Rice mourns geophysicist, former college magister Dale Sawyer

Rice geophysicist Dale Sawyer, a respected scientist, dedicated educator and former magister of Will Rice and Sid Richardson colleges, died peacefully Sept. 15 after a long illness. He was 65.

Sawyer, professor emeritus of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences, joined Rice in 1988 and retired this year. He was well-known and esteemed around the world for his scientific leadership in marine geophysics, particularly his work on the origins of continental margins, and colleagues recalled he was beloved at Rice for his spirit, good humor and dedication to students and scholarship.

He and his wife, Elise, served as magisters of Will Rice from 1997-2002 and Sid Rich from 2009-2014.

“Dale was one of the kindest, most generous and caring people in the world, welcoming everyone with an enormous smile — and a bear hug if you were lucky,” said longtime research collaborator Julia Morgan, professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences. “And so eager to hear about your life, before he shared his own. He will be sorely missed by all.”

Sawyer was born in St. Louis, Missouri, traveled the world as a child and graduated from the International School of Bangkok before earning his bachelor’s degree in Earth science from Purdue University in 1976 and his doctorate in marine geophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982.

He was a pioneer in the numerical modeling of crustal deformation and an expert in the acquisition and interpretation of active source seismic profiles. He frequently went to sea to collect seismic data aboard research ships, and because of his calm leadership skills and expertise he was tapped to serve as either chief scientist or co-chief scientist on half of the shipboard expeditions in which he participated.

“He ran research cruises from Chile to Iberia and elsewhere,” Morgan said. “His research changed our understanding of how continents evolve and also launched numerous students and colleagues on productive career paths.”

During their time as college magisters, he and Elise helped support more than 1,000 Rice undergraduates, and Morgan said Dale “was like a proud parent to every student in the college, excited about their interests and activities, saddened by their trials, and always there for them.”

After a fireworks celebration for the matriculation of Rice’s 100th class of freshmen in 2011, Sawyer, then magister at Sid Rich, told the Rice News, “It’s wonderful. At this point, all we see is their faces, and we have no idea what they’re going to be a year from now or four years from now. It’s just amazing to watch them grow and do things that they’re going to be proud of for the rest of their lives.”

Sawyer’s family said some of his favorite times at Rice were spent cheering the Sid Rich women to a powder puff football championship and the Will Rice Beer Bike team to a sweep, as well as helping to grow student-run theater. He also advised and mentored countless graduate students and postdocs and helped found the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences’ professional master’s program.

Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman said, “Dale was a wonderful mentor to Rice students outside of the classroom. He had a big smile and wonderful laugh, and he cared deeply about students, their experiences at Rice and their development as scholars and citizens of the world. His passing is a true loss to our community.”

Sawyer’s teaching didn’t stop at Rice’s hedges. He spoke to grade school classes, worked with his students to create an introductory Earth sciences curriculum for middle and high school students that is still in use, and was frequently interviewed by news reporters seeking comment about the geological causes of earthquakes, tsunamis and other seismic events. In partnership with current and former students, Sawyer also co-taught continuing education courses for Houston-area high school science teachers that used ground-penetrating radar to locate graves in former slave cemeteries.

An Eagle Scout, Sawyer was also passionate about mentoring young people through the Boy Scouts of America. He was a Vigil Honor member of the Order of the Arrow, and though he served in many roles at the Sam Houston Area Council, he was most proud of helping to lead National Youth Leadership Training, a program that allowed him to mentor and coach hundreds of young men.

Sawyer’s travels took him to every continent, but Morgan said his heart was always at Rice.

“Rice University was always foremost in his mind: It was his life,” Morgan said. “There are few people I know who had so much loyalty and commitment to the university, to the department and most of all to the undergraduates who crossed his path.”

Sawyer was named outstanding faculty associate at Will Rice College from 1990-1997, was a distinguished alumnus of the Purdue Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and was a member of the American Geophysical Union, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Sigma Xi.

Sawyer was preceded in death by his daughter Kate and his father William. He is survived by Elise, his wife of 43 years; daughter Laura ’05, Sid Rich, and her wife Charnel de Villiers; son Matt ’12, Sid Rich, and his wife Kimberly Sawyer; mother Jane Ann Sawyer; sister Carole Bolin and numerous nieces and nephews.


In lieu of customary remembrances, the family requests that memorial gifts be made to the Sawyer New Student Award at Will Rice College or to the Houston Aphasia Recovery Center (HARC): Dale Sawyer Memorial Fund. Gifts to Rice may be made online at giving.rice.edu​ or mailed to Rice University, Office of Development MS-81, 6100 Main Street, Houston, TX, 77025. Gifts to HARC may be made online at ​www.harctx.org ​or mailed to 5005 Woodway Drive, Suite 110, Houston, TX, 77056.

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University’s Office of Public Affairs.

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