In Memoriam: George C. Stephens

George C. Stephens

Professor George C. Stephens, alumnus and beloved professor at GWU for more than 31 years, passed away on November 2, 2009.  The following tribute appeared in GW Today.

George was a teacher who cared deeply about his students.  Academically rigorous but with an obvious concern for the individual needs of every student, George was revered by students who grew accustomed to his folksy stories and the obvious delight he took from studying the natural world and explaining relationships to his classes.  His personal warmth and sincere demeanor earned him genuine affection and respect from his classes year after year.  Nearly every fall when he taught his Structural Geology course, he would find a student or two who were generally unqualified for the subject matter at hand but who enrolled in the course simply to relish the experience of being taught by such a kindhearted and sincere instructor.  Typically, George would shepherd them along with personal attention and make sure that their academic experience was both positive and enriching.

George was an accomplished, field based geologist with a wide range of scientific interests.  His primary field of specialization was structural geology, a field to which he made important and long lasting contributions through his studies of deformation mechanisms in complexly folded and faulted Ordovician strata in Pennsylvania.  Several decades later, his work is still routinely referenced in the scientific literature as the starting point for any similar studies, which is a rarity in the present era of fast-paced, quickly-improved-upon scientific investigations.  George’s interests led him to undertake many other types of research that allowed him to apply his ample geological skills.  Among these are studies of glacial deposits in Spitsbergen and elsewhere where he and colleagues used their sleuthing skills to decipher the presence and type of mineral deposits upstream in the glacial passageways.  He also worked at the Sterling mine in New Jersey, a location famous around the world for its fluorescent minerals, striving to understand the complex structural history of the area and solve the mystery of the “missing” portion of the ore body.  In recent years, he collaborated on forensic studies, continually breaking new ground by applying his knowledge of geological materials and techniques to assist in a wide range of forensic studies.  All through his career, however, George resisted the ultraspecialization that is almost universally expected of contemporary scientists, opting instead for using his nearly limitless curiosity as a guide toward taking on the problems that his constantly inquisitive nature uncovered.

George’s wide interests also led him to forge a broad range of experiences while teaching at GWU.  He managed a scientific program at the National Science Foundation and, in addition, served as a technical reviewer and member of scientific review panels.  He created curriculum and taught hands-on exercises and field trips for science teachers from the District of Columbia system.  He was part of the first wave of faculty who recognized the importance of the Mount Vernon campus to the intellectual pulse of the University by teaching courses there many times during the first years of GWU’s integration of the facility.  He was chair for the Geology Department for nearly a decade and served as a dean in Columbian College.  More recently, he enjoyed his involvement as Deputy Director of the University Honors Program, a position in which he somehow found the time to develop new and highly innovative curriculum which he himself taught with other colleagues.

These impressive accomplishments notwithstanding, George was best known throughout his career as the person to whom students and faculty alike could go for honest conversation and good advice.  He kept the door to his office always open and welcomed visitors at any time.  When a student or faculty colleague sat in the chair next to his desk, which was the only vacant space in his office realm, they knew that they had the undivided attention of a good and thoughtful individual who would listen studiously, cogitate carefully, and offer perceptive insights in return.

For George, education of any kind was always about the people he was teaching and, for that reason, one of his most important legacies is certainly the very long list of former students who experienced the very best aspects of teaching in and out of the classroom day after day, year after year.  With self-deprecating humor and endless anecdotes about his early days in geology, meshed with his many geological accomplishments and broad background of research experiences, George was a lustrous example of both the very best kind of educator at the university level and the type of decent and honest person that every parent hopes their children will grow up to be.

George and His Students through the Years

George and His Students through the Years