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Vince Ebert's inquiring mind

Professor's contagious curiosity about natural world inspires generations of students

BY DIANE ZWIRECKI

Charles H.V. (Vince) Ebert's desk occupies a rather small office tucked into a scenic corner of Wilkeson Quad on the Amherst (North) Campus of UB. It takes a while for the first-time visitor to find it late on a Friday afternoon in June, but the search is well worth it. An hour spent with the distinguished teaching professor of geography and former dean of undergraduate studies reveals his strong personality, his passion for teaching and his contagious curiosity about the world and its natural and social workings.

Ebert was the founder of UB's Department of Geography in 1963 and its chair until 1970, when he became dean. Even with his various administrative duties, he has always carried a full course load, with class sizes ranging from 10 to 500 students. Up to 450 students at a time have packed Ebert's lectures at Diefendorf on the South Campus and later Knox Lecture Hall on the North Campus. Many a UB grad is quick to recall the way in which he touched their lives. Not surprisingly, he has received numerous honors for his teaching.

"He has always been a very vibrant teacher and person," recalls Margaret Drury, who earned her undergraduate degree in geography in 1973 under Ebert's auspices. "He obviously holds his students very close to his heart. He's always been so approachable, and as his student, you never felt any question was too dumb. Dr. Ebert made everyone want to learn a lot."

During the course of his career, Ebert has traveled to the former Soviet Union, where he studied ecological deterioration and irrigation in the Uzbek Republic; China, where he helped develop the department of geography at the University of Beijing; and his favorite South American nation, Peru, where he lived among the Yagua Indians and researched the relationship between soil and nutrition.

He has hiked mountains and scaled volcanoes in Guatemala and the Icelandic island of Heimay. ("Volcanoes are great, wonderful!" he interjects into a colorful description of his global jaunts. "They speak their own language.") This spring, he spent three weeks in Japan at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, giving lectures and seminars to graduate students. More than 35,000 of his own slides chronicle Ebert's travels.

His interest in learning began at an early age.

"I was chronically nosy," he says. "I always wanted to find out what was on the other side of the mountain."

Born in 1924 in Germany to American parents, Ebert traveled widely as a child with his father, an export manager. "Whenever I had good marks, he took me on trips," he recalls. This gave him a cosmopolitan background and most likely helped him to become a master of languages. He speaks German, French, Spanish and Russian, as well as English.

After serving in the U.S. Army for four years during World War II, Ebert studied at the University of North Carolina, where he earned his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in geography and geology.

"I was initially interested in journalism and I also loved languages," he says. After one semester as a German major at UNC he switched his field of interest to geology and physical geography-the beginning of a lifelong calling.

Ebert's interests and hobbies are many, including photography and rock climbing as well as languages. But his first loves are nature, soil, and natural and man-made disasters. In 1988, he published a textbook, Disasters: Violence of Nature and Threats by Man. He is currently working on the third edition.

Tracing his career as it led to his area of specialization, Ebert states that, "I'm not a narrow person, but if I had to pinpoint, my main interest would be soils. But instead of teaching rock and soil classification, I became interested in their environmental impact. I was ahead of my time in the 1950s.

"In the '60s and '70s, I became more sensitized to connecting the social aspects and the natural aspects of science," he continues. "Here at UB, I developed a course on disasters. Not only was there a tremendous response, but it became my bread-and-butter course."

The central theme to all his activity is the integration between man and nature.

"I believe there are many aspects not clearly cut in terms of being man-made or natural," he states. "I like the integrated, systems approach to learning."

It's an approach that is evident throughout his textbook and his courses. A predominant Charles Ebert theme is that a discussion of natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes and floods is incomplete without addressing man-made disasters, like war. Aside from Disasters, no other text integrates war into an overall approach to disasters.

"I consider war one of the greatest man-made disasters that can exist, because it has long left the local scene where battles were fought between limited numbers of men or nations. War now has a global implication," says Ebert. "The human being is the worst and the best creature on earth. I believe the human mind can be the world's most constructive as well as destructive force.

"Man has become a major influence in changing Planet Earth, rivaling the power of nature," he has said. "From pollution to acid rain to the greenhouse effect, all these things are now of global dimension so that man has joined the ranks of forces that modify Planet Earth, and unfortunately, not for the good."

The third edition of his book will include a new chapter on the human and societal response to disasters, something readers of the first two editions requested.

"Response to disaster appears to be different among different cultures," Ebert explained. "In some cultures, the individual takes on this responsibility. In other, more authoritarian cultures, the responsibility does not rest with the individual."

His premise is that in more democratic societies, response to disaster tends to be quicker and more effective. He uses flooding in Mississippi in 1993 as an example.

"The community rallied before official aid reached them. They took on this responsibility without being told to do so. This is typical of a free society."

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