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An Obituary Revisited
The Miami humidity put me in a stupor when I was already low on energy. My sister Nina and I crammed into her car to drive from her apartment in Miami to the southern suburb of Kendall. This was not a holiday. The occasion was the death of our Uncle Bobby, a man who was not actually our uncle. We sat in silence, partially because of the heat, partially because of the mood. I had flown in from Washington, D.C. already expecting and dreading this half-hour drive. Neither one of us wanted to cry, but it happened anyway. The blasting air-conditioning smeared our tears before we could wipe them.
I had interrupted a two-month artist residency during the summer of 2017 to make the trip down to Florida. Friends were shocked that I dropped everything for the funeral of an elderly man with late-stage other—and not a man who raised me, but a man I only saw once a year. Skipping the funeral wasn't a choice I wanted to make. A few months earlier, I was seated at my kitchen table in Brooklyn, writing the grant proposal for my residency at Annmarie Sculpture Garden, a Smithsonian affiliate in Southern Maryland. I pitched a public art project that touched on environmental conservation themes. As I envisioned a massive crab sculpture made from recycled materials gleaned from the Chesapeake Bay, I thought of my Uncle Bobby.
He had always encouraged my creative talents and those of my sisters, Nina and Helen. After all, he had a deep appreciation for the arts. He could recite the poems of William Blake by heart and only hung original art in his Coral Gables home on Galiano Street. His late wife, our great-grandmother, Helen Sloan, had been an artist, playwright, and creative writing professor at the University of Miami. But Uncle Bobby urged my sisters and me to explore our scientific curiosities, as well. When our family drove down from Virginia every Christmas, we knew beachside lectures from Professor Ginsburg and visits to his laboratory would be part of the itinerary. Considering possibilities at the intersection of art and science was one of Uncle Bobby's most profound impact on me.
Not that I could articulate that as Nina and I made our way to the funeral. I had considered saying a few words, but I was too crushed to be articulate. I also had no sense of what the turn-out at the funeral would be. I assumed a few faculty members from Uncle Bobby's department would be there. He had retired from the University of Miami seven years earlier, but he had been there for decades. At least one professor had to show up, I reasoned. Otherwise, I had no other guesses.
Bob, as his colleagues knew him, had been widowed since 1977. Helen, 18 years his senior, died of complications related to breast cancer and he had lived alone ever since. Helen and Bob had no children together, biological or adoptive. In a sense, Bob had a step-child, my grandmother Nancy Allred, but that was not really their relationship. Because Helen had been a young mother and the age difference between her and her husband was so great, Nancy was only three years younger than Bob. She was already married by the time Bob married Helen. Even if that had been their relationship, I was certain Nancy wasn't coming to the funeral; she lived in a nursing home in Connecticut and could not travel. At age 92, Bob had no living siblings or other blood relatives. Nina and I were the closest to relatives he had— and what were we? His step-great-grandchildren? I worried that the funeral home would be nearly empty. I already hated the thought of my sister and me being the only ones there.
Yet when we pulled into the parking lot, we fought to find a space. I figured that another funeral must've been ending. We walked from the far end of the lot, past palm trees and headstones, to the Riverside Gordon Memorial Chapels at Mount Nebo. There was a big photo of Robert N. Ginsburg, professor of carbonate geology, in the front lobby. I just didn't see it right away because the funeral home was full. Clearly—shockingly to me—all of these people were there for Uncle Bobby.
Nina and I freshened up before taking our seats. We grabbed them just in time because soon the event became standing-room only. I looked around and recognized Uncle Bobby's nurse from the senior community where he last lived. I saw the woman he began courting not long before his death. Otherwise, I didn't see a single person I'd met even once. I concluded that almost everyone crammed in that funeral home was a colleague. Maybe my late step-great-grandfather had a much larger following in the geological community than I suspected.
Soon what was announced to be a mixed Jewish-Quaker memorial service began. Jewish because Bob had been born into a Jewish family and Quaker because Helen had been a member of the Society of Friends, as Quakers are more formally known. What impresses me even a year and a half later was the powerful testimony to Bob's life that every speaker provided. I could feel just how much Bob had touched his fellow scientists. Instead of getting trite and polite generalities, colleagues told colorful stories about Bob in the laboratory, in the field, and in the classroom. Professors went to the podium. Former graduate students he had advised went to the podium. Even Bob's long-time secretary went to the podium. While Nina and I had plenty of colorful family stories about Uncle Bobby, we never could have imagined the breadth and depth of his professional life. Truly, geology was more than a job for him; it was his vocation. It was no surprise then that he regularly spent a chunk of Christmas Eve showing us rock and coral samples. For Bob, geology was as much worth celebrating as Christmas.
As relieved as I was to learn of Uncle Bobby's popularity, I also felt desperately curious. Suddenly I wanted to find out everything about his career. How could he have been so beloved without me knowing? I knew he was accomplished enough to become a professor, but a legend?
Bob's Miami Herald obituary, which ran July 12, 2017, was the easiest starting point for my research. It wasn't a standard 150-200 words, either. It was a full-fledged article and the headline read "UM geologist Robert Ginsburg, who plumbed the deep to reveal its secrets, dies at 92." I was already intrigued and then I read the first sentence, which described his academic operation as "one of the coolest marine laboratory offices this side of James Bond." He really had been a rock star, just as the boat he sold before moving to the senior community had been named in a very intentional pun from a geologist.
The obituary opened with a familiar 1997 photograph from the Miami Herald files. In the photo, Bob wades in Biscayne Bay at Matheson Hammock, a park I knew well from family outings. His snorkeling mask rests on his forehead and a rock sample rests in his hands. He wears a white T-shirt with the words "Year of the Reef '97" and a colorful illustration of a shark and fish circling coral. Behind him, the sky is pink and gray, indicating either sunrise or sunset. He looks intensely at the camera, as if not caring whether it's night or day. He's on a mission. I think back to the "Year of the Reef '97" T-shirts Uncle Bobby gave my sisters and me as kids. Suddenly the significance of his preservation project became apparent when I read the Miami Herald describe him as its "founding father."
The obituary cited a quote from The Miami News calling Bob "a hunter of ancient, long-buried coral reefs," which only increased the mounting intrigue. For more than 20 years out of his 60-year career, Bob studied sea floor deposits at the T. Wayland Vaughan Laboratory for Comparative Sedimentology, which the University of Miami leased on Fisher Island until 1991. Today Fisher Island is a barrier island known for its luxury homes, not geological research. To give you an idea, I learned from a February 2019 Business Insider article that not only is Fisher Island the most expensive zip code in Florida, but Oprah even used to have a condo there.
The Miami Herald obituary went on. In 1986, Bob discovered a coral atoll, or ringshaped reef surrounding a lagoon, in the Bahamas. But this wasn't any atoll. It was an ancient one, perhaps nearly 3 million years old, and it may have once been the biggest atoll in the world. Bob also discovered a mile-deep trench near Bimini. This find in the Grand Bahama Bank had not previously been discovered because it was filled in.
The obituary then proceeded to mention Bob's arrival to Miami in 1950 after he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. The bit about his schooling and professional posts was more familiar to me: After working as a research assistant at the University of Miami, he then worked for Shell Development Co. for close to a decade. In 1965, Bob and Helen moved to Towson, Maryland (my detail, not the Miami Herald's). He served as a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore until 1970, when he and Helen returned to Miami. The University of Miami had wooed Bob back.
My favorite line in the obituary comes next: "Here, he plumped the sea bottom to reveal its history, present and potential future." He cared not only about what had happened but what could happen. This line pointed to Bob's excitement for potential—for possibility—that I personally knew him to have. It reminded me that I wasn't breaking apart this obituary purely for sentimental reasons. I was genuinely interested in the life of a renowned scientist.
Peter Swart, a University of Miami geochemistry, whom I remember Bob referring to only as Peter, is quoted in the obituary. "Bob defined the profession of carbonate sedimentology and was one of the most influential thinkers in his field—working in both industry and academia," he said. "We had many adventures together, and he was sort of a Jacques Cousteau character."
The obituary also mentions Ginsburg's ties to big oil. His father was an oil man in Texas and, in a way, he continued that legacy, or at least maintained ties to it. Companies like Amoco, Chevron, Shell, and Texaco wanted to know more about Bob's sediment studies—and they supported his research, so they could hear about his finding before the rest of the scientific community did. In 1987, big oil sponsorships amounted to $200,000. That money allowed University of Miami faculty, students, and staff to conduct research in the Bahamas and Belize. Surely in an editorial move to quiet critics, the obituary cited a 1988 quote Bob told The Miami News: "All they [the oil companies] get from us is ideas. The application of these ideas to specific examples is their business." In other words, Bob was a scientist, not a business consultant.
Next comes mention of Bob's big move in 1991 from his University of Miami Fisher Island Lab to Virginia Key, where the school's Rosenstiel campus is located. That is the lab I recall visiting as a child. With that move came one of Bob's landmark endeavors. There was also a name I had never seen before: Gregor Eberli. At that time, Gregor and Bob had research suggesting that the Bahamas once had a different shape. They thought it was because the Great Bahama Bank had been made up of smaller platforms that merged together over the course of millions of years. So they decided to drill two deep boreholes near the margin of Great Bahama Bank to see if they were right. (Spoiler: They were.)
Another notable accomplishment of Bob's was organizing the 1977 international Coral Reef Symposium in Miami. While the obituary states the symposium sought to assess the decline of Caribbean coral reefs, it does not state that that was the year Bob's wife Helen died. No, that tragic insight is my own. But if you're wondering if that horrific loss negatively impacted the symposium, the answer appears to be no. The symposium remained quite productive. Swart is quoted again for explaining that Bob noticed a lack of baseline date to document the perceived decline of the coral reefs. Thus, he set up a protocol that even amateurs could use to quickly survey reefs in a quantitative way. "With these data obtained over a number of years, the ugly truth about the decline in coral reefs could not be ignored," said Swart. "In this new direction, he touched an entire new generation of scientists." Evidently. Someone who touches an entire generation does not have a poorly attended funeral.
The obituary ends with the summary that Bob was a dominant force in "how we search for oil using the modern in order to understand the past." Then it notes that he was survived by his partner Leonore, a more recent friend known to my family, and his wife, Helen, and provides information about the memorial service. Instead of information about flower arrangements, there is a statement about making donations to Bob's academic department, the Department of Marine Geosciences, or his non-profit, the Ocean Research and Educational Foundation.
Even though this is how the obituary ends, I knew after reading the article several times, that it was not how my engagement with Bob's life would end. I had a sudden urge to understand the complexities of Bob's research and legacy. But as a nonscientist, I would have to come to that understanding through the arts. If I was going to go through all the trouble of deep-dive research, I might as well unpack it for others and tell stories as I do. But what? What's next?