Injured SSU professor inspired students
Published: Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 2:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 7:57 a.m.
Among the family and friends waiting anxiously for news of Steve Norwick's recovery are generations of Sonoma State University alumni who studied under the retired professor, many of whom have personal connections with their instructor that blur the line between teacher and friend.
The banjo-strumming, bike-riding, bearded environmental studies professor was an inspiring teacher, they say. But he was also their mentor, skilled adviser, kindly uncle and chum — one whose friendship and counsel persisted beyond their time at SSU.
Many embarked upon careers in water quality, conservation, land-use planning and related fields, maintaining ties with Norwick long after they left his classroom.
From inviting students away from home to share in his family holidays, to steering them toward internships or professional goals, to informing their ability to “read landscape” in a way they never experienced, to taking time to hear their concerns, scholastic and otherwise, Norwick, said one, has been “very supportive, always, and always available.”
“He took a personal interest in each one of us, or at least it felt that way,” said Paula Blaydes, a geologist and geothermal expert who was among Norwick's early students. “He made us all feel like he was personally involved in helping us with our choices.”
“Everyone within our department has a great sense of love for Norwick,” said a current student, Daniel Parenti.
Norwick, a geologist by training and education, joined the SSU faculty in 1974, becoming part of the then 1-year-old Environmental Studies and Planning Department in time to influence its curriculum even as the very notion of environmentalism took shape.
He taught in the department for nearly four decades, even after he officially retired in 2005, though he finally retired for real last month.
He was still cleaning out his office when, on a regular Friday morning bike ride to breakfast in Penngrove, he was struck and gravely injured June 8 on Petaluma Hill Road, a mile from his home around the corner from campus.
Still in a coma, his plight has inspired expressions of love and concern from students from throughout his tenure, many of whom credit his instruction, enthusiasm and mindful approach to life with shaping their professional interests and even personal lifestyle choices.
Though an expert on rocks and land formation, he brought a deep knowledge of art, myth and literature to his work, as well as expertise in soil sciences and water technology that had him teaching somewhat disparate courses with passion and a sense of poetry, students and colleagues said.
“He could talk about natural and cultural landscapes and invited you to see their connection,” said a former colleague, professor Paul Judge. “He'd start a conversation about the cruddy clay soil of the Merced formation, and bring in (a) line of poetry from a Scottish poet.”
Norwick, who craved learning, was a true Renaissance man, department chair Rocky Rohwedder said. He learned computer modeling when it was new, created a class called Environmental Literature, and authored a book in the verbal imagery used through time to explain nature in philosophy and literature, even as he specialized in water quality.
“He would shift from policy to computers to literature to hard science, (to) field science, effortlessly,” Rohwedder said.
In the same way that he regularly set aside time to stay in contact with distant friends and extended family, Norwick makes a habit, family and friends said, of staying in touch with students by phone and email, passing on articles they might find interesting, applauding their successes or merely checking in.
Many also come back to speak in his classroom, passing on what they've learned and how they've parlayed their education into successful professional lives.
“He was connected with them as a person, not a student, so when your student status disappeared he was still connected with you in the same way,” Rohwedder said.
Colleen Hunt, a year 2000 graduate who now works in the stormwater program for the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, said Norwick calls at least once a year to check in and find out what she's working on.
“And he always takes the time to remind me that the work I'm doing is very important,” Hunt said. “For a college professor to take the time to do that for a student, it's been 12 years since I graduated. I just consider him a very important source of support, still, in my life.”
“Clearly, a lot of people have been touched by this man,” said Rohnert Park mayor and longtime City Councilman Jake Mackenzie, who accompanied his then wife, then a student of Norwick's, on a field trip in the 1970s and consulted Norwick for years as a resource on water and land-use issues.
“If we could all have that sort of influence in our lives, then it's a life well spent, I would say.”
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