the whole thing. Throughout his career he examined firsthand the “cordillera” of other continents, always cross-comparing. In the field his feet would stand firmly on one continent or geologic province while his mind often would fasten on another. Once we were together with Ken McClay in the Moines near Durness, Scotland. I was on my hands and knees looking at strained worm burrows with my hand lens. Peter stood there, drew on his pipe, stared at the Cambrian pipestone, and said, “Looks like the Potsdam Sandstone.”
Peter grew up in Maine. His parents were English, and Quaker, and they arrived to America just three years before Peter was born. Peter fulfilled military obligations by working in an American Friend’s Service Committee-United Nations project in community development in rural El Salvador. In fact, it was in El Salvador that Peter and Darlene met and became a devoted lifelong team. From El Salvador, the Coneys went to Zion National Park; this was before heading to the University of New Mexico. While working for the Park Service, Peter realized that the public was having a very difficult time visualizing the geographic and geologic relationships between Zion Canyon, Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Canyon. Motivated as always by the desire to picture (he always pronounced it “pitcher”) and clarify, Peter worked at night on his own time to create the famous panoramic block-diagram that is displayed so prominently and sold so abundantly in the National Parks and Monuments of the Southwest. Only years later did Peter learn that it had been printed and
published. I was in fact present when he opened a letter that requested his permission to have the go into a second printing! He had not even known that there had been a first printing, one that failed to
acknowledge that Peter had conceived and rendered the original. In classic Coney fashion, Peter never answered the letter. I recall him saying: “By simply doing what needed to be done, I created something that will reach and impact more people than anything I have ever written or ever will write in my professional career. That must be telling us something.”
There is another Park Service story that tells us a lot about Pete Coney. One of his jobs was to answer the mail. A man in California wrote and inquired about the best time to visit Zion. Peter replied in a long letter describing the glory and essence of each season. One evening, well after dark, Peter returned from his rounds as Ranger Cop back to the main office. A man stepped out of the shadows (he had been waiting for an hour or more), introduced himself as the person who had inquired about the timing of a visit to Zion, and then said: “I have paid taxes to the government for decades, and for the first time in my life I have been given more for my money than I should ever deserve. Your letter was magnificent, and everything this season was as you described it!” This kind of effusive exclamation and praise would be echoed again and again by students in gratitude for what Peter had given them, and the care with which it was given.
Peter and Darlene treasured their experience at Middlebury, often mentioning the selfless generosity and high energy of geology professor Brew Baldwin, and the immense wisdom and heralded leadership of President Armstrong. In the earliest 1970s Peter had transformed introductory courses and the overall curriculum with infusions of the global context of plate tectonics and seafloor spreading. He and his Middlebury colleagues fashioned a flexible set of requirements that left open the possibility of “picking off” bright chemistry, math, physics, and biology majors who would discovery geology (aka, tectonics) in their junior year. Peter would be recruited away from Middlebury early in his career, while still an Associate Professor. Yet, his impact there was huge. I once made a presentation to faculty, alumni, and friends of Middlebury College. Nearly 800 people were in attendance. When I stepped to the podium I said: “I have always had a warm spot in my heart for Middlebury College, for my closest friend and colleague is Peter Coney.” This was 1990. Peter had left in 1975. At the mention of the name “Peter Coney,” there was a roar of applause and a standing ovation. At the break in the program, people came up to me to make contact with Peter. President Emeritus Armstrong was among them.
Peter saw opportunities at the University of Arizona. An outside academic review committee had recommended that Geosciences add a senior person in structure-tectonics, an area they saw as one of potential. When Peter was offered the position, he came to me and said: “I would love to come, but if in any way I would interfere with you and your program, I would not consider coming.” He meant it. Of course his coming gave me wings. His arrival was soon followed by Bill Dickinson, creating altogether the period that Peter referred to privately as “heroic years” marked by momentum and the thrill and satisfaction of generating ideas that build programs and attract good students. Peters #1 teaching goal was to create opportunities for students to carry out regional tectonic synthesis. He wanted students to learn how to wade the deep waters of structural, stratigraphic, petrologic, geochemical, geochronologic, and geophysical data, and to emerge on the other side with something coherent and meaningful. His first-semester course reviewed gloriously the history of tectonic analysis and presented the tools, basic concepts, and methods. His second course was an applied regional analysis, choosing each time a different region of the world. Peter walked the room while teaching. He would bend and peer directly into the eyes of students while continuing to lecture at close range. He was comfortable, even in the classroom, with long silences. Peter, from behind, would gently place his hands on a student’s shoulder while still talking tectonics. Peter was legendary as a teacher and mentor, often as effusive in language and conversation in classroom and seminar settings as he was taciturn in other settings, notably certain professional meetings and most faculty meetings. There is no one I have ever observed in my career who was more devoted to supporting new faculty colleagues. He would take their classes or seminars. He would affirm their work. He would learn from them. He would provide a presence that no new faculty member could ever anticipate from a busy colleague. Also, Peter was a master of ignoring bureaucracy. One of my contributions to luring him to the University of Arizona was assuring him that the Dean “would have
absolutely no affect on your daily life,” an expression that Peter apparently loved, for he would feed it back to me at least twice a year.
I do not dwell here on Peter’s scientific accomplishments, which are well-known to many. Titles of papers with which the Coney name is associated tell part of the story: “Cordilleran Tectonics and North America Plate Motion” (1972), “Cordilleran Benioff Zones” (1977), “Mesozoic-Cenozoic Cordilleran Plate Tectonics” (1978), “Geological Development of Metamorphic Core Complexes” (1979), “Cordilleran Suspect Terranes” (1980), “The Growth of Western North America”
(1982), “Tectonostratigraphic Terranes and Mineral Resource Distributions in Mexico” (1984), “The Lachlan Belt of Eastern Australia and Circum-Pacific Tectonic Evolution” (1992), “Syntectonic Burial and Post-Tectonic Exhumation of an Active Foreland Thrust Belt, Southern Pyrenees, Spain (1993), Consolidation of the American Cordilleras” (1994), “Plate tectonics and the Precambrian-Phanerozoic Evolution of Australia” (1995), and “Tectonic Setting and Terrane Accretion in Precambrian Orogens” (1996). The Structure and Tectonics Division of the GSA extended to Peter the Best Paper Award for 1984. In Peter’s own words (1990): “I had the privilege and good fortune to have been involved in varying degrees of intensity and participation in four exciting ideas in the earth sciences over the
past 26 years: the application of plate tectonics to mountain system evolution, the role of calderas and
ignimbrites in geologic history, the discovery of metamorphic core complexes and the importance of continental extension in mountain system evolution, and the concept of suspect terranes in the history of the Pacific Rim.”
Peter placed high value on professional colleagues with whom he worked closely on collaborative projects both in research in teaching, …colleagues at Middlebury College, The University of Arizona, the US Geological Survey, Royal Holloway University (where he served as Visiting Professor), and BHP Minerals International (where he served as Visiting Research Scientist). Oliver Warin of BHP recalls “the quiet persistence with which [Peter] tried to make scientists of us, insisting on a basis of observed data rather than merely a good idea with a lot of enthusiasm as sufficient reason for a decision. …I remember this man for his quiet grace.”
In an invited lecture (1990) on the “Future Evolution of Geology,” which Peter presented to the Department of Geology, University of New Mexico, we see yet another glimpse of the man and his mind: “I have always felt as I pass from the turmoil of urban streets through the gates and onto the campus of an institution of higher learning, anywhere in the world, a sense of relief and comfort, solemnity and freedom. The feeling is not unlike that when one enters a National Park, for that is what Colleges and Universities are – they are sanctuaries, preserves of civilization. They are the only institution in the course of human endeavor whose sole purpose and mission is to know the course, content, and directions of civilization, to understand, preserve, protect, and transmit these findings, and to seek further advances and new insights into the truth of ourselves and our world.” …We should “try to recognize the kinds of educational environments that might encourage the germination of fresh ideas in the geological sciences. Rigor and the necessity of hard work should be, of course, part of any educational message. But the key is getting the right people, putting them in
an environment which gives the time for thought and reflection, and providing the encouragement to pursue the important issues that intrigue them. That environment should also assure exposure to all the necessary skills and the best ideas and conceptual frameworks of the time, and provide stimulation from an active, well-read, thoughtful, positive, innovative, and open faculty, all in an atmosphere of freedom and tolerance. Like libraries that have to have all the books to make sure they have the one somebody needs, we have to have the freedom at universities to tolerate and encourage all sorts of individual diversity, both in faculty and students, so that we can be sure that the best mind gets the exposure to the best cognitive resources which might enable that one in a million new idea that can change the course of a discipline, or civilization.”
In 1990 (October 11), I received a letter from Peter: “BHP in Australia is back nibbling at my toes. They have asked me to think about masterminding a new project on the Precambrian of Australia. If it goes it would be a great finale and satisfy a long desire to end up in the murk of basement. I am still debating in my mind if I want to get in so deep again, but the possible opportunity of a summer in Perth, trips to the Pilbara, coming home with Darlene by way of Ireland and Scotland, and more trips back and forth to Australasia is hard to walk away from. We shall see. I will never get my books written.” Peter did not get his books written, for the challenges of the complexities of the murk of basement were simply too fetching. I personally think that Peter may have viewed the writing of his books as “mop up.” He was not a man for mop-up. His quest was for fresh and significant ideas, and his desire was to be there first. He did not conform to the popular expectations of American society or scientific societies, but instead was radically individualistic, motivated by something deep that I believe he saw with stark clarity in the human spirit, in human history, in the human condition, and in the natural world. Peter has now moved from the dark murk
of basement, has moved beyond the turmoil of urban streets, has moved through the gates to relief, comfort, solemnity and freedom. May he rest in peace.

George H. Davis,
The University of Arizona
Structural Geology & Tectonics Division Fall Newsletter

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