Professors you love

Lynn Fichter

Lynn Fichter

Stratigraphic Theories and the Price of Labels

By Paula Brentlinger Nystrom ('81)

Originally published in Fall 2002, this is just one of many stories from Madison magazine's award-winning Professors You Love series, written by JMU students and alumni, about the professors that have made the most impact on their lives — then, and now.

He breezed into the classroom, toting a thick binder of course notes. Finding his place immediately, he’d glance at his notes, look up at his students and plow head-on into stratigraphic theories, paleonotological mysteries and all forms of rock hypotheses one could think of.

If your pen was not poised on the page and your mind tuned in, you would be lost from the beginning.

"Whenever you needed help, Dr. Fichter always talked with you, not at you."

Geology professor Lynn Fichter was dynamic. He kept his class spellbound with a charismatic teaching style. A turning point in my JMU career and my decision to major in geology both came during my sophomore year when I took my first exam in Evolution and aced it. When the test was returned, I found the “A” I longed to see and a note in pencil, which read, “If you do this neat and concise work, you will make a fine geologist.”

I looked up, and Dr. Fichter, who was looking at me, winked as in accordance. I was hooked from that moment on and plunged feet first into what was a whirl of classes, labs, exams and field trips — my life from 1978 until graduation in 1981.

Whenever you needed help, Dr. Fichter always talked with you, not at you. He graded hard on theory papers, always asking for one more piece to the geologic puzzle. To compensate, you learned to be concise and direct and to not fill papers with fluff.

Geology was facts, not fluff.

Field trips were mandatory and always early on Saturday mornings. But you never missed a Fichter field trip in the old gold-colored geology department van. With Dr. Fichter at the wheel, field trips were fun-filled history lessons. He always explained the geologic history of the areas we traveled to and colored his lessons with interesting facts about the towns that we visited.

A vivid and lasting memory of my studies with Dr. Fichter came the first semester of my senior year. I was struggling with a poorly labeled fossil collection used in my paleontology class. I asked if I could relabel and cleanup the fossil collection for the upcoming majors and classes. Dr. Fichter welcomed my idea. Amazingly, as I returned for my 10-year reunion in 1991, I went to the paleo lab expecting things to be redone, but I saw the same labels that I had placed in the boxes and drawers 10 years earlier. And last year at my 20-year reunion, I again visited the paleo lab and found the same labels with my handwriting.

Stock photo of JMU geology classroom

Dr. Fichter either liked my work or nobody else was crazy enough to take on the challenging task of updating the collection. Do I need to issue a challenge here?

I worked in geology-related fields for five years after graduation, and my fossil collection “cleanup project” came in handy during my first job with the Smithsonian Institution’s paleobiology department. There I classified and cataloged the museum’s fossil collection. I wonder if it has been updated?

The next year, my lifelong dream of working as a park service ranger came true. My geology background also helped me land a job at the Fossil Butte National Monument in Kemmerer, Wyo., followed by two seasons at Dinosaur National Monument in Vernal, Utah.

Dr. Fichter taught me to be more organized, precise and direct in my life. I can’t say he changed my life entirely, but he made a great impression. Now, as a stay-at-home mom, I run a well-organized and a tight ship. Thank you, Dr. Fichter, for being a shining light in my JMU career.

About the professor 
Marking his 28th year as a member of the JMU faculty, Lynn Fichter says, "It has always been, and remains, the anticipation of working with individual students that makes the start of each new semester exciting. Every new student has given me the chance to see with fresh eyes and fresh wonder subjects that I love." Fichter is writing a book on the geological evolution of Virginia, widening an exploration of the application of chaos/complexity theory to understanding earth systems, and developing an earth system course for prospective K-8 teachers in the IDLS major.

About the author
Paula B. Nystrom ('81) has been married to husband, Scott, for 13 years. They live in South Weymouth, Mass., with their two children, Chris, 10, and Heather, 6. Scott is an officer with the U.S. Coast Guard, and the family is stationed in Boston, Mass., for the next two years.

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Published: Monday, February 10, 2014

Last Updated: Monday, February 22, 2021

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