Why We Love to Teach

I’ve been teaching for Penn State University for 30 years. I spent part of that time in front of large classrooms full of undergraduate students. You can imagine the scene. Many students slouched in their auditorium seats, ball caps pulled down over their eyes, body language expressing no desire to be called upon or to speak up.

To keep my edge under such conditions, I approached each class session with the mindset that the day’s lecture would make a difference in the life of at least one of those students. I might never know who was affected, or how. But I believed someone in that classroom would be secretly inspired. And that belief inspired me to teach from the heart.

Not long ago, I heard from a former student through LinkedIn. Steve Smith was a student in the very first course I taught at Penn State – a laboratory course called Advanced Production Cartography. In those days (starting in 1989) Penn State’s Department of Geography offered the course during the month-long Intersession period, which Penn State now calls “Maymester.” Maymester is underway as I write this reminiscence.

Steve Smith in 1990, with the ACSM Map Design Award

Steve Smith in 1990, with the ACSM Map Design Award

Advanced Production Cartography was an intense four-week immersion in what was then the state of the art in cartographic design and production. Students labored hours every day on pen-and-ink drafting, hand engraving, a little bit of computer graphics and digital typography, and a whole lot of time in the darkrooms on the 2nd floor of Walker Building.

The class project was to design and produce a printed postcard that showcased original map content. (I borrowed the postcard concept from Judy Olson, who had led a similar class at Michigan State for years.) Steve chose a timely theme – the 100th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood of May 31, 1889.

Map postcard designed and produced by Steven A. Smith in 1989. Actual size 7” x 5.5”

Map postcard designed and produced by Steven A. Smith in 1989. Actual size 7” x 5.5”

Steve’s postcard features a 3-D terrain model of the Conemaugh Valley, illustrating the path of the flood from Lake Conemaugh to the city of Johnstown. Steve digitized the terrain from a topographic map, rendered the model with a PC-DOS program called Surfer, printed it on a newfangled laser printer, and then processed the print photomechanically. All the rest of the piece is produced manually, including lettering placed by hand.

The piece turned out so well that Steve and I marched into a local marketing firm and convinced the owner, Mimi Barash Coppersmith, to print and publish the postcard for Johnstown’s centennial. The card went on sale that summer. In 1990, Steve received a letter from the legendary Barbara Bartz Petchenik that he had won the American Cartographic Association’s Student Map Design Award. Later that spring he graduated from Penn State, and went on to work for Michelin in South Carolina, first as a cartographer.

Steven Smith and son James, visiting Penn State in 2019

Steven Smith and son James, visiting Penn State in 2018

Nearly thirty years later, here’s the message I received from Steve:

“Hi David. I just wanted to let you know that my family and I just did a prospective student tour for my son James at Penn State. It was an awesome time, which goes without saying, as PSU is a great university.

“We did the introduction and campus walking tour. Afterwards, we toured the Meteorology department, since my son is extremely interested in that. Oh…Walker Building, the memories for me…

“It brought back so many memories, but especially YOUR guidance during my time there, both in this class and the time I spent working in the Lab as an intern. You had a VERY large impact on my time there. Thank you once again for your time, patience, and tough love during that time. I would not be the man, employee, or person that I am today without your input.”

James Smith receives the National Park Service Junior Ranger Badge at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial, as Dad looks on proudly.

James Smith receives the National Park Service Junior Ranger Badge at
the Johnstown Flood National Memorial, as Dad looks on proudly.

Steve continues, “On our travels back from my hometown of Bradford we had the opportunity to stop at the NPS Johnstown Flood National Memorial. It was my first visit, which is hard to believe. They no longer have *my* postcard/map for sale, but they were quite impressed and interested in the copy I showed them.

“Your class, Advanced Production Cartography with an emphasis on journalistic cartography, and working in the Deasy GeoGraphics Lab, is really how I got to be where I am today, professionally. It opened the door to my job at Michelin. I’m now a Senior Product Development Engineer designing tires for OE vehicles. It has been interesting as a tire designer to utilize spatial design realizations that I learned back in my PSU Geography Department days to now. I use them on a daily basis for new tire tread designs, and most times it blows away my coworkers. I will always remember you, David, and other professors and classmates, when it comes to who I am today.”

Steve’s message is an awesome gift. It affirms that teaching really does have the power to help young people find direction and purpose. Every experienced educator has a story like this to tell, and every new teacher can look forward to stories like it down the road. These stories sustain us to keep teaching with heart, despite all the disincentives. Remember, there’s at least one person out there – and you may never know who – but then again, you might find out someday!

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The Kevin Tapes

Kevin Stuessy, ca. 1980.

Wendy Stuessy texted me by Messenger on October 8 that “Kevin’s funeral was today.” I rarely open the Messenger app, but by chance I did that day, and found Wendy’s shocking news. I didn’t know what to say, or what to do.

After a few days numb, I thought of something. I dug out Kevin’s tapes, and listened to them for the first time in many years. I catalogued the tapes, then digitized some outstanding tracks. Then I put up this modest remembrance of the years Kevin and I were closest, though farthest apart geographically.

Kevin was a dear friend in high school and for years after. Starting in the mid-1970s, about when I joined the Army and was stationed in Alaska, Kevin and I began a correspondence with music tapes. Starting about 1976 or ’77 we exchanged cassette tapes a of couple times a year, until about 1980, when we got together again to start up a band. But that’s another story.

These are no mix tapes – they’re filled with original compositions and performances – usually on guitars, and sometimes with voice, and with sound effects, like TV, radio, and shortwave radio squeakings and squawkings. Several digitized samples are posted below for your listening pleasure.

The recordings are ultra low-fi. Kevin recorded his (and I, mine) direct to cassette using the cheapest available recording equipment. Kevin’s original cassettes are pictured below. The digitized songs are noisy, usually monaural, and sometimes distorted due to tape damage, or on purpose.

What Kevin jokingly called the “grim fidelity” of the recordings may be distracting if you’re new to the tapes. Please, don’t listen with the mindset you bring to professional recordings made for big audiences with commercial intent. These weren’t supposed to be “records.” They weren’t even demo tapes. These were letters, written and recorded for an audience of one. Each cassette letter was an expression of our latest musical ideas, not of finished work. Kevin and I stayed close by sharing our low-tech, DIY musical ideas. Hearing them again reminds me how great it was to receive each new tape, and discover its surprises, mysteries, and inside jokes. Below I present 12 select digitized excerpts from five tapes Kevin sent me over a three or four year period. I address comments about the excerpts to Kevin himself, wishing he was here to listen and discuss the tapes with me.

Undated; 1977?

50 More Years of Music

Kevin, I love this tune for solo guitar. It’s so growly. My guess is it’s your acoustic (the Guild?) recorded with the cassette mic placed inside the guitar body. That would account for the thick tone. The main riff marches forward with swagger. Then come the majestic, half-note chords in the middle section. I don’t think there are bigger chords on a guitar than those. Where’d you get that? And do you remember the year you made it?


Summer 1977, Middletown PA

Falling On

I also love the miniature notebook with your handwritten liner notes for Marshmelodies. About “Falling On” you wrote “first impressions of Middletown.” It’s a lovely little song. I wish we’d heard more of your vocals and lyrics. I also wish that damage to the 40-year-old tape hadn’t garbled some of the second verse.


Marshmelody in the Electric Age (Track 16)

This one sounds like you recorded the background guitar first, played it back on a portable cassette player while playing the lead guitar into the same mic. Both guitars are the fuzz-toned Jazzmaster, right? The jagged cuts between sections we learned from Zappa. About this three-part tune, you joked, “This is what Dog Chow commercials will sound like when we all wake up & it’s 1996 outside.” Imagine that: 1996 was once in the future.


Cocktails for Two – Live in Mooretone, NJ

This is such an affecting letter from home. You and Bruce Rogers in a car, Bruce riffing on whatever came to mind or into your view, cutting up on trip to the liquor store. The soundtrack transported me when I first heard it, across the globe in Anchorage it transports me now, again.


Undated; 1978?

So Long (Track 3)

I don’t have any liner notes for this tape. Not even a date, although I suppose that could be reckoned on very close listening. This little tune is haunting, brother. Do you remember when and where you made it?


Track 4

This tape stands out for me because of its several bright, upbeat tunes for solo guitar. Like this riff.


Track 7

This sprightly riff is recorded over some old TV movie soundtrack, featuring a dialog between two plutocratic characters. “Oh well, it can’t be helped.” Did the juxtaposition happen by chance, as I suppose?


Track 14

This is the only recording of you whistling that I can remember. It’s a wistful tune, but cheerful too. I wonder when and where you recorded it. It sounds like it was a good time.


Undated; 1978?

Tragedy at the Pond

This little suite also comes in three parts. The first part sounds like three guitars: classical, flanged acoustic, and super-fuzz electric lead. Right? It sounds like a mono double dub. The riff sent me to early 70s Zappa records to find something similar, but didn’t. Second comes a (harmonized?) vocal refrain, and a guitar solo over the bridge. And a thumb piano! Do you remember all this? And what was the dream?


June-December 1979

The Bite

Your notes say “Final product assembled on Sankyo STD-1650 deck, Dec. 14,15.” So were you home for the holidays, recording in the basement again? That would explain the stereophonic recording. And the ultra-fuzz bass in the left ear.


‘Hanks Again V.V.

Your notes say we’re hearing Jazzmaster (heavily flangered), Guild, and bass (and a couple of “thank you”). You write, its “a sad story that I tell myself continuously.” Who was V.V.? The tune rocks a little; it doesn’t sound like too sad a story!


That’s All (Track 8 excerpt)

Would you recognize this? Its the last couple of minutes of the 7:40 song that ends The Dr. Graveyard Anomalies. The excerpt breaks into the middle of your free-improvised solo guitar duo. You recorded quieter guitar first, right? Then played it on a portable cassette player recorded at the same time, with the same mic, as the louder guitar, yes? You and I spent a lot of evenings improvising free like that. And we both loved abrupt, surprising endings and snarky comments – like Frank did.


The Stuessy basement in Moorestown NJ, ca. 1970.

Sincere condolences to Wendy, their children, and their family on the occasion of Kevin’s untimely passing. Kevin was a special and talented man. I’m grateful for the times and music we shared.

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Home from near the top of our steep, 1/10-mile-long driveway, before we cleared much of the brush (but not the Deodora Cedars).

Val and I found home in June 2015, around the time we were married. In fact, our realtor Susan found it for us, to our everlasting gratitude. It wasn’t on the market, but she knew that Cade and his partner were thinking about moving to a one-story in Palm Springs. Susan arranged a visit with Val. She fell in love with the place, and so did I when I visited later.

Pool and olive tree on the west side of the house, looking north.

Fireplace at Christmastime, 2016.

David’s home office.

View of Mt. San Gorgonio, looking north from our front door.

The place was built in 1968. The architectural style, we learned, is “Monterey Colonial.” I knew nothing about it until I happened across a paragraph in Kevin Starr’s 2005 California: A History:

Starr wrote about “gentlemen traders” in the “hide and tallow trade in the 1820s and 30s.” The trade involved shipping “manufactured goods to California” from the east coast, “sea otter pelts to China”, then back to California with “Chinese goods to pick up cattle hides and tallow for shipment back to Boston.” One of the “maritime trading elites” in Spanish and later Mexican California was Thomas Oliver Larkin of Massachusetts, recently of Charleston, South Carolina.

Larkin was a “storekeeper and trader,” and a “skilled carpenter … who built the first two-story house in California.” The house combined “adobe walls, a second-story veranda similar to those in Charleston, and a tile roof. The resulting design, subsequently known as Monterey Colonial, in and of itself expressed the fusion of Mexican and Yankee people’s and traits that was occurring up and down the California coast.”

Our place lacks the tile roof and adobe walls, but it has the salt-water pool that Val dreamed of. The pool’s built around a magnificent olive tree that she’s determined to harvest one of these years. We’re on a hilltop at about 3,200′ elevation, chill enough in winter to enjoy the fireplace.

Cade and partner were not connected to the internet. I was relieved to discover that we’re located on the edge of FIOS coverage. Our fast connection allows me to work at home, which I dearly enjoy.

The front of the house faces north, providing a vista of the San Bernardino mountains. At 11,500′, Mt. San Gorgonio dominates the panorama, and always recalls a stout hike to its summit.

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Prescott Anniversary 2016

Prescott Watson Lake kayakPrescott Watson Lake heron HDRPrescott Watson Lake hike 1Prescott Watson Lake hike 2Prescott arts festPrescott PalaceWe discovered Prescott when we passed though on our way home from Sedona back in Fall 2014. A year and a half later we returned for a belated anniversary over Memorial Day weekend. It was a great time, in town and out.

We spent most of Friday at Watson Lake, a century-old reservoir a few miles north of town. A young couple rented kayaks out of the back of a couple trailers.They said the water hadn’t been so calm in weeks. Paddling in and out of the submerged canyons was sublime. I intruded as quietly as we could on the perches of a couple of Great Blue Herons that labored into flight when I ventured too close.

Most surprising was the challenging, scenic 5-mile Lakeshore hike. We were glad to have trekking poles to help clamber up and down the granite dells, following a trail well marked with white painted dots. We found our way back to Val’s car happily tired and sunburned.

Saturday we explored the town. A 19th century mining center and early state capitol, Prescott is proud of the bordello heritage of its downtown Whiskey Row. We shared a couple cool ones at the Palace Saloon, where many patrons were dressed up like extras in the movie Tombstone.

An arts festival occupied the courthouse square. We found many realist paintings of wolves, horse-mounted cowboys, and Grand Canyon landscapes. But even these exceeded expectations.

We found lots of interesting shops, cafes, and old-timey bars. Most of the waitstaff and other folks we met were visiting or transplanted from Phoenix or So Cal. The few genuine locals we met were interested in us new-comers. One young waitress confessed that she dreamed of leaving town for someplace bigger, but worried that she’d be homesick. I’ll sure miss the place, and we’ve only been here a couple of days!

Come Sunday it’s time to head home. Grinning from ear to ear as we wind down state route 89, one of the most interesting drives I’ve found in these parts. We’ll be back to enjoy the rougher-edged, less expensive and less crowded alternative to Sedona.

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Temecula wedding


On May 20, 2015 Valerie and I were married at the Ponte Vineyard Inn  in Temecula CA. We settled on a very small ceremony for her family and closest friends. About an hour before it began our saxophonist Naomi arrived. She played a mix of sacred and secular tunes, including Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.” Val was, and is!

Her brother Roger, an ordained Adventist clergyman, officiated. He cracked her, me, and everyone up when he introduced the new bride as “Kim” – his own wife’s name.

The wedding was a big deal for Val (her first) and her family. I thought I was playing my part for her sake. To my surprise, I found the exchange of vows a little moving. Also moving were my knees, which shook noticeably, to everyone’s amusement. It was a beautiful day, and evermore a cherished memory.


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Mt. San Jacinto the hard way

DSCN0591Angie Lee looks happy and unruffled at the summit of Mt. San Jacinto. You wouldn’t guess that a half-hour earlier, at the base of the final bouldery scramble to the top, we nearly gave up and turned back.

DSCN0596Our route was the Marion Mountain trail, a relatively short but steep ascent of the west face San J from a trailhead near the town of Idyllwild. We wondered if we’d find snow on the mountain. Although it was only late March, it had been a dry winter. IMG_1321.JPGWe found it alright, starting at about 9000′. At about 10000′ we lost the trail and found ourselves trudging up slope in knee- and hip-deep snow. We struggled to reach the saddle, at the base of the final boulder pile.

Just as we decided to risk a dark descent and turned to summit the peak, we came across a young family – Dad, Mom and two little kids – who appeared to have reached the top in light sneakers and flip flops!

The photos I did take fail to capture the rigors of this route. Much of the trail was littered with tree falls and tumbledown boulders, making the descent especially challenging for sore feet. All the way down I thought of the parents carrying the kids for six tough, steep miles.

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Back to Paso

Quinta do Roxo cottage

Quinta do Roxo cottage

Val and I returned to Paso Robles again this year during the first week of March. One reason I wanted to come back, a big reason, was to revisit our precious rental cottage Quinta do Roxo. It’s owners, who make Roxo port, have restored it lovingly. It has a great kitchen, and is just a five-block walk from downtown.

We came on a mission: to find her a special ring. We found it 20 miles down the road at a special jeweler in San Luis Obispo.

One of many vineyard views along our cycling routes on the west side of Paso.

One of many vineyard views along Adelaide Road on the west side of Paso.

That left plenty of time for outings, including two bike rides, some tennis at a local park, and kayaking in Morro Bay.

Our first ride was a hilly 35-mile loop up Nacimiento Road, clear out to Justin Winery, and back on challenging Peachey Canyon Road. For the second ride, a 27-mile version of roughly the same route, I got smarter. I rode clockwise this time, dispensing with Peachey Canyon at the outset instead of when I was tired.

Kayak view of Morro Rock, Morrow Bay CA

Kayak view of Morro Rock, Morrow Bay CA

Of course we made time to visit wineries. Most memorable were J. Lohr, Turley, Adelaida, and especially Doau. Every bit as delightful was Pasolivo Tasting Room and Olive Mill, where we sampled delectable olive oils.

As soon as I returned home I set about booking Quinta do Roxo for the same week in 2016.What a disappointment to find that the owners had removed it from the rental pool! Ah well, Quercus Acorn Cottage looks to be just as nice, and it’s only a block away.

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Sedona getaway

2014-11-08 21.16.20

Sedona’s a long way from Yucaipa. Four hundred miles seemed an endless drive after a late Saturday afternoon start. But getting far away was the point.

By Sunday morning Val and I were hiking up into Boynton Canyon, entranced by the red rock, the perfect November weather, and the varied vegetation. With trekking poles and light packs we marched from the 2014-11-09 04.08.102014-11-09 22.50.47IMG_0223sunny chaparral into an autumn canopy of yellow aspen near the end of the 6.2-mile out-and-back. Lovely.

Back in town we wandered the shops in search of holiday gifts for family and friends. One shopkeeper shared good advice about where and where not to dine. Sunset found us at L’Auberge, enjoying fine food and wine on the patio beside Oak Creek. The wine is Orrin Swift’s “Papillon.” Swift is best know for the great zin blend “The Prisoner.” Get it?

Monday morning we found a satisfying breakfast at Creekside Cafe (another good recommendation), then pedaled a memorable 39 mile loop through the high desert village of Cornville. We’re at the intersection of Page Springs Road and the 89A in the bike picture. The last 13 miles were the toughest, including a 500-foot climb in a two-mile stretch.

The daylight drive home was beautiful. 89A south through Jerome and Prescott is an amazing mountain drive – unless you’re in a hurry to get home, which we weren’t. The sunset is a view from the car as we traveled back into California on the 10.


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Val’s birthday sail

DSCN0425We celebrated Val’s birthday in late July on the water. I chartered a 36-foot sailboat with a skipper out of Newport Beach. We motored slowly out of the bay, enjoying the spectacle of fabulous waterfront homes and vessels of all manner – from titanic yachts to sailboats to dinghys and even paddle boards. Beyond the bay we quieted the engine and set sail. An overcast sky gave way to brilliant afternoon sun. Before long we found a school of dolphins that frolicked in our wake for a while. It was a magical time, as sails often are. After returned to dock we dined at Sol, a favorite Mexican fusion restaurant. Good times.



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Esri User Conference 5K Run

5k 2014 panorama5k 2014 start5k 2014 ddThe User Conference in July is both the beginning and the culmination of the annual cycle of work at Esri. Intensity builds at headquarters in the weeks and months leading up to the event, which lasts eight days for me and my team and involves more than 15,000 guests and Esri staff. A cherished release near the midpoint of the event is the 5 kilometer footrace that takes place early Wednesday morning. The 2014 route started and finished at the Hilton Bayfront and followed the Embarcadero through the North and South Marina Parks. This year I decided to see how fast I could go. I aimed for 27 minutes, which is not fast but is faster than I’d ever finished before. I started off at a 7-minute mile pace and kept it up until about halfway when I felt a jolt in my left hamstring. I kind of hobbled to the end but still finished under 26 minutes. Fellow runner Rachel snapped my happy and dazed visage at right, where I’m sprawled out near the finish line, stretching my sore leg. The next day my colleague Angie informed me that I’d finished first in my age group. The one and only perk for advancing age.

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