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Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Finding My Way in Geography

End of an Era

For many Esri staffers involved with education this is a sad time. Our colleague David DiBiase retired last week. For those not counting, David headed Esri's "Ed Team" for eight years and directed Penn State's John A. Dutton e-Education Institute, along with other leadership and teaching duties for many years before that.

In 2007, David detailed how the Penn State Online GIS program started in an article titled, "It was Roger's Idea." The article mentions only three people, all of whom were instrumental in launching the program: James Meyer, Roger Downs and David himself.

It turns out these three gentlemen were my mentors in all things geography. Jim and Roger are already retired, so for me, David's retirement is the end of an era.  While Roger continues to teach at Penn State, the era is not yet ended. Still, it's a good time for me to reflect on my path and the role these men played in it.


I met Jim in my second year of college, 1983, at the University of Chicago. During that summer he'd joined the the crew club's "Learn to Row" program. That fall, my second year rowing, club members met at 4:45 am to drive to the Lincoln Park lagoon to get in a few 1000 M runs and return to campus to be ready for 8:30 classes.

To me and the other club members, Jim was just another rower; he was just smarter and funnier than most. I'd already taken a few geography courses before I figured out Jim was a member of the department. I took advantage of that by learning as much as I could about geography (and rowing) from Jim as the club drove to and from practice and to far away regattas. One winter Jim arranged for the club to use the department's cartography lab to paint our oars maroon and white.

The University of Chicago Crew Club at an early season regatta. Jim's the fellow with the beard and I'm in a Boston College sweatshirt. Most of us without medals were the instructors in a summer "Learn to Row" program that lead two of our fours to take home gold medals.
As I completed my studies at Chicago, I decided to pursue geography rather than chemistry, the subject of my degree. I applied to the top geography programs and in the spring of 1986 Jim and I took a 500 mile road trip to Penn State, his alma mater. I was sold and was 100% ready to be a Nittany Lion. Luckily, a few weeks later Penn State sent on an acceptance letter and offer of an assistantship.

Chicago downsized the geography department to a committee just before I graduated. Jim did some work in advertising and marketing and then returned to Penn State to work with David and Roger to develop the online certificate program. He later headed to Autodesk's GIS program, where he remained until retirement. I guarantee I'd not be a geographer had I not run into Jim.

A quote of note from Jim: "Keep a piece of paper in your pocket that says, 'You know, he/she/they may be right.'"


I started on my master's in 1986 and wandered aimlessly in search of thesis a topic. I managed to convince Roger, who'd been Jim's advisor, to take me on as an advisee. As I searched for a topic, Roger kept pushing me to follow my interests. And, one day, it all came together: I was spending many many hours playing the clarinet in the Penn State Blue Band (the marching band) and that was a geographic problem! If Roger thought tackling this topic for my thesis was a silly idea, he never let on. Instead, he pushed me to make the study as intellectually rigorous as possible. I didn't realize what he was telling me then, but I do now: Don't fight who you are, embrace it.
Blue Band seniors and grad students
 got a special photo opportunity
at Beaver Stadium before graduation.

I graduated from Penn State in 1988 and started my career. After a few years at a consulting firm I joined Esri, in the Boston office.  I recall seeing Roger at the AAG meeting in 1992 in San Diego.  He was surprised to see me dressed up with an exhibitor badge. I could not have been prouder.

Roger and I at the 2017 AAG Meeting in Boston after 
he received the Presidential Achievement Award. 
A quote of note from Roger: I don't have one, but I do have a habit of mind that's been valuable. Roger will send questions right back to the questioner.


I remember giving demos of "my" Esri product, ArcCAD, at the URISA conference in Washington D.C. in 1992. David came up to my corner of the Esri booth and introduced himself. We chatted and he asked about positions at Esri. He explained he was working in Penn State's Deasy Lab. I was trying to figure how this guy with an ear ring might fit into some corner of the company. I was too young and too unfamiliar with Esri to be of much help. I do remember thinking this guy from Penn State was pretty sharp.

When I next heard from David, in 2003, he invited me to join the advisory board for the proposed MGIS program. At that point, I'd been running my consulting business for a few years. I attended annual meetings in State College to develop and update the program and even tought a few courses. It was working with David and two amazing instructional designers (Beth and Khurso) that I learned all about online teaching and learning. In 2009 David pinged me again; Penn State Public Broadcasting was developing a video project, "The Geospatial Revolution." I served as an advisor and was lucky enough to appear in the production.

David, in the maroon shirt, facilitates an early Penn State MGIS
Advisory Board Meeting. I'm in the lower right in pink.
In part due to my teaching at Penn State, I started writing more and more about geography and GIS education in Directions Magazine, one of my consulting clients. In 2011 I read with a smile that David had been appointed the new head of education at Esri.

In 2016, I was in a McDonald's in Freeport, ME in a snow storm. I was up there attending a GIS education conference and had stopped in to check my e-mail. I found a message from David noting an open position on his team involving the two year old MOOC program. That July I joined the Esri Education Outreach team to manage that very program.

A quote of note from David that I recall daily in my current work: "Education is messy."

My Takeaways from Time Spent with Jim, Roger and David

1. Be who you are, do what you do.
2. Hang out with interesting and interested people and listen to what they say.
3. When someone offers you your dream job, take it.