Former Montana State geographer William Wyckoff honored for lifetime achievement

— William Wyckoff, emeritus professor of earth sciences at Montana State University, has been awarded a Lifetime Achievement Honor by the American Association of Geographers, or AAG, for his leading role in research on the historical evolution of interactions among people and places in the American West.

As a professor of cultural geography in MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences in the College of Letters and Science from 1986 until his retirement in 2020, Wyckoff conducted a continually evolving set of research projects focusing on important segments of the American West and its diverse population – work that he continues today.

“It’s been a busy and fun retirement,” said Wyckoff, explaining that he still conducts research and writes books, one of which is slated for publication in the fall. He also stays involved in goings-on in the earth sciences department by serving on its advisory board.

Wyckoff said he didn’t know he had been nominated for the AAG honor until being notified he had won.

“It’s nice to get the honor – it provides encouragement to keep producing and writing books that people will enjoy,” Wyckoff said.

In announcing the award, the AAG stated that Wyckoff was selected because of his innovative research, effective dissemination of new insights to both scholarly and popular audiences, superior teaching in the classroom and in the field, and contributions to building a broader and more diverse set of scholars in geography.

His former colleagues at MSU agree that Wyckoff provided an exceptional educational experience to his students. At one time or another during his years at MSU, he taught nearly all the human geography courses offered in the department and introductory courses in cultural-historical and world regional geography, inspiring many students to pursue a degree in the field.

“I have lost count of the number of students who attributed their decision to major in geography to Bill’s dynamic and engaging lectures in World Regional Geography, a course he taught for over 25 years, and for which he authored one of the leading English-language textbooks,” said geographer Julia Haggerty, associate professor of earth sciences. “He inspired his students to take places seriously — with all of their complexities.”

Cathy Whitlock, MSU Regents professor emerita of earth sciences, credits Wyckoff’s leadership for helping develop the faculty and programs that benefit students in the department today.

“Geography continues to thrive at MSU as a result of the extraordinary new faculty that Bill was instrumental in recruiting,” she wrote in a letter supporting his nomination for the lifetime achievement honor.

Among those faculty were Haggerty and Jamie McEvoy, associate professor of earth sciences, who say Wyckoff supported and guided them as they became established in the department.

“He mentored me through my early days of teaching a large lecture course. He was always happy to answer questions about the course he had taught for decades but also empowered me to make it my own, teach to my strengths and have fun with it,” said McEvoy.

Yves Idzerda, dean of the College of Letters and Science, notes that Wycoff has also worked within MSU’s Ivan Doig Center for the Study of the Lands and Peoples of the North American West, named for the author and novelist whose books celebrated the landscape and people of Montana.  

“It’s amazing how much Bill’s work echoes that of Ivan Doig. His work is so impactful because of how he fosters and supports interdisciplinary scholarship on the American West,” Idzerda said.

In addition to academic texts that are still in use, Wyckoff also wrote books for broader audiences. In some cases, he employed historical photographs and contemporary images taken at the same locales to show changes over time. “How to Read the American West: A Field Guide,” provides visual and textual interpretations of landscape features and explains their significance.

His soon-to-be released book is about the historical and cultural geography of the African American Five Points community in northeast Denver, Colorado, as seen through the images of photographer Burnis McCloud, who recorded tens of thousands of images there between 1938 and 1975. Among the events McCloud documented were visits by Martin Luther King Jr. and jazz great Duke Ellington.

Wyckoff is currently writing a book about the National Old Trails Highway, a road designed in 1915 to traverse the United States from New York to Los Angeles. In the past two years, Wyckoff has driven the entirety of the old highway between downtown Manhattan and L.A., including long stretches that today are nothing more than undeveloped dirt roads.

“It’s a great way to understand how the landscape has changed and what else has changed since the road was laid out,” he said. “Sometimes it’s very little, sometimes an entirely new landscape. I write about landscape change, and there will be lots of photographs.”

Despite tackling such ambitious projects, Wyckoff says retirement has afforded him the luxury of working at a more leisurely pace while staying connected to MSU and watching developments in the earth sciences department, whose graduates forge careers in such fields as geography, geology, GIS and planning, paleontology, snow science and water resources.

“In terms of looking back across my years in the department, one thing I’ve taken great pride in is its growth. There have been so many great hires in the last 10 years,” he said. “Both the geography and geology sides of the department are at their strongest I can remember. It was a fun time for me to retire because the department was doing so well.

“It was thriving, and it is thriving,” he added. “I enjoy seeing that.”