World renowned paleontologists Drs. Harold and Emily Vokes were responsible for the "Golden Age of Paleontology" at Tulane University.
Harold and Emily examining a map, contemplating another collecting trip in the 1960s. Photograph courtesy of Emily Vokes.
May 2, 2012
Between 1960 and 1990, Tulane University served as one of the premier institutions for the study of geology and paleontology. The “Golden Age of Paleontology” at Tulane emerged from the efforts of world renowned paleontologists, Drs. Harold and Emily Vokes. As university priorities shifted in the late 80s, however, the geology department at Tulane faced the threat of extinction. That is when the Vokeses’ good friend and colleague, George Herman, came to the rescue.
Twenty years later, the department continues to benefit from Herman’s involvement through a scholarship and three professorships in the Vokeses’ names. Together, these endowed funds honor a friendship that helped save Tulane geology from dissolution.
“There was a discussion about getting rid of the geology department at the time as a way to cut the university budget,” explains Stephen Nelson, associate professor and former chair of the geology department. “George had many conversations with the president [of the university] and there’s a strong possibility that his discussions were influential in the decision to keep the department.”
“It was a wonderful era at Tulane,” says Emily Vokes. “George wanted to keep it that way, and he gave to Tulane to keep the department in the path that it was on.”
In 1990, Herman established a charitable gift annuity at Tulane to eventually establish the Vokes Scholarship in Geology. The annuity provided lifetime income for himself and then for his brother. He later bequeathed two bonds and his residence to the university to establish another gift annuity for his brother. When the annuities ended in 2011, over $900,000 became available to provide for the scholarship and three geology professorships in honor of the Vokeses.
Herman was a talented geologist at Shell Oil who managed the company’s onshore division during his 35-year tenure. In 1970, he was introduced to the Vokeses through a mutual friend. Following his retirement from Shell in 1986, Herman joined his friends at Tulane to help advance the groundbreaking work there as an adjunct professor.
As their friendship grew, Herman and the Vokeses began widespread travels in the southeastern U.S., Mexico, Dominican Republic, Europe and Central and South America, and assembled one of the richest collections of shell specimens in the world.
“George was totally enthusiastic about being at Tulane,” Nelson remembers. “He was a pure geologist. He took great interest in the work the graduate students were doing. In fact, he used to sit on the picnic benches in front of Dinwiddie Hall having long discussions with them.”
Harold Vokes, a prominent expert on fossil and living mollusks, transformed Tulane into a world center of paleontologic studies in the late 1950s. His wife, Emily Vokes, was the world’s leading authority on Muricid gastropods. Between them they produced over 200 publications in 40 years.
When Harold Vokes died two years after Herman, at age 90 in 1998, he knew his legacy would live in perpetuity owing in part to his thoughtful colleague. Emily retired from Tulane in 1996 and moved to Ponchatoula, Louisiana, where she continues to do scientific editing.
“What was wonderful was that George did something very important for geology at Tulane,” Emily Vokes says, “and the fact that he put our names on it made it special for us.”
“George was a valuable asset,” Nelson adds. “He not only served as an advisor to students interested in employment in the petroleum industry, he was interested in anything to do with geology and gave to the university to help keep the department going.”
Michael Ramos is senior writer in the Office of Development.
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