Gilbert F. White

Gilbert F. White - Tributes

Looking back at these and other efforts to live my Quaker faith in what I did in my work, I am painfully aware that it didn't always 'amount to anything.' It might have been easier to judge if I had just concentrated on helping needy people directly. It is more difficult to judge how well I expressed my beliefs and values by applying science to international problems. Perhaps I lacked vision or skill, but I realize that I am the one who finally must use my own standard to judge how much people and their environments have benefited from what I did.


Although Gilbert may have questioned how well he expressed his beliefs and values by applying science to international problems, most of his friends and colleagues don't question it at all. Gilbert requested that any memorial service on his behalf be conducted in the manner of a Quaker meeting—that it begin with quiet contemplation and continue with reflections from anyone moved to speak. In that spirit, this web page is a collection of memories, tributes, and anecdotes about Gilbert.

An hour ago I received a book entitled The Life of G.F.White. He was a great man and his influence on my life and way of thinking both in science and life was enormous. I have not yet read the book but my understanding is that it was the very presence of Gilbert which changed a spiritual atmosphere and that is impossible to express in words. I could not define this feeling for myself in words but the feeling was extremely deep. Gilbert had unique personality and his soul influenced souls in surrounding eliminating thoughts not appropriate to his way of thinking. Even his photo on the cover immediately brought to me a flood of precise memories. Thank you for the most valuable sending. Sincerely,

—George Zavarzin
Russian Academy of Sciences

Professor Gilbert F. White was a tall personality, physically and intellectually. While Professor White was the most distinguished geographer of the last half-century, having received nine honorary degrees and several national and international awards, he always remained humble to the point of self-effacement. This was really a very great virtue. He was generous in giving credit to his colleagues and stood for equity and welfare of community. He did not recognize any foes either in human–form or in nature’s extremes. His compassionate nature led him to advocate meeting the conflicting demands of all life forms and resolving all disputes amicably. His life and work have helped geographers in India, as elsewhere, to deal with environmental and natural hazards issues in a constructive manner. Professor White’s legacy as a geographer-scientist and humanist will continue to inspire us in our work and outlook on life.

—S.L. Kayastha
President, Geographical Society of India and
Head, Geography Department (Retd.)
Banaras Hindu University
Varanasi, India

As Chairman of the Committee that set up the High School Geography Project (HSGP) and, indeed, also as the person who succeeded in launching the program, Gilbert was an inspiration to all of us who were involved in that effort. When I came from Canada as Assistant Director of the project I discovered that Gilbert was pioneering a level of thought in geography that, like all great ideas, ran counter to the prevailing mood of the discipline: the leaders in geography were focused on academic excellence and development of theory. Gilbert saw the geographer as a citizen deeply involved in the environmental issues of the day. With hindsight I see now that that should have been a bigger part of our content focus in the HSGP. It would have extended its usefulness. His ideas live on, awaiting action, in his chapter on "International Dimensions," in the book I wrote for the International Geographical Union Congress in 1972, "High School Geography Project: Legacy," Centre Educatif et Culturel Inc., Montreal, 1972.

—Angus M. Gunn
Professor Emeritus
University of British Columbia

It is with great sadness that we have learned of the passing of Professor White. . . . Professor White was one of the vital people involved in the creation of the International Lake Environment Committee (ILEC). He provided Shiga Prefecture, ILEC, and Japan in general with invaluable advice on how ILEC should be structured and the role it should play. Twenty years on, we still feel the influence of his vision and would like to express our never-ending gratitude.

After the formation of ILEC, Professor White served on the first two terms of the Scientific Committee. There, too, his influence was broad and deep, and even after stepping down, he maintained his role as an influential advisor.

He was most gracious in accepting to be a keynote speaker in a session at World Lake Conference in Kasumigaura in 1995. At that time, he suggested to Professor M. Nakamura (currently chair of the ILEC SciCom) that Professor Nakamura write a summary article in "Environment" on the state of the world's lakes. This article, inspired by Professor White, led to the World Lake Vision (completed in 2003) and then eventually to the largest project in ILEC's history: a Global Environment Facility/ World Bank funded project entitled "Lake Basin Management Initiative," which has recently and successfully concluded. His remarks were inspirational and have led ILEC closer to its goal of fostering sustainable development of the world's lakes and reservoirs.

. . . far across the ocean, the legacy of Professor White lives on.

—Hironori Hamanaka
Director General
International Lake Environment Committee Foundation

This nation and the community of nations are immeasurably richer for your contributions to the body of knowledge and practice in that interdisciplinary zone where geography, natural hazards science, and behavioral sciences intersect. Thank you for teaching us all to be aware of — and so perhaps to be able to do something about — society's tendency to aggravate its own fate when it presumes to mess with (or ignore) Mother Nature. Through your life work, we have enjoyed an essential and exemplary bridge between the world of the academy and research and the arena of public policy and politics. You command the great respect and admiration of your fellow citizens.

—David E. Skaggs
Former Member of Congress
Boulder, Colorado
— from a letter to Gilbert on the occasion of his receiving an
Honorary Doctorate of Science from the University of Colorado

We have long known that you are a "master" of humane letters, and human compassion and the human condition. . . You are one of our planet's finest natural resources.

—Barbara T. Richman
Managing Editor, Environment
— from a letter to Gilbert on the occasion of his receiving an
Honorary Doctorate of Science from the University of Colorado

Those of the Drawers of Water team currently in Uganda send our warmest wishes for your well-deserved recognition by the University of Colorado . . . We are mindful of the huge amount that you contributed to raising concern for domestic water in the tropics and trust that the rate of improvements to water supplies will continue to improve greatly because of your work. You not only advanced the science of geography yourself, but taught us and helped us to [do] so as well, here in Africa. But we specially remember your thoughtfulness and concern . . . for all of us who worked on the project, your interest in our lives and careers, and the friendship you have provided to us all.

—David J. Bradley
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and
Oxford University
— from a letter to Gilbert on the occasion of his receiving an
Honorary Doctorate of Science from the University of Colorado

The news of Gilbert's passing brings back many memories of various kinds. These include an appreciation of his pioneering contributions to research and leadership in the study of natural hazards; his promotion of true interdisciplinary dialogue both nationally and internationally; and above all for his quiet manner and gentle companionship.

—Jim Dooge
Centre for Water Resource Research
University College Dublin

Gilbert White: The Man Who Shaped My Life

I lived only two years under his leadership, but the effect was profound and I would not have become what I am without Gilbert White:

A Quaker
A writer
A political leader
An advocate of freedom, love, and justice

It was in 1953, during my first year at Haverford College on a Fulbright scholarship from Austria that I felt obliged to ask Gilbert the thorny question: "Why did you choose me for one of America's ten best liberal arts colleges, when I am neither a scholar nor a good student?"

To which he replied: "Because you have other qualities, Hans!"

That made me think for the first time in my life of what my "other qualities" might be. And soon it became clear to me that I was destined to become a public figure, writing, teaching and leading others.

With his encouragement I set out to first explore America, traveling through (then) all 48 states, working as a laborer in the streets of Los Angeles, in the redwood forests, and as a bellhop in a New York Hotel, at the same time addressing civil groups and churches on international affairs. He sent me one Christmas to a Cherokee Indian reservation in South Carolina and on another occasion to the legendary Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to watch a baseball game.

He invited my sister Gretel to stay in the president's house on college grounds when she came to visit me, and he wrote a letter to my parents, assuring them that I "would go far in life."

But it was his caring eye, brotherly touch and steady voice that made me feel wanted, respected, and loved during that crucial time in my life.

After my return to Europe I decided to become a journalist and was hired by United Press as a staff correspondent on his letter of recommendation. Later, after consultation with him, I joined the Austrian foreign service and returned to the United States as vice-consul in New York, where our son Stefan was born in 1964.

Gilbert supported my quest to become Secretary General of the Socialist International in 1969 in London, where Philip Noel-Baker, another graduate of Haverford College and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize served as my mentor and inspiration.

Again with Gilbert's approval, I returned to America in 1976 to join the United Nations in 1977 as an advisor to the Secretary General and spokesman on population matters, Palestine, and outer space. It was during this period that I at last joined the Society of Friends as an active member, serving for ten years as a board member of Friends World College where, with Gilbert's assistance, I created the Martin Luther King Jr. Intrnational Peace Award, among whose recipients are Mikhael Gorbachev, Willy Brandt, Oscar Arias, and Bruno Kreisky.

Since my college days I met Gilbert again in person in 1984 at the thirtieth reunion of the class of '54, when he recognized me immediately and said: "Well done Hans so far. Why not write a book next?"

As a result I wrote biographies of Mario Soares, who later became president of Portugal, and Oscar Arias, recently re-elected as president of Costa Rica.

Now I am only 72 and, following Gilbert's example, intend to live much longer. Sadly, I can no longer ask him for advice about the future but I hope to be acting in his spirit when I announce my decision here today to run for president of Haverford College next year.

Thank you Gilbert, thank you all!

—Hans Janitschek
United Nations

Je suis très ému de cette triste nouvelle que mes questions ,depuis quelques temps restées sans réponse positives, me laissaient redouter. Il fut pour moi un des hommes les plus admirables que j'ai connus: profondément humain et ouvert à tous, d'une grande finesse de sentiments, généreux, entreprenant et sachant communiquer son enthousiasme autour de lui tout en restant modeste, d'une intelligence et d'une ouverture d'esprit exceptionnelles, il "irradiait" la sympathie et suscitait l'affectueuse admiration. J'ajouterai, en ce qui me concerne, que les orientations et les conseils qu'il n'a cessé de me prodiguer pendant plus de quinze ans, sont pour une très grande part à la base de la politique française de prévention et de lutte contre les Catastrophes Naturelles. La France lui est redevable aussi de ses interventions courageuses alors qu'il était Quaker et qu'il sillonnait notre pays occupé pendant la dernière guerre européenne (1940) et dont il parlait peu.

Difficile à rédiger, tant il y aurait à dire sur nos relations confiantes, fidèles et amicales nées à l'occasion de multiples rencontres: la première date du début des années 70, au Symposium Man Made Lakes, qu'il avait organisé à Knoxville. Depuis lors, combien d'échanges, d'entretiens, de conseils !

Les quelques lignes que vous pourriez ainsi insérer dans l'hommage que la Communauté humaine se doit de faire à la mémoire de Gilbert F . White, sont pour ma part et celle de mon Pays, l'immense reconnaissance pour sa discrète, intelligente et chaleureuse gnérosité à l'égard de ceux qui souffrent dans le monde, de maux qu'ils n'ont pas, à l'origine, engenders.

Dans notre langage Gilbert F. White a bien mérité de l'Humanité !
Avec vous de tout coeur en cette douloureuse circonstance.

—Paul M. Simèon

In 1971 my sister and I moved to Boulder with our parents, Marv and Penny Waterstone. My dad studied geography with Gilbert and my mom worked at the Hazards Center. My sister and I hid chocolates in Gilbert's office, and collated, stapled, and helped with the mailing of the Natural Hazards Observer. We spent many nights with Gilbert and Ann in their home in the Canyon. I remember hiking the property with Gilbert and Ann, feeding the donkeys, and falling in love with their Rhodesian Ridgeback. Gilbert and Ann always brought coins for us from their many travels around the world. They were our surrogate grandparents and played a very large part in our lives. Though I have not been to Boulder in many years, I have incredible memories of that time. Thank you Gilbert and Ann for making us part of your family.

—Tracy Taylor
Belay Architecture

There are many in Europe who will wipe a tear in fond memory of a great American who built global, social institutions to address people-environment relations. An outstanding scholar and upstanding man.

—Phil O'Keefe
Northumbria University, Newcastle, UK

This time of year brings to mind the many things we have to be thankful for as a university community. The contributions Gilbert White made to the world on our behalf should clearly be on that list.

Gilbert White, the Gustavson Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Geography, was one of the most internationally recognized faculty members here at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Yet just as much as he was a towering academic, people made note of his indelible personal qualities. Many have said they walked away from an encounter with him feeling they learned something, not just in academic terms, but also as a human being. I didn't have a chance to meet him, but I wish I had. When he passed away last month, he left a huge and humbling legacy for all of us to follow.

Gilbert White was exemplary in teaching, research and service. . . . [His] work not only changed the way people deal with nature and made the world safer for people to inhabit, it saved countless lives. His influence reached around the globe and made lasting contributions to the study of water systems in developing countries, global environmental change, and international cooperation. . . .

I believe it's important to remember - and to practice - two of Professor White's notable qualities: the art of listening and the art of humility. By all accounts, Gilbert White was a skilled consensus builder and possessed a great ability to bring diverse groups together to help them find common ground.

As all would probably agree, the world is a better place because of Professor White's contributions as a leader, a humanitarian and a citizen-scientist . . . The University of Colorado at Boulder is a better place because of our association with Gilbert White and we are thankful that he chose this university as his academic home for more than 35 years.

—Taken from a message to the faculty and staff of the University of Colorado
from Chancellor G.P. "Bud" Peterson

There is so much to say about Gilbert White that the words get tangled up and will not come out right. From the standpoint of one person who was working in one town, Tulsa, I can just say that Gilbert made all the difference. He believed in us so fiercely that we had to keep trying to live up to what he thought we could become. Over many years, we would scrape up enough money and gumption to get to Boulder in July and come away with enough courage and vision to keep going for another year. His bright light illuminated the way, and continues.

—Ann Patton
Founding Director, Tulsa Partners, Inc.

The death of Gilbert White was a colossal loss not only to his family, friends, colleagues and the people who knew him, but also to the discipline of geography and the Society of Friends and environmentalists throughout the world. With his passing, America has lost a true Friend of the Earth. His record and achievements in the study of geography, resources and environment will be hard to match for many generations to come.

Gilbert played a very important part in my life and career. He was not only my mentor, friend and colleague, but also like a guardian to me. When I had financial difficulty, he hired me as his research assistant. When I got married in Chicago in December 1966, he and Anne stood in place of my deceased parents. He trained me as a professional geographer by hiring me to work on floodplain management problems, industrial water decision making, rural water use in East Africa, and the Mekong River Basin Project. When I was his research assistant, he would sometimes even take me along in a taxi with him to O'Hare International Airport so that I could update him on what I was doing for him. Then he would ask the taxi-driver to deliver me back to the University of Chicago. When I was looking for a dissertation topic for me thesis, he sent me to the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission to work with Dr. John R. Sheaffer on his metropolitan water study for northeastern Illinois, so that I could use the Chicago Water Study to write my dissertation.

Gilbert's mentorship, guidance, friendship, care and encouragement had a deep impact on me. I will always treasure his thoughtful and humanitarian concerns towards my welfare and will always cherish my fond memories of forty-six years of association with him.

Greater love hath no man for the environment than Gilbert, who dedicated his life and career in public service towards educating fellow citizens in understanding the hazards and extremes of Nature, by making the environment a safer home for humankind.

—Shue Tuck Wong
Professor Emeritus of Geography
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC, Canada

Over the past few years, working on Gilbert's web site and helping with his biography, I've had the true pleasure of going back and reading many of Gilbert's papers. Gilbert was a fine writer – eloquent in the tradition of the greatest American essayists, from Emerson to E.B. White. Indeed, he was one of only two or three authors I encountered in my decades of editing scholarly works whose writing I truly enjoyed. Fine writing is very rare and to be relished as much as a December rose or a sweet, ripe peach (or, in Gilbert's case, fine Belgian chocolate).

We tend to think of pragmatism and idealism as polar opposites: the realist versus the dreamer. But Gilbert managed to embody both, and that synthesis of the utilitarian and the optimist is reflected in his graceful writing. Please see the many quotations included on this web site.

—David Butler
Editor Emeritus, Natural Hazards Center

I first met Gilbert White when I was a young faculty member at Arizona State University. As I got to know him, he impressed me immensely in those areas where most young faculty members would have major self doubts: his ability to give a 50 minute technical talk before a large audience with no notes, to remember everyone's name in a huge gathering of people, to hold forth on an astonishing range of subjects, and to travel the globe bridging the academic and policy worlds. That is why in those early years of knowing Gilbert I was always surprised when he would ask me what I was working on and take a real interest in hearing about whatever that was. This was quite encouraging to someone like me who was just starting his career. It is something that I have never forgotten and have tried to emulate as best I could through the years.

When Gilbert founded the Hazards Center and twice served as its director, I was at the National Science Foundation, which had the leading role in funding the Center. As I worked with Gilbert as an NSF official, my respect for him only grew. I was privileged to see a man of the highest integrity, who never requested more than what he thought the institution he was leading needed, and who worked tirelessly to advance knowledge and its application and to prepare the next generation to do the same.

At the National Research Council where I now work, I was recently talking to a colleague who has an office next to mine. I mentioned Gilbert and to my amazement the colleague, who is in his 70s, informed me that he was an undergraduate student at Haverford College when Gilbert was president. He went on to tell me about all the fine things that Gilbert had done at Haverford so many years ago, which did not surprise me in the least because of my own experience with Gilbert. I loaned my copy of Gilbert's recent biography to my colleague, and instructed him to not only read the chapter on Gilbert's presidency at Haverford, but the chapters before and after that as well so that he could get a full view of his life. My colleague is in for a real treat.

—Bill Anderson
National Research Council

Just learned with great regret news about Gilbert. I had privelege of working for Gilbert for many years that I consider as best in my life. He was an outstanding man, very charming and frank.

—Vasily Smirnyagin
Russian Academy of Science

I remember a very kind, gentle man who had an annoying way of making you feel guilty for not doing more to improve life on this planet.


The world is a better place for having had Gilbert in its midst. Gilbert was that rare combination—a distinguished scientist and an outstanding humanitarian committed to translating scientific evidence into policy and programs to better people's lives. His was a life to celebrate.

We will always remember Gilbert not only as a man of science and humanity, but as the person who set IBS on its present course and whose leadership and friendship was always accompanied by wisdom and enlightenment.

—Dick Jessor and Jane Menken
Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado

Gilbert White's work had a profound impact on environmental research, global poverty eradication, and civilization's ability to manage the effects of natural hazards, particularly floods and other weather-related phenomena.

At Resources for the Future, White was instrumental in creating a renewed vision for the mission of the institution at a crucial time in its history. "Gilbert White played the key role in ensuring RFF's very existence when it was threatened nearly 30 years ago," said former RFF President Paul R. Portney, who has worked closely with White. "In addition, he contributed to it generously through the years, including partially endowing the visiting fellowship program that today bears his name. Moreover, his research on water resource management and environmental risks and hazards has had a profound influence on the work of RFF scholars through the years." White served on the RFF Board of Directors from 1968 to 1979, and was chairman from 1974 to 1979.

White's legacy to RFF includes the Gilbert F. White Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, established in 1980. This competitive award brings mid-career academicians to RFF for one-year sabbaticals to pursue independent research in resource policy. Arik Levinson of Georgetown University is the current honoree in a program that has brought promising scholars to RFF from around the world.

—from an announcement recently forwarded
by Resources for the Future

I remember first meeting Gilbert on Cape Cod in 1971 at the National Academy of Sciences summer session. I was little more than a kid who had been invited to give a minor lecture, but he took me aside afterwards to discuss it. We had a lovely talk that extended well into the night, which ended up with his inviting me to Boulder and Estes Park, the beginning of my work with disasters, and to Sunshine Canyon, where I managed to visit him and Anne later in the summer in what was the beginning of a long mentorship and friendship.

I stayed in touch with him over the years, although not as often as I would have liked, trying to visit whenever work brought me to Colorado. I remember one particular visit to Pearl Street in the early 1990's. It was a mid-winter afternoon, and I was leaving a meeting and called to ask if I could drive up from Denver to visit before I had to get to Keystone for a meeting the next morning. I arrived at his apartment to hear a "come in - the door is open", and there, sprawled on floor with a huge map, perhaps the largest I had ever seen, that he had just received from a Russian colleague, was Gilbert, totally immersed. He must have spent three hours explaining aspects of Russian geography, hydrology, and politics to me that evening; lessons that served me well a few short years later when I started to visit Russia fairly frequently for collaborative scientific work.

That evening, Gilbert also explained Front Range weather to me and tried to get me to spend the night, but I foolishly declined - I think I didn't want to impose - and leaving at 10 at night actually managed to drive perhaps 15 miles before the weather got so bad that I ended up having to spend the night at a fairly primitive motel. As always, I should have listened - I would have had a much better time - and he of course, when I told him the next week, was far too much of a gentleman to say or do anything, except smile.

I remember all sorts of other delightful encounters, from the always valuable comments on my research and writing, to his, I suspect, having had a hand in placing me on the National Flood Hazard Mitigation Committee in 1980, to his generous offer to Ellen and me to make use of the White family cabin for a post-honeymoon escape after we were married, and to the occasional rare opportunity I had to involve him in something, such as the Blue Ribbon Panel on the Future of the US Man and the Biosphere Program.

In addition to his constant academic support, his one ongoing exchange with me, what became our running joke after so many years, was his trying to get me to allow him to nominate me to the Cosmos Club in Washington. I was always puzzled by this, at least until I came to understand his devotion to the Club. At first his explanation was that by joining I would have a singular effect in dramatically lowering the average age of the membership. After that, the annual "well, are you ready to join?" would be met by my offer to think about it (after all, with the exception of Gilbert and what seemed a very small number of other people, the place always seemed to me to be rather, well, … stuffy). Most recently, in Boulder a year or so ago, with a twinkle in his eye he observed that perhaps after 25 years, I was approaching the age where it was hardly worth his trying to get me to do it any more (but still he wanted to know if I had changed my mind). I remember the Cosmos Club, however, as the place that I last was together with the White family: with Mary, Frances, Will, Claire and Gilbert at breakfast the morning after the formal celebration of Gilbert's having been awarded the National Geographic Society Hubbard Medal.

Experiences relating to Gilbert were often pleasant surprises. Not only would Gilbert appear for a visit, but the most interesting people would show up in Washington saying that Gilbert had suggested they stop by, and several people I met because of him are now colleagues or friends. A few years ago I started working on a number of SCOPE projects only to find that the first question I would always be asked in places from France to Brazil, often by total strangers, was if I had seen Gilbert recently. It turned out (I should say not to my surprise) that Gilbert was the much loved godfather of the organization. Perhaps the oddest surprise was the coincidence of first meeting Mary White in Oakland decades ago not only because of Gilbert, but because of Mary's tie to her Berkeley roommate, who was married to my closest childhood friend.

What it all comes down to is that for years I have thought of Gilbert as a national treasure, and am aware of how lucky I was to have known and been influenced by him, and how much I miss him.

—Peter Jutro
Washington, DC

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