In Memoriam: John Rold

Title: In Memoriam: John Rold

Authors: Celia Greenman, Vince Matthews and Lee Gerhard

Publication: The Outcrop, November 2012, p. 39-40

Colorado lost a living legend recently with the passing of John Rold, perhaps best known as the State Geologist of Colorado from 1969 to 1992.

Born a rancher’s son, John grew up surrounded by wildlife in the rural setting of suburban Salida (Maysville). He lost his father when he was a boy and was raised in the midst of the Great Depression, and thus shouldered many responsibilities at a young age.
John worked temporarily for the Forest Service and gained admission to the University of Colorado and its World War II V-12 program, destined to become a naval officer. When that program terminated at the end of the war, he continued his education. At school he played handball and varsity football but also accidentally registered for a course in geology—and enjoyed it enough to carry on, eventually receiving both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from CU. For this accomplished hunter and angler one of the factors in curriculum choice must surely have been the thought of earning a paycheck while working outdoors. John began his professional life with Chevron Oil, when petroleum geology was not largely the office occupation it is today.

In 1969, John was asked to reinstate the Colorado Geological Survey after a 40-year hiatus. One of the first trials the agency experienced was the collision between geological science and less than diligent development interests in Marble, Colorado, where a major ski area was planned. John and his right-hand man for a quarter of a century, Pat Rogers, had mapped large landslides in the Mancos shale where the proposed lodge and lift towers were located. They had also mapped debris flow paths where condo footprints
were staked. This geological assessment became an extremely hot topic, with continual press coverage and accusations and threats leveled at CGS. It could have been the death knell for the newly-established agency; EXCEPT, that during the debates, a debris flow blasted down one of the mapped paths, burying the platted ski village under a 4-foot-thick layer of mud and boulders. On Mt. Daly you can still see the abandoned towers and lodge that remain as testimony that Colorado’s natural hazards should not be ignored. Indeed, a recent debris flow came roaring through Marble as another reminder.

Among the many people who speak fondly of John, the phrase “rough around the edges” can be heard more than once. What he lacked in finishing school manners he more than made up for in his forthright determination that people be educated when dealing with or voting on matters that concerned geology. This was just as true for issues concerning
extraction of natural resources as it was for geologic hazards. And as for land use planning, he was not shy in telling how an angry developer would pound on his desk saying that he would have John’s job, whereupon John would then hand over the phone
and the governor’s phone number. The wilder Colorado John knew may have been tamed a bit in the last few decades, but the current Director, Vince Matthews, credits the respect for CGS (and the lack of threats) to the high degree of credibility for the programs established during John’s 23 years of working through Colorado’s geology and working with the geological and geotechnical consulting community.

Among his many accomplishments John developed from scratch a fully functional CGS geologic staff and programs. This included a geologic publications program for making available applied geo-information for both lay people and professionals. In the mid 80s John offered a home to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which remains with CGS today and is the premier avalanche center in the world. John’s background in the energy industry gave him the insights in the 1970s to begin evaluating the potential for developing geothermal energy and coalbed methane in Colorado. CGS published numerous analyses and data-bearing reports on both of these topics. Today, geothermal pilot projects are active in different parts of Colorado with participation by CGS. The publications on coalbed methane in the 70s and 80s led the way for industry to get up to speed on the potential of coalbed methane after word of Amoco’s success began leaking out. Today, Colorado has the nation’s largest reserves of coalbed methane and they provide billions of dollars annually to Colorado’s economy and millions to its tax base.

John could have retired after his distinguished service with the State. However, in 1992 he joined Wright Water Engineers as an adjunct scientist, a position he held for nearly 20 years. John participated in landmark work with WWE for a wide variety of clients ranging from major work for ExxonMobil and BP, and rockfall analyses throughout the State in places such as at Gateway, Pitkin County and Morrison. He also assisted on water resources and geological studies where his vast knowledge and communication skills set new standards. Ken Wright and John were hired by the Gunnison County Commissioners to provide a detailed risk analysis using GIS maps to be used by the Commissioners when making decisions on land use. Both were both pleased several years later when the Public Works Manager for Gunnison County referred to their work as “biblical.” In 1995 John began providing geological expertise on a paleohydrology study at Mesa Verde National Park with a WWE field research team that investigated various sites. The project finished in 2008 with the cliff dwelling known as Mug House, and the final report was authored by John, Justice Gregory Hobbs, David Breternitz and former legislator Ruth Wright.

John was recognized by his peers with the highest award of the American Institute of Professional Geologists (of which he had been president), the Ben Parker Medal. This was a fitting recognition to a career of public service both in government and in private practice, a triumph for honesty, competence and high ethics. John also held local and national leadership positions in numerous other professional societies: the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists, the Colorado Scientific Society, the American Association of State Geologists, and the Geological Society of America. For GSA John served on a “blue-ribbon” committee that focused on serious financial and publications problems. The committee’s recommendations resulted in major restructuring that was adopted and still in use. John also remained active in CU alumni activities throughout his life.

John cemented his love of the outdoors by becoming a board member of the Colorado Wildlife Federation. He had learned early that just buying a hunting or fishing license did not adequately protect hunting and fishing heritage. John was pro mining and energy development, as you would expect from a State Geologist, yet he understood that there was a conscientious way to proceed in such efforts that did not generally coincide with the expedient way. That perspective was beneficial to CWF.

John Rold hunted, fished, was a leader in the “International Order of Rocky Mountain Goats”, and initiated all who would listen into the wonders of the outdoor world. John and Phyllis, his wife of 56 years, had four children who accompanied him on camping trips and outdoor adventures. They learned geology up front and personal and also from inside an automobile as the car was headed in a different direction from where John was pointing with his pipe. His love of fishing was passed down to his children and grandchildren, who occasionally perfected their casting by aiming at egg carton divisions in the back yard that contained different combinations of change, or maybe a dollar bill. When John cast a fly, his line danced out over impossible distances, landing lightly on the water. He usually had a fish on before anyone else. Unlike some, he would share what fly he was using, and where he thought the fish might lie. He would compliment his fellow anglers, even if they were struggling with wind knots and tangled leaders.

The visual image of John is with Stetson, jeans, boots, and his light gray jacket set off with brightly colored patches signifying his membership in outdoor organizations. All who knew him acknowledge his dedication to the geological profession and the state of Colorado, and will miss his honesty, directness, generosity and larger than life personality.