In memoriam: Don Bloss, first professor to be honored as Alumni Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech
May 19, 2020
Fred Donald “Don” Bloss, a longtime professor with Virginia Tech’s Department of Geosciences, died April 22, 2020, a month shy of his 100th birthday.
In 1967, Bloss joined the Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences, now part of the Virginia Tech College of Science, until his retirement in 1991. In 1972, Bloss was the first professor at Virginia Tech to be appointed as an Alumni Distinguished Professor.
According to Mickey Gunter, Emeritus University Distinguished Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Idaho and a former student and lifelong friend of Bloss’s, “He earned this prestigious first honor based not only on his teaching skills, research, and textbooks, but his professional service.”
Among Bloss’s service roles were serving as president of the Mineralogical Society of America (MSA) in 1977 and as executive editor of the organization’s journal, The American Mineralogist, from 1972 to 1975. Gunter wrote the forward for Bloss’s 2012 memoir, “World War II, Mineralogy, and Me: A Memoir,” which contains accounts of Bloss’s childhood in Chicago during the Great Depression, his service in an English medical military unit during World War II as Bloss was a conscientious objector, and his research career in optical mineralogy and the use of the polarized light microscope in geology.
Bloss was born May 30, 1920. A proficient writer of poetry whose work appeared in the Chicago Daily News as a teen, he accepted a scholarship at the University of Chicago to major in English. While a first-year student, Bloss heard a lecture by the geologist J Harlen Bretz, who was first to correctly interpret the barren, soil-free region of eastern Washington state as remnants of ancient cataclysmic floods. Despite having no prior interest in Earth sciences, Bloss changed his major to geology soon after.
Bloss would graduate from the University of Chicago with bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, respectively, in 1947, 1949, and 1951. He served as a professor of geology at the University of Tennessee from 1951 to 1957 and at Southern Illinois University from 1957 to 1967, before coming to Blacksburg.
His textbooks on optical crystallography, crystallography, and crystal chemistry, the first published in 1961, were used worldwide, and have since been acknowledged by fellow geologists as ‘classics,’ according to his obituary. Among his many awards are honors from the State Microscopical Societies of Illinois, Minnesota, and New York, and an Ernst Abbe Memorial Award from the New York Microscopical Society in 1988. The University of New Mexico selected Bloss as the State of New Mexico’s first endowed visiting chair, the Caswell Silver Distinguished Visiting Professor of Geology from 1981 to 1982. In addition, the mineral blossite was named in his honor.
Bloss also wrote a number of nonscientific books, most notably five books on his lifelong hobby, chess. Further, he was a great admirer since childhood of author Mark Twain and would regularly quote the famed writer. In his memoir, he recalls building a makeshift raft from scrap wood with friends, inspired by “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Mike Hochella, himself a Virginia Tech University Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Geosciences and two-time alumnus of the Department of Geosciences, recalled the very first time he saw Bloss. It was fall 1971, and Hochella was a freshman, waiting for his first session of Introduction to Geology. “This was my very first college class, and it also happened to be the first class of my major. I had no idea what to expect,” Hochella said. “Just before the hour, in walks a very hard and stern looking character, short, and with a crewcut, silently but briskly walking up the right side of the classroom looking at the floor, and then along the front. I was terrified. Who would have thought that I’d survive that class — with a B — and gain a brilliant colleague and dear friend who I would so greatly admire for the next half century?”
Years later, Hochella was a professor at Stanford University when he heard Bloss was retiring. Hochella applied for the soon-to-be-vacant position held by Bloss. His goal: “I would try to fill the giant shoes left by that legendary scientist, my very first teacher in the Earth sciences just 20 years earlier.”
In a 2006 profile story in the Geosciences at Virginia Tech magazine, Hochella wrote of visiting Bloss at his Blacksburg home. Among the personal gems in the story, Hochella quotes Bloss speaking of the crystallography textbooks he wrote, “When I write science, it is not so it can be understood; I’m writing so it can’t be misunderstood.”
Bloss is survived by his wife of 74 years, Louise Land Bloss. Don and Louise met on the University of Kentucky campus. She was a first-year English major there, and he was attending a training program through the U.S. Army for service in World War II. The couple would marry in 1946. In the 2012 memoir, he wrote, “After I met Louise, I sang to her and do so yet. Edith Piaf was right: ‘Love without singing, that’s no good. Nor is singing without love.’”
Together, Don and Louise had three daughters: in order of appearance (an old, inside-family joke) Terry Kensler, Janet Shuff, and Jill Bloss. Additional survivors include four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He was proceeded in death by a son, Donald Keith Bloss, who died at the age of three, and a sister, Geraldine Zorn, formerly of Park Ridge, Illinois.
McCoy Funeral Home in Blacksburg is serving the family.