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Geology 'Giant' John D. Cooper Dies
Cal State Fullerton Professor Had Retired, Yet Still Followed His Passions

Sept. 06, 2007 :: No. 29

The outpouring of stories and comments about John D. Cooper, emeritus professor of geological sciences at Cal State Fullerton who died Monday, have a common thread: He was larger than life in his work, in his interests, in his caring for students and in his teaching.

Cooper, 68, collapsed from a massive heart attack while on his morning walk. The Chino Hills resident had taught in the Department of Geological Sciences, a part of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM), for more than three decades, from 1970 to 2002. He is widely lauded at CSUF as one of the faculty members who helped build the department and its reputation.

“He had so many interests, and he pursued them with a passion,” said his wife, Nancy. “He was a naturalist. By that, I mean he studied the history of planet Earth, he studied all living things, the outdoors. He loved how things fit together in the environment.

“He was a history buff. He went to all of the Lewis and Clark signature sites. He studied how Native Americans lived with the land and what naturalists they were. He had wide-ranging, voracious appetites, and he loved imparting his knowledge. He loved education, he loved working with students,” she said.

“Dr. Cooper took a personal interest in the students, especially those who worked on research projects with him,” said Linda Johnson, administrative coordinator of faculty affairs.

“He was one of those largely responsible, through both teaching and research, for the outstanding reputation the department enjoys today, and he is one of the reasons the department’s students are so sought after.”

David Bowman, chair and associate professor of geological sciences, said: “John was a legendary figure among geology students at Cal State Fullerton and a giant in the field of sedimentary geology. He touched many lives and will be sorely missed.”

Diane Clemens-Knott, professor and immediate past chair of the department, characterized Cooper as “an outstanding educator. There is already an outpouring of grief from former students.

He had intensely high standards and high expectations, yet students always rated him very highly. He has students who have gone far in their various professions, including at least one who is now a tenured professor of geology.

“His research,” Clemens-Knott added, “is internationally recognized. His primary area of research was in the evolution of eastern California and how it made the transition over millions of years from a marine environment to part of the continental land mass. He did this by painstakingly studying ancient sedimentary rocks and the fossils they enclosed.”

NSM Dean Steven Murray also praised Cooper and his work: “John Cooper was an exemplary faculty member whose presence will be very much missed. He was very highly regarded by his colleagues, the many students he so ably mentored, and the many people whose lives he touched. Although a retired emeritus professor, John was still active in the pursuit of his academic passions. All of us in the college are deeply saddened by his passing.”

Cooper’s research concerned an area little touched upon until he began his work more than 20 years ago. In studying how the southern Great Basin area of the United States and the eastern Southern California/Mojave Desert area became part of the continent, he became expert, Bowman said, in the use of sequence stratigraphy to investigate the paleo sea level, regional stratigraphic correlations and continental margin evolution. He shared that knowledge internationally and supervised the theses of nearly 60 CSUF students. He also authored or co-authored almost 80 publications, many with the participation of his students.

“He also served as a driving force in the Society of Sedimentary Geology, serving as treasurer and managing editor of the organization’s Pacific section publications until his death,” Bowman said, noting that in 2002, Cooper was instrumental in creating a curatorial facility for the Orange County Archaeological-Paleontological Curation Project, a part of the Orange County Harbors, Beaches and Parks Division.

“Dr. Cooper was a champion for the collections. A three-year grant was funded in 2002 to establish a curatorial framework for the collection. Even after the funding ended, and even after he retired from Cal State Fullerton, he continued to volunteer his time,” said Andrea Murray, a lecturer in anthropology and coordinator of archaeology for the curation project.

“John spoke out at public meetings in favor of increasing the level of care for the collections and dedicated much of his time toward creating a better home for the fossils and artifacts. He was respected among both the archaeology and paleontology communities for his work … and, for me, he was a co-worker, a mentor and a friend,” Murray said.

Rob Selway, district supervisor for historical facilities and programs for Orange County, pointed out that Cooper’s efforts began long before the 2002 curatorial project. “Dr. Cooper began this stewardship role in the 1970s, chairing an award-winning county task force, and he continued it as a respected and tireless adviser. His contributions have been extremely valuable and his devotion unmatched.

“Besides that, Dr. Cooper, to me, was a brilliant friend who I respected very much. He was certain of the great value of paleontology, imparting it to generations of students in his teachings and to public officials and business people through his advocacy and scientific work. He applied his knowledge and energy in helping to develop policies and solve problems in the community and for the county.”

Among his many awards and honors, Cooper was named Volunteer of the Year in 2005 by the Orange County Division of Harbors, Beaches and Parks; he received the Distinguished Faculty Award and Outstanding Research Award from the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics in 2000 and 1997, respectively, and the Distinguished Educator Award from the Pacific Section of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists in 2000; and was made a Fellow of the Geological Society of America. He earned a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Texas at Austin.

Besides the Society of Sedimentary Geology and over the length of his career, Cooper was a member of the Olinda Oil Museum and Trail Task Force, a board member of the Shoshone Museum, a reviewer for the Petroleum Research Fund and a co-author of the proposal for Irvine Ranch Land Reserve to be designated a national natural landmark.

In lieu of a public memorial service, Cooper’s family has asked that donations be made in his memory to the John D. Cooper Field Camp Award. Donations can be made online at or by calling University Advancement at 657-278-7071.

Cooper is survived by his wife, Nancy; daughter, Chaska Cooper of Burbank; son, Zachary Cooper of Fullerton; stepson, Randy Thompson of Chino Hills; grandson, Dylan Thompson; and sister, Patricia Cooper of Lexington, Ky.

Media Contact: Russ L. Hudson, Public Affairs, 657-278-4007 or

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