I was born in 1948 in La Porte, Texas, which makes me a bona fide “Baby Boomer”. Dad met Mom while he was stationed in Texas during WWII as a flight engineer on B-29’s for the USAAF. After the war he worked as maintenance supervisor for DuPont, first in Baytown, Texas and then in Cleveland, Ohio, which is where I spent my formative years. I am the oldest of six children (five boys and a girl) and on my Dad’s side I am the seventh generation in America.
Like most of you my road to “geologist” was not predetermined, and like you I experienced pivotal moments when “The Road Not Taken” (think Robert Frost) made all the difference. One of my forks in the road came in tenth grade. My earth science teacher, James Pike, proved to be the mentor that “made all the difference”. A field trip to the cement quarries near Sylvania, Ohio and the collection of my first Phacops Rana trilobite turned on the light! Gradually I became intrigued by the idea that an exploration geologist could discover an economic mineral deposit and create new wealth where none was known to exist. Then I found out that if you were good in math, there was something called geological engineering and they made more money than geologists. Creating new wealth for me became the focus!
A recommendation from a chemical engineer at DuPont to attend his alma mater put me on the road to Michigan Technological University. I had summer jobs at Kennecott’s Chino mine in New Mexico and with Midwest Oil at the Ima mine in Idaho. I also participated in the SME Student Chapter field trip that toured mines in Wyoming (Lucky Mac), Utah (Mayflower, Bingham), Nevada (Carlin, Ruth), and Colorado (Climax). “Go West Young Man” became my mantra. Little did I know that I would have to do penance in the swamps of the upper Midwest before I could reach that destination.
We all know that the minerals business is cyclic. When I graduated from MTU in 1971 my job offer suffered a fatal blow at the hands of a decline in copper prices followed by a hiring freeze. So I enrolled in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. During those years a series of temporary positions with Texasgulf, Noranda, and Exxon landed me in the swamps chasing Precambrian massive sulfide deposits. But the lure of the West continued to beckon so I headed out for Tucson and the wide-open spaces. I landed a job with Quintana working with the development crew on the Copper Flat project in Hillsboro, New Mexico (with a side assignment on a drilling project at Radersburg, Montana). I was happy and free, but I missed my girlfriend Christine back in Duluth. This time it was not so much a fork in the road as a fork in the swamp.
I managed to find a temporary position with Kerr-McGee in Marquette, Michigan in 1978 (back to the UP!) looking for high grade Precambrian uranium. The Canadians had been successful with sampling the bottom mud of glacial lakes, so this time I was flying high over the swamps in a helicopter. Whoo-hoo! Later that year I decided to marry Christine. Uh-oh! No more happy-go-lucky lifestyle for me. Got to get a real job! Fortunately, the Kerr- McGee position became permanent. Then along came something called Three Mile Island and suddenly the rush to uranium became the retreat from Moscow. But have no fear! Geochemical sampling can be used for all types of metals, so off came the uranium hat and on went the massive sulfide/gold hat. And with that I began my career as an armchair geophysicist (more slogging through the swamps carrying magnetometers and horizontal loop EM systems ensued). I really began to embrace the winter since you could stay out of the water (mostly) when you were on snowshoes. Eventually K-M closed the Marquette office and moved everyone to Duluth so we could be even closer to the swamps.
Then came that time when the oil companies deserted the metal exploration game like lemmings over a cliff. K-M closed the Duluth office and opened Custer’s Last Gold Stand in 1988 in Reno, Nevada. Finally, after nearly 20 years of wandering in the swamps the road led to the Golden West! But by then the good ship K-M was taking on water and it sank soon thereafter. What to do? Some were retreading themselves as environmental-types. Not me! I was determined to go back to the Mackay School of Mines for a mining engineering degree so I could get that job in a mine that had eluded me so long ago. But then came yet another fork in the road.
I had a friend in Reno that owned a pumice mine near Tulelake, California. And so it was that I made my next career move to pumice peddler. I went from science to sales. Now I think everyone should be salesperson at some time in their life, if nothing else to learn how to deal with rejection. But working for a small family-owned company after a multi-billion dollar oil company took some, shall we say “adjustments”. However, it did afford me the opportunity to go to night school at the University of Nevada and five years later I received a newly minted Master’s in Business Administration.
I began looking for “other career opportunities” and one Sunday in the Reno paper I spotted a small want ad headlined “Administrator of the Nevada Division of Minerals”. I eventually got the job and ultimately found out it is the best job in Nevada. I was a state employee, but my bosses (the Nevada Commission on Mineral Resources) were all members of the minerals industry. My responsibilities ranged from abandoned mine lands, to oil and gas production, to geothermal development, and the state reclamation bond pool. I got to know many of the mine managers in Nevada. I interacted with legislators and regulators at the state and federal level. I attended meetings of the Western Governors Association and the National Governors Association. I worked with the USACE and I represented Nevada on the IOGCC and the IMCC. I initiated the NDOM AML student intern program that provided valuable work experience and financial help to many of our Mackay undergraduates. It was a wonderful 15 years but at 65 it was time to make more room for personal interests.
I continue to do some consulting to the minerals industry, serve on the Executive Board of the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering, and participate in the Miner’s Academy at Bishop Manogue HS. I have formed a partnership with my brother and we own some private property near Winnemucca that is prospective for placer gold so I can hone my metal detecting skills. I am this year’s (2016-17) President of the GSN and I truly value the many friendships that membership in GSN has brought me over the years.
Christine and I are especially proud of our two children, Rachel (civil engineer) and David (music educator), and we believe the only truly lasting legacy we can leave is their success.
John Winton Erwin*
Erin L. Hart
Greg T. Hill
Joseph Kizis, Jr
Brooke J Miller
Justin and Ajeet Milliard
Mia (Cowgill) O'Neal
Shea Clark Smith
Roger C Steininger