Biography: home, education, sporting life, professional

George F Roberson, PhD
Editor, Space and Place

- shifting geographies

As with many people nowadays, I've lived in quite a variety of places. In recent years, I've been splitting my time between Amherst (Massachusetts), Tangier (Morocco), and Denver. And in my family, moving around started early. I was born in Minot, North Dakota, but we didn't stay there long. When my Dad's military commitment ended we moved south, almost 900 miles, to Kansas City. Then we spent a few years in Fort Madison, Iowa. We got more settled down much further east in Lenox, Massachusetts – corporate opportunity having knocked again. I thrived in the small-town cultural/outdoor New England life and attended college nearby in Keene, New Hampshire.

Over time I also gradually became interested in breaking out into the larger world so in the late 90's I packed a bag, bought a one-way ticket and flew to Cairo, Egypt. I spent most of the next two years overseas vagabonding around and rarely staying in one place more than a couple days. After that and during graduate school I lived in a few different places in the small towns surrounding the University of Massachusetts-Amherst – one summer I played Huck Finn: camped on an island in the Connecticut River. My primary residence is now Denver. 

Education - classroom type

Primary school. I went to preschool in Johnson County, Kansas. Just about the only thing I remember is the time we had a fire drill: everyone ran outside and watched in excitement as the firemen sprayed some water on the roof. During my elementary school days, my family moved around a lot and I attended five different primary schools. My favorite teacher, whose name I've forgotten, was in the second grade; she read us the "little house" books. My favorite book in those years, however, was My Side of the Mountain.

High school. I always considered myself very lucky to have attended the full term at a six-year high school: Lenox Memorial High School in Lenox, Massachusetts. As a seventh grader, you needed to grow up quickly and I liked that. And, it was the second smallest high school in the state so you got a lot of individual attention and I thrived there. I can't imagine life without the grounding I received: especially in art with Nancy Bruno, social sciences with Mary Ann Bachiel and Bob Wiley, and humanities and literature with Jim Hurley. Key discoveries include Goya, Palladio, The Sun Also Rises, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

College. In college, I pursued a classic New England liberal arts education at Keene State College, Keene, New Hampshire. This type of education gave me the chance to take courses in a great variety of subject areas, and I took full advantage: geography, history, literature, art history, design, math, management, economics, education, and a host of 'sciences' - environmental, social, health, earth, computer and physical. Besides giving me a broad-base and big-picture view of life and the world, this experience taught me how to think, learn, adapt, and engage. The most important course was a seminar on the 1930's in the USA: how never-before-seen human progress rose from disaster - and was driven by innovation, creativity, vision, and an openness to true change. The professors I had there have had lifelong impacts on me, in particular: David Leinster, History; Bill Sullivan, American Studies; Tom Havill, Al Rydant, and Klaus Behr, Geography, Anne-Marie Mallon, Literature; Henry Freedman, Art History; and Glenn Theulen, Education/Coaching. They all cared about big and important things and their passion and generosity inspired action and emulation.

Graduate school. Thanks to casting such a wide net in college, I discovered that geography (cultural/human) was the discipline where I could best combine all my interests. To prepare for graduate school I did a lot of research and traveling around to visit programs and interview prospective faculty advisers around the USA and in six foreign countries (Austria, Canada, Norway, Slovenia, Turkey, and Jordan). It was an exciting and interesting search, but in the end, it was an easy choice: I decided to work with Dick Wilkie in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Incredibly, he was in fact the first person I met with at the beginning of the process nearly two years before. A real connection had been made. In time, he chaired both my Master's and PhD committees. We continue, great friends, to collaborate and publish together.

The most important classes I took were Wilkie's "Geographic Theory and Analysis" (grounding in the approaches, histories and development of the discipline),"Spirit of Place" (solidifying a key approach to research and life), and "Visual and Graphic Thinking" (developing crucial tools of analysis and presentation). The single most challenging and boundary-smashing experience was working with Art Keene as a Teaching Assistant and Discussion Leader in Cultural Anthropology, "Culture Thru Film" - I even volunteered for a second semester.

I'd never have made it through without the support of my many people, especially my thesis and dissertation committee members: Julie Graham (Geography) who always insisted on putting things into practice now rather than waiting until later; Elizabeth Petroff (Comparative Literature) who was always so sharp and supportive; and Oriol Pi Sunyer (Anthropology) who took such a personal interest in what I was doing and always knew just the right contextualizing references.

Another pivotal experience was an Assistantship working for the Dean of Students. Besides having the chance to help shape and implement campus policy and practice, I got to know a truly rare personality and intellect: Richard Pioli. Equally important was synergies with fellow graduate students and friends: Alan Marcus, Carlos Saurez, Don Sluter, and Chris Gaffney.

Sporting life - biking, cross country skiing, hiking 

My sporting life has developed along two main tracks: generally living an active outdoor life and as a competitive sports athlete (and also as a coach which is discussed in the professional life section below).

In primary school I tried the usual sports including US American football, wrestling, and baseball. And although I was generally good at them since I was bigger and stronger than most of my cohort, I found them boring, especially baseball. Even as a young person I preferred bike riding, ice skating on the pond in winter, and exploring around the woods on long walks.
Skiing. One of the single most important discoveries of my whole life is cross country skiing. During middle school, high school, and college, membership on the school teams was my main pursuit and constituted my most important social circle – my best friends were also skiers.

The coaches were an usual and eclectic group, to whom I owe much: Coach Swenson (cigar chomping, he ran a stopwatch from the seat of his idling truck); Steve Moore (hippie-type writer, he’d written for Rolling Stone Magazine, performed at Diamond Head in Honolulu, and gave us his original Pink Floyd albums); Jan Weiner (accented Czech with white handlebar mustache, he’d grown up skiing in Bohemia, had escaped the Nazi’s holding on beneath a train, and once stopped on the trail to explain that a couple hot toddies after dinner was among life’s great pleasures); and Dom Sacco (another hippy-type and son of the local judge, he ran his family’s rambling mountain top estate converted to fun-spot with skiing, live rock bands with dancing in the barn and accommodation in cabins and the old manor house). One of my proudest life-moments was when I was awarded the "Coach Ed Gulligan Award" as the top male athlete in my high school graduating class (the first non-basketball player ever awarded).

College coaches Charlie Beach and Hank Lange were equally colorful. Beach had been a trainer with the Chicago White Socks and scandalized and delighted all by lightening things up with a racy film during ski camp and interjecting little bits of wisdom and experience, like during a debate among the team about what sex with a non-white person would be like (we grew up in lily whiteness and skiing is a very white sport), he knowingly announced, “tastes the same..” And Lange, who’d competed in some of the original Ironman Triathlons in Hawaii (widely considered to be the world’s toughest one-day sport events – 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run), he once pushed himself so hard in our fit-test benchmarking that he could hardly walk the following day from sore muscles. My college team competed in the NCAA Division 1 circuit so we had many memorable experiences like the Dartmouth and Middlebury Winter Carnivals, and training and racing in international venues including Labrador City (Canada) and the US Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York. We had lots of funny and unlikely experiences, like one year we'd over spent the budget so we all slept in the garage of an alumni at the end-of-season championships.    

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Working life

Beginnings. It seems like I’ve always worked, and from the beginning most of my working life has been do-it-yourself. My first paid work was picking insect larvae off the shrubbery, for a dollar per bread bag, I was eight years old. And I picked up lots of small jobs around the neighborhood like yard work, cleaning, clearing snow, and baby sitting. My first regular job was at a small guest house in the resort town of Lenox, Massachusetts. I did whatever needed to be done, mostly cleaning (especially vacuuming), weeding the gardens and carrying luggage. At age fourteen I was underage to work legally but no one seemed to mind. I was paid $2.10 per hour, well below the minimum wage, but I was happy to get that job since jobs for young people were very hard to find. I worked at several different small hotels during high school and each was an invaluable learning experience. I worked directly with each of the owners and they were real characters and had a lot of stories to tell which I eagerly digested: Mrs Vesolick, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, she seemed so old but always worked very hard to keep things going in that rambling old house built in 1780, she gave me a Swiss Army knife for Christmas; Max Kowler, an Austrian Jew who’d fled the Nazi’s, first to France and then later to the USA, he was also my German teacher; and Martin Isenberg, a wheeler-dealer, he bought and flipped Bellefontaine to the Zuckerman’s of Canyon Ranch in short order and pocketed some big cash. In college I started working maintenance and grounds for Shakespeare & Company, an acting and educational troupe founded by Tina Packer, whose home was The Mount the former estate of novelist Edith Wharton. By the time I left that “career” I had been exposed to just about every aspect of operating a business and I had worked my way up to marketing and management.

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