In memoriam: James R. Craig, former department chair of geosciences and professor emeritus
James R. “Jim” Craig, a professor emeritus of economic geology and former chair of the Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences from August 1990 to August 1994, died Dec. 23. He was 82.
Craig was born Feb. 16, 1940, in Philadelphia to the late Harry R. and Evelyn M. Craig. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree and from Lehigh University with master’s and doctoral degrees, all in geological sciences, according to his online obituary. He completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. His career as a university professor and research scientist spanned 35 years. He retired from what is now the Virginia Tech College of Science in 2002.
Michal Hochella, a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Geosciences, said Craig was a “great field geologist, mineralogist, petrologist, and his brilliance really showed through in his specialty, economic geology.” As an undergraduate at Virginia Tech during the 1970s, Hochella said he had Craig as a professor for a summer field course and also took on an undergraduate research project under him.
“He was a tough and demanding teacher and we worked hard, but everyone loved and respected him as an incredibly devoted and caring teacher,” Hochella said. “The breadth of his knowledge was amazing, and during those times for me and my fellow students, he transformed all of us into real geologists.”
Craig “earned numerous awards for teaching, including the [University] Sporn Award for Teaching Excellence, a membership in Virginia Tech’s Academy of Teaching Excellence, and several certificates of Teaching Excellence,” his obituary stated. Additional honors included the prestigious Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award, the commonwealth’s highest honor for faculty at Virginia’s public and private colleges and universities. Craig at one point also served as chair of the Virginia Waste Management Board.
An archived Virginia Tech Magazine story from 2001 detailed Craig’s work with the North Carolina Division of Cultural Research’s Underwater Archeology Unit to study gold and other metals found in the sunken wreckage of Queen Anne’s Revenge, the ship captained by none other than Edward Teach (Thatch), better known as Blackbeard the Pirate. Craig was tasked with authenticating the ship’s metals, including cannons and gold treasure. Craig became certified in scuba diving so he could descend the depths to the ship's remains with other researchers, according to the story.
Robert Bodnar, a University Distinguished Professor and the C.C. Garvin Professor of Geochemistry, also said Craig was a career mentor. In 1984, Craig recruited Bodnar to join Virginia Tech. At the time, Bodnar was working with Chevron’s Mineral Deposits Research Group and was not in the market for a new job.
Craig shared with him funds from the former’s U. S. Department of Interior’s Mining and Mineral Resources Research Institute grant, Bodnar said. Craig also ensured that Bodnar accompanied him on research excursions across Virginia and into the Carolinas and Tennessee. The travel didn’t stop there.
During the late 1980s, China’s Ministry of Metallurgy and Mining invited Craig to work with its geologists to teach them modern methods used to study ore deposits, Bodnar said. “Jim invited me to join him on the project, and for several years we traveled to China for up to six weeks each year,” Bodnar said. “Much of this work was done in remote areas where the local population had never seen a Westerner in person.”
Added Bodnar, “In our careers, many people contribute to our successes, and we often do not recognize the significance of the contributions until many years later. While Jim may not have thought he was doing anything significant or of value when he mentored me as a young, naive and inexperienced assistant professor, in retrospect I recognize that Jim Craig’s advice, guidance and support were critical to my future success as a faculty member, educator, and researcher.”
Hochella was also recruited by Craig to Virginia Tech from Stanford University. “Jim was powerful and influential over the entire university in those days,” Hochella said. “He seemed to know just about everyone across campus, and more importantly, academic faculty, staff, and administrators across campus seemed to do anything for him because he was so well liked and respected. He left no stone unturned or detail unsolved. And what he said or promised, he did, exactly and on time.”
Neil Johnson, a senior instructor of geosciences, earned bachelor’s, masters’, and doctoral degrees under Craig. “For my Ph.D., Jim suggested I investigate tetrahedrite, following up on work an earlier student had published. The subsequent exploration of the variations in the chemistry and how these variations changed the structure of this mineral made for compelling, and to this day, commonly cited research. In a very real sense, Jim was instrumental in my learning how to research, how to write, and most importantly, how to teach.”
Craig’s obituary describes him as an “avid bird watcher, and [that] his binoculars were always nearby.”
Craig is survived by his high school sweetheart and wife of 60 years, Lois Watson Craig; a daughter, Nancie Willett (Charles Stoll) of Mount. Pleasant, S.C., and son, James M. Craig (Donna Mabry) of Christiansburg; four grandchildren; two brothers; and nephews and a niece.
A celebration of life was held Jan. 5 at Blacksburg United Methodist Church, where he was a member. McCoy Funeral Home handled arrangements.