James Jerome Parsons Geographer 1915 - 1997

Jim Parsons
Jim Parsons was one of my most influential professors at the University of California Berkeley. I first met him in a general education Geography course while I was a sophomore English major. His was the only class that I found both stimulating and enjoyable. In part, I switched majors because of him. His influence on his students was profound.

Jim taught the spring version of the Department's required Saturday field course (he loved Cal football too much to teach it in the Autumn). I remember the first stop of the first morning in 1963. Jim had us get out of the cars on the side of the road that crossed the western shoulder Grizzly Peak. The view from high above the Berkeley campus was magnificent. It was a clear morning, and we could see the entire San Francisco Bay Area from San Jose to Marin County. I will never forget what happened next. He took out his class roster and, calling the name at the top of the list, he said, "Bowen, tell us what you see."

The day had suddenly taken on a new and concerning dimension. The class fell suddenly silent, for everyone sensed that a very public test had begun. I had no idea what reply was expected of me, no clue at all. So I proceeded to give a general description of the principal visible landmarks, the several sections of the bay and its islands, the terrain and communities that surrounded the great sheet of water, the bridges... Luckily I was a fairly well traveled local who had spent years taking Saturday drives in the back seat of my parents' car. So, I continued my soliloquy at considerable length, pausing periodically to see if I had adequately answered the question. Since Jim did not seem as if he wanted me to stop, I continued in front of the now amused class for some fifteen minutes. It appeared that I was the trapped mouse in a cat and mouse game.

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Finally, I stopped and asked him what as yet unmentioned subject he wanted me to see. I will never forget his answer. "Oh, I am not looking for anything in particular. I just want to know what you can see." And then, he turned to my now terrified fellow students and began the exercise anew with the next person on the list. You see, everyone now knew that they, too, would have to see. But now, much of the grand view before us had been mentioned, and they felt compelled to mention something new.

I would later travel with Jim in Colombia. And, he would chair both my M.A thesis and Ph.D. dissertation committees. It was Jim who suggested that I consider accepting an appointment at California State University, Northridge, where I would subsequently teach for thirty-four years. But, it was that morning on Grizzly Peak that left the strongest memory.

Jim Parsons was one of the few people that I have ever met that could always find something fresh and exciting in the scene before him. He made me understand the great difference between merely looking and truly seeing. His was an unusually keen vision of the world through which he traveled. In my estimation, he was very much the equal of his famous mentor, the remarkable Professor Carl O. Sauer.

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Jim's infectious excitement and energy affected those of us fortunate enough to have studied with him. He and his marvelous wife Betty created a unique environment in which young minds could flourish and grow. They were the "parents" of the "department family" that thrived during the 1960s and 1970s. I have often spoken to my own students about Jim and his work. He was for me a professor who embodied the best traits of those who should inhabit a great university - creative and prolific scholar, dedicated teacher - a servant to his discipline, his university, and the earth. His spirit abides in all of those whose lives he touched.


At the time of his death in 1997, Professors David Hooson, Bernard Q. Nietschmann, and David R. Stoddart wrote the following words.

Professor James J. Parsons (1915-1997), who was on the Geography Department faculty at Berkeley for half a century, died of brain tumor on February 19, 1997, at the age of 81. His contributions to geography were exceptional in the breadth of his scholarly interests, his commitment to field observation, and his influence on generations of students at all levels.

Born on November 15, 1915, in Cortland, New York, he was nine when his family moved to Monrovia, California. After attending Pasadena Junior College, he enrolled at UC Berkeley in 1935, graduating in economics in 1937. After a year as a reporter for the Ukiah Redwood Journal, he returned to Berkeley for graduate work in geography. While completing the M.A. and publishing his first articles, he was supervised by Carl Sauer, whose historical and cultural approaches were a lifelong influence on his work. He then did four years of military service, mainly based in the Pacific. After the war he returned to Berkeley to work on a Ph.D. on Antioqueño colonization of Western Colombia that he completed in 1948. In the same year he became an Assistant Professor in the Geography Department.

Although based in Berkeley for virtually his entire working life, his scholarly contributions were exceptionally wide-ranging and his reach and activities worldwide. His 150 articles and myriad reviews and notes, alongside his four books, covered a remarkably diverse range of subjects, from cork-oak forests to California manufacturing, from fog drip to pre-Columbian ridged fields (which he initially discovered from the air), and from African grasses in the New World to the historical pre-conditions for industrialization. Each piece was thoroughly researched, written in vivid prose and frequently included formulation of provocative questions. This breadth stemmed from his boundless enthusiasm and love for his chosen field, geography in the widest possible sense. That his reach went well beyond geography in a limited sense is best illustrated by one of his books: The Green Turtle and Man (1962), which focused on a growing crisis with a worldwide scope and historical depth, and became highly appreciated in the world of tropical biology. His vision took in the entire pageant of the human environment and the long experience of peoples as inhabitants and transformers of the earth's regions. In an age of specialization, he stood out as one who relished variety and diversity of topics and places, and his geography was a matter of discovery and exploration.

Internationally, he was best known for his work on the historical and cultural geography of Latin America and also of Spain, and a selection of his writings on these regions was published in 1989 in a book--Hispanic Lands and Peoples (edited by W. M. Denevan). In particular, he became a revered figure in Colombia, where his books were translated into Spanish. But he also published widely on California, and taught its geography to large classes for many years.

He was a devoted teacher, who always made time to talk to students, even after his retirement, and to make them feel that he shared their interests and to stimulate their enthusiasm. More than any other faculty member, he maintained a massive file of the activities and achievements of the departmental students, majors, graduate students and alumni, and produced an annual newsletter called The Itinerant Geographer, which was unique in the world in its scope and vitality.

For some decades, he and his wife, Betty, entertained successive waves of students, faculty and visitors in their home in the Berkeley hills. Betty also frequently went along on his legendary field trips, which so many students remember with particular affection. Field observation was an indispensable prerequisite for most of his research publication and its basic value as a method was transmitted by precept and example to his students.

His formal service to the department, to the Berkeley campus, and to his profession was considerable and continuous. He served twice as chairman of the Geography Department--a total of 11 years and several times as chairman of the Center for Latin American Studies, as well as on many key campus committees, such as the Graduate Council, the Library Committee, and the Committee on Courses. He and his family were also inveterate supporters of Cal sports activities.

Nationally, he served on many key selection committees and reviews of other departments and institutions. His counsel was sought by many and various bodies. He officially retired in 1986 but any subsequent reduction in his scholarly activity and publications was imperceptible.

He received many awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an honorary degree as well as a Gold Medal from Colombia. He received special awards from the Association of American Geographers (of which he was elected President), and the California Council for Geographic Education to recognize his encouragement of high school teachers, and he gave a swath of invited lectures around the world. He was a mainstay of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers and the Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers, but probably his favorite body was the American Geographical Society, which awarded him its signal honor, the David Livingstone medal, in 1985.

The legacy of Jim Parsons for thousands of students, including over 30 of his Ph.D. students now in important positions around the world, for his colleagues, for the department and for the Berkeley campus, will continue to be substantial. His generous, supportive, and stimulating personality, spiced with a wry sense of humor and his deceptively casual style, will be missed for a long time. His enthusiasm for geography in all its facets was splendidly infectious and, in many ways, has been a linchpin for his discipline.

- David Hooson, Bernard Q. Nietschmann, and David R. Stoddart