Northern Arizona University has lost the cornerstone of its School of Earth and Sustainability, a colleague valued across Flagstaff’s science community and an internationally respected geoscientist, Professor Paul Umhoefer. Paul was our colleague at NAU for 30 years, making an outsized impact in his profession, at NAU, and with his many, many students, associates, and other friends.
After a successful career in the energy industries, Paul moved into an academic career full-time. He was a long-time Fellow of the Geological Society of America and widely recognized throughout the geosciences for his successful tectonics research program, with millions of dollars in research funding and numerous, widely cited refereed publications. Throughout his career, Paul provided his undergraduate and graduate students with outstanding opportunities for research and with heart-felt mentoring and professional guidance.
At NAU he also was highly respected for working to successfully meld together geoscience and environmental sciences faculty into a well-integrated School of Earth and Sustainability. Paul’s reliance on interdisciplinary collaboration in his research carried over to his work in designing and implementing the School’s innovative PhD program. Through his recruitment, hiring, and retention of a wide range of faculty, he has shaped the current composition and direction of the School like no other. Continuing these efforts, he traveled far and wide to recruit alumni and other prospective donors to support and advance school programs, including a large new initiative in understanding the geology, evolution and natural resources of sedimentary basins. His boundless, even relentless, energy, enthusiasm, and optimism, as well as his comfortable (and sometimes goofy) sense of humor, moved the students, faculty and staff of the School to a valued level of collegiality.
Paul was a 21st century scientist. His forward-looking perspectives and innovative ideas in the geosciences were apparent not just in his research, but also in his teaching and mentoring, and he was recognized with the College’s Teacher of the Year award. He emphasized the need to combine geosciences and environmental sciences to advance those fields and to work toward the development of a transitional energy economy, moving from a non-renewable resource-based economy toward a more sustainable one. An invigorating and innovative colleague in the classroom, Paul developed team-taught courses with faculty across the geosciences, natural sciences and social sciences. With his combined academic and industry background, Paul provided a unique and highly prized perspective. His ideas were practical, well founded and accessible to students at all levels. We all looked forward to our classroom and field time with Paul.
Perhaps more appreciated than even these achievements was his success as a mentor to students, faculty and staff at NAU and throughout the geosciences. New students and faculty often identified Paul as their first true friend upon arriving in Flagstaff. He was a guide not just to the intricacies of geologic research but also to the wider Northern Arizona community. He took special pride in watching the development of students and early-career faculty. He stayed in touch and strengthened these connections as students and faculty moved on from Flagstaff. The result is a “Community of Paul” that extends across North America. He is widely and profoundly missed.