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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Wisconsin scientist's legacy is celebrated by geologists throughout the US

kluessendorf and mikulic 20116 schoonmaker reef.jpeg
Susan Bence
Geologists Joanne Kluessendorf and Don Mikulic near the Schoonmaker Reef in Wauwatosa in 2016.

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.

>> Did You Know There's An Ancient Coral Reef In Wauwatoa?

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.

Trilobites,  Calymene celebra, official state fossil of Wisconsin, Hartung Quarry, Wauwatosa, Silurian age about 425 million years old. Collected by JK & DGM.JPG
Don Mikulic
Joanne Kluessendorf and Don Mikulic found these trilobite fossils - Wisconsin's official state fossil - at Hartung Quarry in Wauwatosa. On display at Weis Natural Science Museum in Menasha.

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.

 On the far right, seen is the rare worm fossil Joanne Kluessendorf found at the Waukesha site.
Susan Bence
On the far right, seen is the rare worm fossil Joanne Kluessendorf found at the Waukesha site.

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.

Don Mikulic and Beth Johnson inside a museum in Menasha.
Susan Bence
Don Mikulic and Beth Johnson inside the Weis Natural Science Museum in Menasha.

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.

joanne k by beth johnson.jpeg
Beth Johnson
Joanne Kluessendorf helped assemble a replica of a mammoth armored fish at the Weir Natural Science Museum. Colleague Beth Johnson said it's the last project they worked on together.

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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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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