In Memoriam: Kenneth L White
Kenneth White, a soils geographer and fluvial geomorphologist, who spent many years at Texas A&M University and the Australian National University, passed away on February 15, 2016, at the age of 75.
Kenneth L. White, known to friends as “Kenny,” was born on October 15, 1940, in Chicago. In 1962, while working at Baxter Laboratories, he met Naomi Ellen Fletcher, who was attracted to his sense of humor, and they married in Ingleside, Illinois, the following year. By that time, White was serving in the Air Force and they immediately moved to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.
The next move was to southern California where White studied and taught at California State College at Fullerton then in the Soils Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside. He received a doctorate from there in 1976 and was immediately recruited as assistant professor in the Department of Geography at Texas A&M University. The head of department, Campbell White Pennington, was making a series of hiring decisions to broaden the scope of the department’s narrow cultural focus and White was brought in as a geomorphologist to strengthen the physical geography program.
White and his other new colleagues were tasked with raising undergraduate enrollments in their respective courses, White’s being Physical Geography and Thematic Cartography. These courses were taught every semester and enrollment began to grow. With his enthusiasm for soil science, students affectionately called him “Dr. Dirt.”
In the late 1970s White was tasked with developing new courses in remote sensing. He was also involved in the expanding graduate program in the department. He taught an introductory graduate class on Processes in Physical Geography and, with human geography colleague Peter Hugill, revived a graduate class in Field Geography. In the first year they took students to Arkansas but were ordered to stop spending money on trips to exotic, ‘foreign’ locations so they subsequently changed the destination to Junction, Texas!
White’s primary research interests were soil geography and fluvial geomorphology. He was particularly concerned with the micromorphology and mineralogy of soils, anaylzing their characteristics using scanning electron microscopy. He also conducted research on geomorphic landforms and landscape sculpturing processes, particularly in riverine environments. Many of his field studies were carried out in southern California and Texas. White was also an enthusiastic adopter of remote sensing, digital image processing, and GIS. Among his publications is a 1993 paper on using GIS as an educational tool.
In 1986, White moved across full-time to the Department of Geology at Texas A&M University. During that time, his research also took him to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he lived for a year.
In 1991 he was awarded a Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship. He spent the first three months in Bangladesh affiliated with the Department of Geology at the University of Dhaka. Unfortunately political unrest caused his stay in Dhaka to be shortened so he finished his scholarship in Australia at the University of Wollongong where he was based in the Department of Geography but also associated with the Faculty of Engineering.
White took to Australia a computer-based Image Processing and Geographical Information System with which to do collaborative research with faculty members and graduate students. His research aimed to identify and mitigate against natural hazards along the eastern Australia coastal strip. This involved a variety of data sources including satellite data obtained from an altitude of 500 miles, published topographic sheets at a scale of 1:25000, specific site engineering data, and other sources. He also spent time looking at fluvial chronologies, the process of fluvial avulsion, and the engineering geology problems of the east coast of Australia.
White and his wife subsequently moved more permanently to Australia and he taught at the Australian National University in Canberra for a number of years. They remained in Australia after retirement until 2003 when they decided to move back to the United States to be closer to their only granddaughter. They made their home in Mountain View, Arkansas, where they volunteered for many years at the Ozark Folk Center.
White was a member of the American Association of Geographers from 1970 to 2004. He was also a certified professional photogrammetrist and member of the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, including serving as president of the Texas-Louisiana Region. In addition, he was a member of the Soil Science Society of America, the Association of Engineering Geologists, Gamma Theta Epsilon, and Sigma Xi.
After his wife’s death in 2014, White moved to Hot Springs Village, Arkansas, where he pursued his hobbies of woodwork, fishing and historic muzzle-loading firearms by joining clubs within the community. He was also involved in Christ Lutheran Church. However, his interest in topography and geoscience never diminished. A few weeks before his death, he took his family to Costa Rica where he insisted on wading into the sea so that he could climb into a fishing boat for a trip beyond the reefs.
In addition to his wife, White was preceded in death by their second daughter, Johanna Sue. He is survived by his sister, Darlene, his two children, Heidi and Kenneth Jr., and his cherished granddaughter, Kelsea Ann.