Oregon State University

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Henry R. Fehrenbacher Graduate Fellowship will support promising students

By Gretchen Fehrenbacher

My dad didn't get to pursue his college degree, as he would have liked.

Never would he have dreamed that he would be the reason for the first endowed Ph.D. fellowship in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

The Henry R. Fehrenbacher Graduate Fellowship means that someday, Oregon State University will offer fully funded Ph.D. scholarships to the most promising students in CEOAS. One student will be chosen each year.

My estate assets and those from my late sister, Frieda M. Fehrenbacher, combined with my father's estate that he worked a lifetime for, will fund this gift.

If only my dad could have lived to witness this happen. It's beyond any words I can think of to imagine how thrilled – stunned, actually – he would be.

In retrospect, it all falls into place. Though my father enrolled briefly as an OSU engineering student before money ran out, he always had a passion for science.

It shines through as far back as I can remember.

During spring break, our family would join friends at Gleneden Beach. Dad would spend hours along the shore, consumed as he walked clear out of sight, surveying the beach, the ocean and its interplay with the moon and the atmosphere.

He would scan the hard, wet sand for anything jutting up – a starfish or sand dollar, a briny rope of seaweed, even a glass float that might have drifted over the currents from Japan. The latter, perhaps an echo from his World War II years in the Merchant Marines?

At night, we would return to the beach, look and listen as whitecaps were illuminated far out, beyond any source of light. Dad explained that it had to do with phosphorescence, a natural phenomenon.

Always, we would gaze up and marvel that the sky could be that black and dotted with millions of stars and the signature streak of the Milky Way. Even in our youth, we were arrested by the enormity of it all.

On car trips preceding and following these forays, we would inevitably stop and explore as we traversed the Southwest, the Rockies and British Columbia. The records of these trips were the chunks of granite, slate, lava, jasper and obsidian that were wedged in the trunk between suitcases.

Years passed. I was probably 16 when I suspected my dad was secretly as bored with the socks and ties I mechanically gave him for Christmas as I was in giving them, always wrapped as if they held some wondrous surprise.

Then, an inspiration: I would give him a subscription to Scientific American! He was always buying the latest copy, borne of his fascination with physics and what made the planet, galaxies and universe tick. In everyday life, he would talk about centrifugal force, surface tension, wave action and black holes.

For him, those pursuits were a counterpoint to the long hours he spent as a U.S. Postal Service supervisor at the main building in downtown Portland to support our family. He labored through years of arthritic feet and a congenital kidney defect, never expecting any payback for our education.

Eventually, I would become a newspaper reporter, while Frieda, a few years older, became a professor at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia. My eldest sister Sigrid was a violinist in the Oregon Symphony for 38 years and a driven antiques dealer while raising a family with her husband, former Portland Mayor Bud Clark.

For her part, our mother, Helen Jacobs Fehrenbacher, was absorbed in the home setting with literature, music, politics and almost anything of a scholarly nature.

We grew up in nice houses, spartanly – clunker cars, railroad-auction furniture and homemade clothes. But there were those outings, along with music and ballet lessons. Premium value was always on learning with the folks rather than on things.

All this time, Dad was investing savings for the future. To this day, it haunts me that he lived less than a year after retirement to enjoy that future. He died Nov. 14, 1977, just shy of six months after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

Several years ago, I made plans for the fellowship, to take effect after my estate is settled. This summer, I had the chance to envision that future on a day's tour with CEOAS staff and graduate students in Corvallis. To my surprise and delight, CEOAS is based in Alpha Chi Omega's former house – the sorority I belonged to nearly 50 years ago in a newer location on campus.

Jonathan Yang of Arizona is among the students I met this day – many who cobble together grants and financing from various sources to pay for their graduate work. All zero in on highly targeted areas of research.

With the fellowship, future students will have a year to craft study pathways of their own design.

"There is an entire world we still don't know about the oceans," Yang says. "I would like to see some of my work with trace elements as tracers of groundwater flow and contamination."

Jason Brandes of California is studying carbon contamination next to streams and rivers.

"We want to know where the carbon is and how and when it enters our waterways," he says, noting that small streams are among the most intense locations of CO2 release to the atmosphere in the natural landscape.

Jianghui Du, in his third year at Oregon State from China, is researching another question.

"We are trying to understand what the climate has been in the past so we can predict or understand the future," he says.

Du is studying the ocean floor for the chemical makeup of sediment at different depths, translating to different periods in the Earth's evolution.

Erin Peck of Pennsylvania is studying how certain sediment pulls down and contains damaging carbon from the atmosphere. It's research that could aid efforts to reduce future warming while bolstering fish habitats.

CEOAS' other arenas stretch as far as Mars, where, among other pursuits, scientists want a better understanding of the planet's geology. Five researchers are working in that realm now.

All of this goes full circle back to Dad: What in heaven's name would he say about today's students working side-by-side with researchers on such heady questions?

For more information on estate gifts and named endowed funds, please contact Jeff Comfort at: jeff.comfort@oregonstate.edu or 541-737-3756.

Editor's Note: Gretchen Fehrenbacher received her B.S. from Oregon State University in 1971 in what was then called secretarial science. Working with the OSU Foundation, she has made an estate pledge to create the fund at CEOAS honoring her father. Gretchen lives in Portland, Oregon.

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