This post is contributed by SCARC student archivist Hannah Lawson, a chemistry major with a passion for art, conservation, and preserving history.
Imagine trudging through the mud on a rainy morning, with fifty pounds of supplies tied to your back. Your socks are soaked through, and you’re miles away from any sort of civilization. When Ralph Waldo Emerson described the great outdoors, he surely couldn’t have meant this, you think to yourself. The only respite is your Geology professor, who is leaps and bounds ahead of you, excitedly pointing out igneous rock structures and patterns.
William “Wild Bill” Taubeneck was a faculty member of the Geology Department at Oregon State University from 1955 until 1983, during which time he taught many classes and was in part responsible for building Wilkinson Hall, the home of the Geology Department. Bill received his BS and MS in Geology from Oregon State College and his PhD at Columbia University.
Bill served in the US Army during WWII, and then had several jobs involved in timber and forestry. There, he found his love for the outdoors. During his doctoral program at Colombia University and throughout his academic career, he conducted several field studies of Oregon. Field studies often took place over the course of weeks – during which time Bill would be deep in the Oregon wilderness, mapping out geological formations and taking notes and pictures of what he saw. With his trusty rock hammer, Taubeneck would take samples from the places he studied to store in the Wilkinson Hall basement, which held over 200 of his specimens at one point.
Bill’s field studies were long, hard work. His students often remarked that they would be out taking surveys from dawn until past dusk, using the car headlights to see their way around the dikes in the darkness. Bill was focused on igneous petrology, or the study of the conditions under which volcanic magma form ancient rock structures.
Through his letters and photography of nature and geological formations, it is immediately apparent that William Taubeneck had an immense appreciation for the world around him. He describes weather and wildlife with poetic detail. In a series of letters, Bill describes seasonal wildflowers to his elderly neighbor, Norma, who lived next to Bill Taubeneck for over ten years in Corvallis, “Norma, you would have loved the wildflowers in the Eagle Creek Cap Wilderness Area. All of the rains of May and June have resulted in exceptional flowers. The red mountain heather is especially nice this year. This flower grows very close to the ground, is small, exquisite, and very much like an Arctic flower such as you would see in Greenland. Each small flower in the clusters is about 1/7th the size of your thumbnail, bell-shaped, and red. Generally the plants with the tiny flowers are not more than a few inches above the ground…Buttercups also are extra nice this year. I walked across one small meadow at 8,200 feet with only buttercups – no other flowers.”
Bill had a particular interest in nature and wildlife, though he specialized in geology. Many of his letters and retained subject files contained stories about black bears, elk, and mountain lions. The photographs in his collection tell the quiet stories of his travels; along mountains and lakes, in the snow and through the High Desert of Eastern Oregon. His studies and adventures continued past his time with Oregon State University. After his retirement, “Wild Bill” remained in Oregon, conducting field studies and mapping the wilderness until his death in 2016.
As a professor at Oregon State University, Taubeneck was loved by both his undergraduate and graduate students. He received several awards for his teaching, and devoted most of his extra time towards the needs of the Geology Department. His dedication and passion for geology and the Oregon outdoors is exemplified through the letters and photographs in his collection at the Special Collections and Archives Research Center.