The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

In the Spotlight

May 25, 2012

Voyage of discovery: Geology prof charts new waters in floating classroom

— Bill Brice set sail on a sea of learning and serving during his final semester of teaching.

Nearly seven years ago, the geology professor emeritus at Pitt-Johnstown was among 28 faculty members who taught 700 students on board a ship that traveled around the world.

When students stopped at the various ports, they always took time to do good deeds for the residents.

Upon returning home, the Richland Township man presented lectures about the cultures of the different lands at Pitt-Johnstown, Bottle Works Ethnic Arts Center and other places. He continues to give presentations about the voyage.

“It’s invaluable,” Brice said of the Semester at Sea voyage sponsored by the nonprofit Institute for Shipboard Education. “The education that the stu­dents received can’t be bought.”

The University of Pittsburgh was then the academic sponsor.

No students from Pitt-Johns­town made the voyage, but a number from the main campus did, said Brice, who also is the author of books and papers about the oil and gas industry and geology.

Students and teachers began their 100-day voyage in August 2005 when they boarded a former cruise ship called the Explorer in Nassau, Bahamas. A number of adult passengers, including Brice’s wife, Heather, also made the voyage.

The first port visited was Caracas, Venezuela, followed by stops in Salvador, Brazil, and Cape Town, South Africa. Other countries visited included India, Vietnam, China and Japan.

“I taught students on the ship as though we were in a regular classroom,” Brice said. “Then they applied what they learned on the ship in the ports.”

One of his lessons was about the nature of coastlines. Upon docking at a port, the students were assigned to study the coastline and determine whether the harbor was natural or man-made, he said.

In Brazil and South Africa, local geologists showed students evidence of the change in sea level over the millennia.

At each port, the ship would dock between five and seven days.

“One of the remarkable things about the trip was that at each port, there were service trips,” he said. “The students would sign up for them and help in orphanages, hospitals, schools and other places.

“In Cape Town, in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity, students built a house.”

On the trip from Brazil to Cape Town, the ship had a special lecturer, Desmond Tutu, archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

“I got to meet him,” Brice said.

“I’ve been around many people in my life, but when I was around him, I was truly in the presence of greatness.

“He was just was the kindest, gentlest man. He exuded warmth, and you wanted to be around him.

“The lecture that he gave to students was truly remarkable.”

The topic was Tutu’s work on the Truth and Reconcilation Commission regarding racial discrimination, or what is known as apartheid, in South Africa, Brice said.

Another port visited was at Chenai, India, an area devastated by a tsunami in 2004.

“There was total destruction,” Brice said. “People were living in tents while working to rebuild their lives.”

Students dropped off supplies that their counterparts on a previous trip had collected. The students then determined what else the residents needed, and upon returning home raised money to buy those items for the next group to deliver, he said.

Brice takes science seriously.

A member of the Petroleum History Institute and editor of the organization’s journal, Oil Industry History, Brice has published or presented more than 100 articles and papers on the history of geology, history of the oil and gas industry, and biographical studies.

He is the author of five books, the latest a biography about Edwin Drake, driller of the first productive oil well in the United States. Called “Myth, Legend, Reality – Edwin L. Drake and the Early Oil Industry,” the book was published in 2009.

Brice has lectured about the Venango County oil well at Pitt-Johnstown, Bottle Works in Cambria City, Somerset Historical Society and other such places throughout western Pennsylvania and the nation.

In 2009, WQED Multimedia in Pittsburgh conducted an interview with him for a documentary it produced for the 150th anniversary of the Drake well. He was interviewed by the Pennsylvania Cable Network when the network reviewed his book about the well.

He also has written a paper about John Fulton, a geologist who headed the Cambria Iron works at the time of the 1889 Johnstown Flood and who mapped the Johnstown area.

Brice enjoys being involved in the community.

He is an active member at the Grove Avenue United Metho­dist Church, Johnstown, where he sings in the choir. He also sings, along with his wife, in the Johnstown Symphony Chorus and he is on the board of directors of the Chamber Music Series of Greater Johnstown.

Rosemary Pawlowski, executive director of Bottle Works, said she didn’t know that the establishment of the Drake oil well was so intriguing until she heard Brice’s lecture.

“He not only writes with excitement, but his presentations put you right in the moment,” she said.

Brice becomes immersed in every topic on which he writes, said Pawlowski, who has heard him speak on various subjects.

Frank Popp, Brice’s friend and fellow parishioner, said Brice enjoys talking about the oil and gas industry and the Semester at Sea program.

“He’s always on the positive side of subjects, and he always adds some humor to the subjects he is talking about,” Popp said.

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