One of the dangerous privileges of working at a place like Wofford is getting to write and talk about people I’ve never met. It’s relatively safe to write about campus characters of several generations ago, since very few people are around who knew them and who can correct my errors. It is a whole lot more risky to write about people who others on campus still remember.
One of the many professors whose legacy is still felt on campus was Dr. John W. Harrington, who was professor of geology and department chair from 1963 until 1981, and then professor emeritus until his death in April 1986. Born in Illinois and raised in Richmond, Virginia, Dr. Harrington attended Virginia Tech, where he majored in mining engineering. After taking his MA and PhD in geology at the University of North Carolina in 1946 and 1948, respectively, he moved to Texas, where he was a geology professor at Southern Methodist University from 1949 to 1956. While in Texas, he was a consultant to several oil companies, where he focused on petroleum exploration on a regional wildcatting basis.
So how did a mining engineer-wildcat oil consultant geologist wind up chairing the geology department at a liberal arts college? Dr. Harrington later recounted that he wanted more than to teach his students at SMU (most of whom probably wanted to be oil geologists) more than to be good technicians and engineers. He tried to teach them ways to think about science. This led, he reported, to a rebellion in his classes. He resigned, choosing to go into industry. The story goes that in 1963, he was on a plane with Dean Philip Covington, and soon found himself recruited to come to Wofford, where he could teach geology in a different way.
Almost all of Dr. Harrington’s geology labs were conducted in the field. He took students to the Tennessee mountains, the South Carolina coast, and everywhere in between, showing them “the literature of geology in the language in which it is written – the rocks, the streams, the shores, and the landforms.” His Interims were also 4-week investigations into local and regional geology.
Dr. Harrington wrote for the scientist and the literate generalist. His book To See a World takes its title from a poem by William Blake: “To see a world in a grain of sand, and a Heaven in a wildflower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an Hour.” The book begins with a preface about understanding science, and each chapter explores some principle about science, geology, the history of geology, and combining all of these principles. One of his chapter on historical geology was called “The wasness of the is.”
Another of his books, Dance of the Continents, is written around Harrington’s first law of science, which his editor told him to make up as a way of organizing the book. The law is “Nature is scrutable when everything is seen in context.” He sets out to build that context.
It is a great gift to students and alumni when a professor is not only a specialist in a discipline, but can also place that work in a greater context. “Doc Rock,” as students called him affectionately, did not simply teach the students how to identify different kinds of minerals, he taught them a way of looking at the world around them and understanding it. And that’s the true gift of a teacher.