Wisconsin scientist's legacy is celebrated by geologists throughout the US
The Geological Society of America is holding its annual meeting this week in Portland, Oregon.
On Tuesday, scientists were scheduled to celebrate the legacy of Joanne Kluessendorf, a respected geologist from Wisconsin, who passed away in 2018.
WUWM reporter Susan Bence met Kluessendorf only once. It was five years ago at the site of an ancient coral reef. The Schoonmaker Reef in Wauwatosa was submerged in water hundreds of millions of years ago.
Kluessendorf explained why the reef matters.
“The reason it’s special is because it was the first fossil reef ever defined as such anywhere in North America in 1862. The geologists came here and saw it in the rocks, which is amazing,” Kluessendorf said.
Kluessendorf herself was amazing. Inside the Weis Earth Science Museum in Menasha there is evidence of that, according to fellow geologist and Kluessendorf’s husband, Don Mikulic.
“She started working here in January 2001,” Mikulic said as he walked through the display and information-packed museum tucked within the University of Oshkosh-Fox Cities campus.
“When [the museum] opened officially in 2002, it was already designated the state’s official mineralogical museum. Joanne started with an empty shell,” Mikulic said.
It was Mikulic who introduced Kluessendorf to the wonders of rocks back when she was studying art and he was studying geology at UW-Milwaukee. “We’d cut classes and looked for geology stuff,” Mikulic said.
Ultimately both became respected geologists.
Mikulic said there was never any debate about their vacation destinations. “It was always geologically related. In a sense we were one in the same. We had a lot of fun,” Mikulic said.
Mikulic said his wife often discovered the best specimens. He pointed to one of her greatest fossil finds behind plexiglass. “This is a worm fossil from Waukesha county. It’s rare to find a soft-bodied fossil,” Mikulic said.
That was back in the 1970s.
While over the years others have occasionally been credited, including in a recent article in The Atlantic, Mikulic said Kluessendorf indisputably found the fossils.
In fact, as part of the Geological Society of America’s celebration of her contributions, one of the Waukesha fossils is to be named in Kluessendorf’s honor.
A long list of scientists were scheduled to speak about her influence, in particular on women in the field.
Among them will be Beth Johnson, associate professor of geology at the University of Oshkosh-Fox Cities campus.
Johnson said without question, she wouldn’t have earned tenure without Kluessendorf’s mentorship.
“I started here in fall of 2011. Not long after I heard a knock at my office door. It was Joanne,” Johnson recalled.
Johnson was new to the area and Kluessendorf helped her acclimate, geologically. “Saturdays she drove me around to show me good field trip sites and introduced me to the geological community, nature centers, museum workers and local geology clubs,” Johnson said.
Kluessendorf also helped ground Johnson personally. “She was always that person I could go to for help and clarification, or just to go get ice cream,” Johnson said.
The two collaborated until Kluessendorf’s death.
Beth Johnson expected to hear similar tributes from fellow scientists at the geological gathering.
“She was always making sure everybody had access to education and were acknowledged for their work. For those coming before her, she made sure their contributions would be recognized,” Johnson said.
Research that Kluessendorf carried out on another ancient reef with her husband will be highlighted at the conference.
“We have a paper I’ll be presenting at the conference about what we found at a quarry on the south side of Chicago. It’s not just one reef, you can tell it’s several that grew on top of one another,” Mikulic said.
The two spent their honeymoon there.
Mikulic said he’ll be continuing their research at the reef.
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