• Dale Sawyer, 2019, EEPS Graduation Reception

Dale at Mont Rochelle in South Africa

Dear EEPS, Alumni and Friends-

We regretfully write to you that Dale Sawyer passed away peacefully on September 15, 2020. We are all devastated by this loss. Dale was truly a kind human being. He was a leader in his science and in the way he inspired everyone around him to be just as kind and generous. He will be remembered for his dedication to mentoring his students, from undergrads to graduate students.

He advised numerous M.S. and Ph.D. students, as well as postdocs, over the years, all of whom have gone on to lead productive careers. For many years, he and Elise served as Magisters of Rice residential colleges, first Will Rice College, and later Sid Richardson College, providing that personal touch of support that has become the signature of the undergraduate experience at Rice. He was so deeply committed to education and outreach that he also started a program to train high school teachers in the Earth sciences.

Even after he retired, requests for his teaching materials continue to come in. Dale remains one of the broadest and most creative geophysicists of our time. After receiving his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982, he became a pioneer in numerical modeling of crustal deformation, making important contributions to how continents break apart. He was a world expert in the oceanic acquisition and interpretation of active source seismic profiles. Because of his expertise and his calm leadership skills, he was widely sought to lead these oceanic expeditions. In the decade before he retired, he became chief scientist of an expedition to map the subsurface structure of the Galicia margin, an amagmatic spreading center. This remarkable dataset became the research foundation for many graduate students at Rice and beyond, and has led to fundamental new insights into the complex interplay between rifting and serpentinization.

We are truly saddened by Dale’s departure. It is too soon, but we know he lived a wonderful life, enriching the lives of so many of us. Please stay tuned for more information about a future memorial. Also we encourage you to share your fond impressions and recollections of Dale in the comments below.

Yours truly,

Cin-Ty Lee & Julia Morgan

42 replies
  1. Matthew Prudhomme
    Matthew Prudhomme says:

    Very saddened to hear this. Dale was a great teacher, but an even better person. I’m sure that his commitment to the job and people will result in a large outpouring of funny stories, positive impacts, and words of wisdom. I hope that those words will provide solace to the family and motivate us to emulate those qualities that made Dale so inspirational.

  2. Brandon Burke
    Brandon Burke says:

    Dale was the most wonderful advisor and geophysical professor. His patience and methodical approach to his lessons showed his dedication to his students. He always made those around him feel special. I’ll always appreciate Dale, and I am sorry to hear of his passing.

  3. Cheryl Geels
    Cheryl Geels says:

    Elise, Laura, Matt, This news leaves me heartbroken. Dale was so dear to me and to Dennis. I will always be grateful for the support and guidance (and his ever-present gentle sense of humor) that he gave us as we were growing into adulthood. He was pure kindness. Your family will be in my thoughts, and Dennis and I send you all our love.

  4. Jordan P. Smith
    Jordan P. Smith says:

    Dr. Sawyer was one of the kindest, most empathetic, and sincerely caring professors I ever had the privilege of learning from. He left such a positive impact on not just EEPS but on the residential college system and student life at Rice in general. He will be greatly missed.

  5. Zelun Wang
    Zelun Wang says:

    Dear Elise,
    I am so sorry for your loss. You and Dale helped make Sid feel like home when I first came to Rice. It wouldn’t have been the same without your kindness and hospitality. Dave will be sorely missed. My thoughts are with you and your family

  6. Audrey Sawyer
    Audrey Sawyer says:

    Dale made a big impact on the students around him, including me. He was the professor who encouraged me to study abroad. Because of his encouragement, I had a rich experience that shaped who I am as a scientist and person. Dale will be missed.

  7. Rebecca Tuuri
    Rebecca Tuuri says:

    I’m so sorry to hear of Dale’s passing. He was an incredibly kind and supportive Will Rice “master” during my time there. He always seemed so genuinely interested in everyone’s wellbeing. I have no idea how he was able to do so much for so many students, but his smile was contagious and his love expansive. My thoughts are with you Elise, Laura, and Matt.

  8. Letty Trevino
    Letty Trevino says:

    My thoughts and prayers go with you. I honestly cannot picture a Rice without Dale and having the both of you as college masters made me feel so loved and supported. I’ll always remember Dale’s nerdy humor.
    Sending you lots of love and hugs to you and your family.
    All my love,

  9. Gary Linkevich
    Gary Linkevich says:

    Dale was my first advisor at Rice, and was one of the kindest, most patient, and encouraging people I have ever met. Though he accomplished much in his life, and guided many, the end of his journey is a great loss – to the Rice community, to the geophysics community, and above all to his loved ones. He will be deeply missed, and fondly remembered.

  10. Elizabeth Gillis
    Elizabeth Gillis says:

    Dear Elise, I am so sorry for your loss. You and Dale were wonderful with students and always made them feel welcome and at home. He will certainly be missed. I am sending my best thoughts, wishes and love to you and your family.

  11. James Allan
    James Allan says:

    I am terribly saddened to learn of this loss. Dale was both a wonderful guy and a remarkable scientist. I am so grateful to have known him and worked with him in ocean drilling.

  12. Jim Holik
    Jim Holik says:

    Dale was one of my heroes while I was a student and later in my professional life I actually got to know him. A kind wonderful man who really cared about Rice University enough to chaperone a house of college students. Can’t even imagine. He will be missed.

  13. Hunter Lockhart
    Hunter Lockhart says:

    I had the privilege to study under Dale during my time at Rice. He was a remarkably gifted scientist and genuinely kind in every situation. He profoundly impacted my life in a positive way, and for that I am grateful. He will be missed.

  14. Paul Mann
    Paul Mann says:

    I have known Dale since the early 80s when he was at UTIG. We were roommates on the Ewing for a month in the early 2000s.
    He was always considerate, helpful, encouraging – along with being a great scientist and teacher. A life well-lived.

  15. Alan Levander
    Alan Levander says:

    Dale was an excellent scientist who brought an unusually broad perspective to his research, a dedicated educator, a valuable colleague, and an important member of the Rice community. He contributed to the growth of the geophysics program at Rice when it was in its infancy, and he was instrumental in establishing the Rice Professional Masters program in Subsurface Geoscience. He was a popular advisor to his graduate students, devoting much of his time to their growth as scientists. He had many outside interests; among other things he was a Boy Scout troop leader, and a scuba diver. Overall, he was one of the most well-rounded people that I have known.

  16. Alma Moon Novotny
    Alma Moon Novotny says:

    Dale will always have my deepest gratitude for showing me how to advise students during my first O Week as a divisional advisor. This is just one more way that his contributions will pay it forward indefinitely.

  17. Xin Cheng
    Xin Cheng says:

    Very saddened to hear the news. Caring and empathetic, Dale has the kindest heart and had always been loved by all the students around him. He will be greatly missed.

  18. Hannah Campbell
    Hannah Campbell says:

    Dale was my undergraduate academic advisor before I had any interest in geology. I thought I wanted to go into medicine. But I was lured in by the national parks and Dr. Sawyer guided me through a late start in the degree. He and Elise provided so much support at WRC and have always been so kind and open throughout the decades. They were and are family. This is a great loss. Love you, Elise. I’m so glad we got that last bit of time with him in October. He was a generous and savvy advisor and helped me to find my passion in environmental policy. You will be missed, Dr. Sawyer.

  19. Cin-Ty Lee
    Cin-Ty Lee says:

    From Steve Holbrook:

    I am so sorry to hear this. Dale was a gentle soul, an incisive thinker, a generous spirit, and a caring mentor. He spent a week at my house on Cape Cod back in the day, as we worked on a paper together. He had a great laugh that would light up the room. RIP Dale.

  20. Jack Neal
    Jack Neal says:

    So sad to hear of the Dale’s passing. His standing as a scientific leader and innovator was only exceeded by his kindness and generosity. I will always remember his welcoming nature, intellectual curiosity and brilliant insight. His quick smile and easy laugh will be missed as much as his thought-provoking questions and deep understanding of geophysics. Rest in peace.

  21. Davin Wallace
    Davin Wallace says:

    I was terribly saddened to hear this news. Dale was a brilliant scientist, passionate educator, wonderful mentor to his students, and a person everyone always wanted to be around. I came to know Dale well through his work with teacher outreach classes at Rice. Among the many things Dale did, he cared deeply about the role Rice played in the broader community. For many years, he lead an effort which brought K-12 educators from all around the Houston area to Rice to learn about Earth Science, and I had the pleasure of working with him on this. Dale will be greatly missed, and his loss leaves a tremendous void.

  22. Mike Coffin
    Mike Coffin says:

    Vale Dale. My sincere condolences to Elise, Laura, Matt, the rest of the family, and friends on his premature demise. Working with Dale on scientific ocean drilling and the MARGINS program, including co-chairing the 2006 IODP-InterMARGINS workshop on Continental Breakup and Sedimentary Basin Formation in Pontresina, Switzerland, was always pleasurable and rewarding – he was the epitome of bonhomie.

  23. Donna Shillington
    Donna Shillington says:

    Dale Sawyer was an excellent scientist and a very kind soul. I had the great fortune to sail with him on two marine expeditions ~10 years apart on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Both programs had their challenges (like all cruises!), and I was deeply impressed by Dale’s calm and steady leadership and his unwaveringly positive outlook. He will be greatly missed.

  24. Betty Ridley Gosse
    Betty Ridley Gosse says:

    I am so sorry to hear about Dale’s passing. I enjoyed so much knowing and working with you both while I was a Community Associate at Rice. I retired from that position last year.
    Thinking of you and your family . Sincerely Betty Gosse

  25. Arlon Scott Crosthwait
    Arlon Scott Crosthwait says:

    I’m so saddened to hear of Dale’s passing. I will never forget y’all’s encouragement and support during a tough time in my life. I hope I can return some of it now. Y’all changed my life for the better, and I hope that is some comfort now in your grief. Love to you all,

  26. Tim MInshull
    Tim MInshull says:

    This is sad news indeed. As well as an excellent scientist, Dale was a great host and good company. We were lucky to have him in Southampton for a sabbatical year and as well as the scientific discussions, I recall particularly the efforts he made to get to know PhD students and postdocs. He will be missed around the world.

  27. Dagmar Beck
    Dagmar Beck says:

    My deepest condolences to Elise and the rest of the family. Back in 2001, Dale worked with faculty and industry representatives to develop and implement the Subsurface Geoscience program and was such an amazing advisor and mentor to our students. I enjoyed working with him over the years. He was not only a great colleague but also became a wonderful friend, always there to tackle problems and issues calmly and with a great sense of humor.

  28. Fuchun Gao
    Fuchun Gao says:

    Very sad to hear this. Dale was a great teacher, knowledgeable, passionate and kind. I took his data processing class where he created a warm learning environment. During the lab time, he would spend time with each of us in front of a computer to look at the workflows with great patience, and to answer questions we had with inspiring words. Dale will be missed and remembered!

  29. Kathy Matthews
    Kathy Matthews says:

    As indicated by all of the comments, Dale was a multi-dimensional, kind, generous, and reflective person. His scientific accomplishments were matched by his engagement with students at all levels as well as his warm interactions with colleagues and friends. Teaching a “foundation course” with Dale and John Hutchinson over two decades ago was both informative and fun. His absence creates a “hole” in the universe that will continue to remind us of what he has meant to each of us. Wishing his family peace, Kathy Matthews

  30. Mark Gordon
    Mark Gordon says:

    I have known Dale since the 1980s. He was a research scientist when I was a graduate student. Then, we were both at Rice when I was a postdoc. He was a great guy. I knew his graduate students well and he was obviously a great advisor for them. I always enjoyed being around Dale. He shared great insights about geodynamics. He will certainly be missed. Condolences to his family and the Rice community.

  31. Richard Davy
    Richard Davy says:

    I had the pleasure of work with Dale on the Galicia-3D project and was touched by his care for students and early career researchers. When he visited Southampton he hosted a dinner at his accommodation for just the PhD students and postdocs within the Galicia-3D group so that he could get to know us. He showed such genuine interest in both our research interests and personal passions. He will be missed!

  32. Steve Cox
    Steve Cox says:

    Dear Elise, Laura, & Matt,
    Dale’s quiet, patient, yet confident and resolute, manner was the model that Laura and I learned and tried to follow in our adventure with y’all as College Magisters. I am sorry that we can not be together to honor and celebrate Dale’s profound influence.
    Love, Steve & Laura Cox

  33. Ken Abdulah
    Ken Abdulah says:

    I was extremely fortunate to have had Dale as a member of my thesis committee. His insight and approach to problem solving and data analysis in general was eye opening. We have lost a tremendous teacher, researcher and a truly kind individual. He will certainly be missed by us all.!

  34. Christine Houser
    Christine Houser says:

    Dale was my geology undergrad advisor and research advisor working on Galicia crust-mantle reflectors. I came to Rice as a teenage mother from a poor, rural community. I was not familiar with academia, but I wanted to study the Earth and go to grad school. Dale was supportive at every turn, sparking my interest in geophysics, fielding my naive questions, inviting me into his research group, giving me the skills and encouragement to work part time to support my family, giving useful advice on getting into grad school, seeding my passion to study the mantle using seismology, and taking me to my first AGU meeting. I certainly appreciated it all at that time, but now that I have heard so many advisor stories from the shocking to the indifferent, I realize just how lucky I was, how lucky we all were to enter academia in such a supportive environment. With his loss, I hope those of us who benefitted from his mentorship can re-double our efforts to make science a more inclusive and joyful experience for all.

  35. Nicholas Hanson-Holtry
    Nicholas Hanson-Holtry says:

    Elise — my deepest condolences. You and Dale were my Magisters at Sid, and I so enjoyed spending time with you both. I will cherish my memories from undergrad forever, and thank you both so much. You and your family are in my thoughts 🙂 -Nick

  36. David Sanford Lewis
    David Sanford Lewis says:

    My deepest condolences to Elise and the rest of the family. I knew Dale as an encouraging and engaging young professor when I was an undergraduate. Later, I would run into him at conferences around the world; and he was always smiling and eager to talk, whether about his latest research, my work, or his beloved Rice University. Both Rice and the scientific community have suffered a great loss.

  37. Cora McKenzie
    Cora McKenzie says:

    Elise—I am so sorry for your loss. I remember feeling so at home when I met you and Dale at Sid O-Week back in 2012. Your kindness and warmth as magisters made me feel like family, as I’m certain it did for many others. I wish I could be there now to give you as much comfort as you and Dale gave us. For now, know that you and your family are in my thoughts, and I’m sending virtual hugs.

  38. Dennis Harry
    Dennis Harry says:

    I’ve struggled with what to post, as I suppose so many others have. Dale was my post-doc adviser, and I have often marveled at how fortunate I was to begin my career with that relationship. Dale always inspired with his enthusiasm, and enlightened with his unique ability explain geodynamic processes in accessible and memorable ways. I suppose all of his students learned that it takes 3 km of dirt to fill a 1 km hole. But Dale’s intellect and ability to communicate barely begin to describe him. He was a remarkably kind and caring human being, who never seemed to lose interest in the welfare of those who passed through his life. I last saw him several years ago at an AGU meeting. As was always the case when we chatted at meetings, he first caught me up on his latest work but soon drifted into telling me about the students in his life at the time and the highlights of what was happening with his family. And as he usually did, he asked about my own students and family. Dale’s interest in the welfare of others ran deep.

    This is a longish post, but I promised Juli I would tell a story from our Ocean Drilling Program days. Dale was Co-Chief on ODP Leg 149. Juli and I were two of the four members of the team of scientists charged with measuring the physical properties of the samples recovered during drilling. The procedure required the various science teams to compile their findings for each drillhole in a written report, and the Co-Chiefs compiled those into what became a chapter in the Leg 149 volume of the ODP Proceedings. This would be a good time for everyone to remember your first 9th grade English Composition paper. Remember how the teacher seemed to find grammar infractions from a rule book you had never heard of? ODP made that rule book. And the poor Co-Chiefs were charged with enforcing the ODP way. Yes, Dale was actually an enforcer. Wrap your head around that (in practice, he was more of a convincer than an enforcer). Anyhow, as we were working our 12-hour shifts we would get our reports back with “corrections” from the Co-Chiefs scribbled in the margins (this was during neolithic time, when editors used things called “pens”). At the risk of being accused of defensiveness, I want to point out that core comes up fast when you are drilling. And the science teams work hard 12-hour shifts, trying to do the writing afterward. We got a bit tired, and possibly were becoming a bit grumpy. And then we found a pen.

    A purple pen. Dale’s comments on our perfect manuscript were written in blue pen, if I recall correctly. The other Co-chief used a red pen, and the ODP Chief Scientist (also a reviewer) used a green pen. We (the Physical Properties team) did what people of graduate student to post-doc age do when working 12 hour shifts. We edited the edits with our purple pen. And since no one pays attention to punctuation or grammar when writing editorial comments in the margin of a paper, we had a rich target environment. At the time it was hilarious. And not entirely polite. We finished blowing off steam, made the requested changes and submitted the revised document, threw our edited document in a drawer, and went back to work. Only to discover during the next shift that Dale had retrieved the edited document, which now included all of our snarky purple pen comments (which, like a Steve Martin movie, didn’t seem as funny the next day)! The Co-Chiefs had decided to change procedure, and now wanted their commented version of the document back along with the revised version. Horrors! We didn’t actually want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Especially anyone that we might need a Letter of Recommendation from. Our team of Physical Scientists made a quick and almost unanimous decision, and sent Juli to deal with it. Which means I only have this part second hand. I understand that Dale had (thank Poseidon) not yet shared the document with the other Editor’s, as he was still trying to figure out (as he phrased it to Juli): “who’s the purple pen?”. Fantastic Dale. He greatly enjoyed the humor and told the other editor’s that the document had been thrown out. As so many others have written, I will miss him greatly.

    A final note. There is some disagreement among the Leg 149 crew as to exactly who uttered the (to us famous) phrase “who’s the purple pen?” and exactly how Dale executed the save. Time takes its toll on memories. But we agree that in typical fashion, Dale managed to preemptively defuse a stink bomb before feelings were hurt and still greatly enjoy the laugh. Perhaps others can further illuminate.

  39. John Casey
    John Casey says:

    I am very sorry to recently hear about Dale’s passing. I had a chance to work with Dale on “opening of the Atlantic” research and we would converse often about joint Rice-UH seminars, which he initiated and spearheaded. He was simply a caring wonderful person, and an excellent scientist who tackled big problems in geophysics. His work with young scientists and Rice undergraduates was huge part of his focus. He will be missed. My condolences to his family and friends.


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