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About Professor Borchert

REGENTS' PROFESSOR EMERITUS JOHN R. BORCHERT

Click here to view a segment from one program of a ten-program series on the "Geography of Minnesota" hosted by Regents Professor John Borchert.

IN MEMORIAM: JOHN ROBERT BORCHERT, 1918–2001

Article in Annals of the Association of American Geographers by Professor John Adams, Department of Geography, University of Minnesota

Full text link (U of M access only):
Annals of the Association of American Geographers
Volume 97 Issue 3 Page 641-648, September 2007

Article from The Minnesota Geographer 75th Anniversary issue, 2000-2001:

John R. Borchert passed away on March 30, 2001. We have lost a dear friend, a generous colleague, an inspiring teacher, a public citizen. Now we turn to the loving and poignant work of capturing this well-lived life in a few short words. We will be inadequate to the task.

John was a member of the University of Minnesota geography faculty from 1949 to 1989, and to 2001 was still an active and vital presence in our geography community.

John earned his A.B. degree at DePauw University in 1941. After working briefly in the private sector in North Dakota, where he met Jane, John joined the Air Force as a meteorologist, spending some time in training at M.I.T. After the war ended, John decidied to become a university professor. He earned his PhD. in geography at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1949, and joined the Minnesota geography faculty shortly afterward. "One of the things that appealed to me about this area was the setting of the University in an urban area. It was an opportunity to work on real problems and immediate questions with people who were helping to make and shape the maps, not just interpret them."

In those days, when the department was small, "we would assemble and argue about the nature of geography." (One of the six or seven graduate students at that time was Fred Lukermann.) At mid-career, as the department's graduate student population grew, John's urban field study trips to Chicago, by train, became notorious. Graduate students preferred that mode of transportation, because John's constant attention to the passing landscape made it extremely hazerdous to let him drive a van.

John's teaching and research dealt with the geography of natural resources, land development, and settlement in the United States in general, and the Midwest in particular. He became well-known for his research on climate and water resources of the Midwest and Great Plains, and on urban and industrial water supplies in the United States. John became equally well-known for later publications on the urbanization of the Upper Midwest, the evolution of American metropolitan centers and economic regions, and highway development and public land policies in Minnesota.

He was director of the urban research program of the Upper Midwest Economic Study (1961-63). For many years, he served as consultant to the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources and its predecessor commissions; and he has been consultant to many other state, regional, and national agencies. He was a member of the Twin Cities Metropolitan Planning Commission--the predecessor of the Metropolitan Council, was a member of the first Board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. John also served on the Minnesota-Wisconsin Boundary Area Commission.

At the University of Minnesota, John served as chairman of the Geography Department and Associate Dean of the Graduate School,and was a founder and the director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) during the first eight years of its development from 1968 to 1976. He conceived and led the ten-year research and development program that created the state's internationally-known Land Management Information System.

John served as president of the Association of American Geographers (1968-69), chairman of the Earth Sciences Division of the National Research Council, and as a member of the National Research Council's Transportation Research Board. He also served as chairman of the U.S. National Committee for the International Geographical Union. John was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1976, and appointed Regents' Professor of Geography by the University of Minnesota in 1981 - the highest honor that a faculty member can achieve. He especially appreciated that recognition, he said, because it came from people who knew him well.

The Metropolitan Council of the Twin Cities, which John was instrumental in founding, honored himas their 1985 Regional Citizen of the Year. As the Chair of the Council reflected, "John Borchert seemed to represent the best of our nation's tradition of leadership and excellence...{he} has contributed to the region as a whole, both through his own pioneering research and his influence on hundreds of students who continue to have an impact in the area." Another Council member added, "Borchert has had much to do with the fact that many people in the Twin Cities metropolitan area have come to think of themselves not just as citizens of a city and state, but of a region as well."

At age 66, John recounted something an older friend said to him about a decision to work until age 70. "He said he was just getting the hang of it. I feel that way, too. I still like what I'm doing." John's last book, America's Northern Heartland, published by the University of Minnesota Press shortly before his retirement, captured his unique perspective on the geography of the Upper MidWest region. "You might guess that 95 percent of Americans view the region as uninhabitable, with a climate only suitable for testing batteries, motor oil and pickup trucks...The region is a blank on the mental maps of most Americans. For better or worse, no popular image or symbol takes shape...{The Twin Cities are} a vague, inexplicable anomaly amid the wastelands, glaciers and boondocks."

A review of America's Northern Heartland conveys how much personality John put into the book:

"When a central Minnesota parish priest blessed the snowmobiles before a weekend dash across winter drifts to quaint taverns...

'When a line crew came in predawn darkness on Christmas morning and worked in a -70 windchill to repair a snapped electrical wire that was flashing eerily where its hot tip writhed in two feet of blindly driving snow...'.

This quote, along with many others of similar tone from John Borchert's new book, America's Northern Heartland, belies its content. In some sense it reads like a novel, but in reality it is more a chronicle of our heritage. The author has written a fascinating report on research that ranges in scope, depth, and coloras wide, as clear, and as brilliantly hued as the region of his study. It is a landmark document on research of epic proportions."

Review by Leonard W. Fernelius, Senior Vice President, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, in The Region, December 1987.

John retired (but did not slow down) in 1989. On the occasion of his retirement, the University of Minnesota map library was renamed in his honor. In early 1999 John, his wife Jane, and thier family made a gift of $200,000 to establish an endowment fund for the Map Library. The gift was made through the Geography Department, in recognition of the interdependence of the Map Library and the department's programs. The Borchert Map Library as a working library has a strong record of service to the state, the region, and the nation. The library has an established reputation among the top 15 or so in the country and the world.

Also in honor of John's retirement, the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs established the Borchert Fellowship, which provides a year of financial support for a graduate student working on a research project related to John's interests: contributing to our understanding of the settlement systems in Minnesota and helping to inform public and private decision-making in Minnesota. Illustrious past recipients include Paul Plummer, Barbara Weisman, Elvin Wyly, Steve Smela, Melissa Loughlin, Mark Bjelland, Sarah Ellwood, Mary Ann Cunningham, and Laura Hansen Smith.

Meanwhile, the Geography Department organized a year-long seminar series in his honor, on "The Future of the American City." The diversity among the invited guest speakers speaks to the broad esteem in which John was held by his peers: Brian Berry, Bill Clark, Julian Wolpert, Jay Vance, Dick Morrill, Larry Ford, John Hudson, David Harvey, Allen Scott, Reg Golledge, Torsten Hagerstrand, and, of course, John Adams.

Retirement freed John to teach courses in the University's Elder Learning Institute, between trips abroad and around the country. He also developed a research project on the historical geography of the U.S. Railway Mail Service at the time of its peak importance to the national economy and society, about 1920. This was a long-deferred indulgence. His father had been a postal worker for the railroad; he received his first map at age nine. Trains hauled things in and out of his home of Crown Point, Indiana, and the atlas shelf at the local library helped to explain where they were going, which was most likely to nearby Chicago, a contrast to the small farming community. Throughout his life, his love of trains and of maps were evident.

At John's request, our Cartography Lab Director, Mark Lindberg, taught John how to use a digitizer, and John set about digitizing railroads from the historical maps that he had unearthed from archives. John insisted on digitizing the maps himself, because it gave him a chance to think about the different parts of the system as he worked.

The winter 1999 issue of The Keystone magazine was devoted to his article, "Heyday of the RPO system on the Pennsylvania Railroad." As John wrote in spring 2000, "Readers were bedazzled by Mark Lindberg's rendition of 12 pages of color maps...exposing me to yet another cell in our diverse culture-the rail fans, a surprising number of whom are academics."

In late spring 2000 John set aside the rail project temporarily to turn his attention to helping compile a history of our department for our 75th Anniversary issue of The Minnesota Geographer. Through the summer he undertook that endeavor with his usual gusto, digging into University archives that held the story of the early days in the 1920s and 30s. That work continued until John became ill in the fall. We hope to recover what he compiled and weave into it a longer story in which John is an integral thread.

Throughout his life, John's energy and enthusiasm for the subject matter of geography was contagious. "I've often said I don't think there's anything as intellectually liberating at backing off and looking at yourself on a map of the world," he said. "It raises so many questions, you can spend a lifetime thinking about them. And if you do that, you'll always be walking about with your head full of maps on the one hand and talking to people on the other."

The other quality that was innate and that helped John to make every stranger a friend was his knack for finding something good and interesting in everyone he met.

John taught, advised, and mentored many generations of students who passed through the Geography Department during his forty years in residence. It is those "regiments of students" of which he is most proud. Late in his career, he wrote, "Many were part of the stream of talent that this northern heartland has contributed for generations to the national and global pool...They were curious about their environment andd wanted to help themselves and others to make more sensible decisions and follow up with more fruitful actions. Their curiosity translated into a commitment to research. Their drive to improve human deciosions and actions translated into a committment to teach..." These former students now populate the ranks of many local, state and federal agencies, colleges and university faculties, and private companies accross the country and around the world.

John's lasting legacy is embodied in their continuing work, in the enthusiasm for geography that he instilled in them, and in the knowledge and understanding that they pass along to the next generation.