Gene Wescott, scientist, mountaineer, printmaker, actor, dancer, antique MG fancier, longtime Alaskan and father of three, died peacefully in Kaua'i on Feb. 23, 2014, at age 82. He is survived by his daughter, Siobhan; sons, Liam and Brian, and many friends and colleagues around the world.|
Wescott was born in Hampton, Iowa, on Feb. 15, 1932, and lived there until age 10. Even at an early age his intellect and "unusual way of thinking" stood out, as his kindergarten teacher noted in a report card. After the family moved to North Hollywood, California, Gene attended North Hollywood High School, followed by two years at Valley Junior College. He graduated from the University of California Los Angeles and hitchhiked north to Alaska from Boulder, Colorado, in 1958. "I came up to climb mountains," he said, "and I knew there was a geophysical institute there where I might get a summer job after climbing."
After working that summer at Mt. McKinley National Park, he enrolled at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, got his job at the Geophysical Institute and earned his Ph.D. in 1964.
Wescott's climbing career included several first ascents. He was among the teams that made the first ascents of Mount Redoubt, Old Snowy, Black Cap, Aurora and Meteor (the latter two peaks were named by the teams). He also made one infamous descent of the UAF Geophysical Institute, rappelling down the side of the building in full view of the director's office, the director having agreed to look the other way.
Wescott's scientific career spanned two International Polar Years (1957-1958 and 2007-2008), with most of that time spent with the Geophysical Institute and a three-year leave of absence at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. His work was in solid earth geophysics and space physics, studying the electrodynamics of the ionosphere, magnetosphere and mantle. The ideas he explored ranged from earthquake prediction to auroral-induced corrosion in pipelines, auroral sound, and the potential for hydrogen generation from deep geothermal resources along the Aleutian Chain.
He was directly involved with the shaped barium charge rocket shots at Poker Flat in the 1960s and '70s, leading the team working with Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in 1974. Along with Daniel Osborne and Davis Sentman, he was responsible in the 1990s for proving the existence of - and naming - red sprites and blue jets. He retired from the Institute in 2009 but maintained his office there as Professor Emeritus until his death.
While Wescott was well known internationally for his work in geophysics and auroral science, he kept his artistic career mostly within a circle of friends and family. A skilled woodblock printmaker trained by UAF art department founder Danny Pierce, he often made landscapes of the ever-changing vistas of spruce and birch trees against the sky seen from his home on Ester Dome. His print runs usually were very small, often four to eight prints, done for the pleasure of making them and then presented as gifts.
Wescott was also an actor, appearing in several campus plays for director Lee Salisbury, and he applied his printmaking skills to making original art posters for the shows. He was infamous for carrying his acting skills into his everyday life, maintaining a straight face with outrageous aplomb and verve, such as introducing himself at a party as Forest Duff, or, in one memorable practical joke, claiming that the next movie in the UAF Film Group's series was "Street of Shame," a Japanese film about a prostitute - a daring topic for the time. He was believed by the other society members and had to confess, which led to the Great Street of Shame Hoax, wherein the society advertised the film anyway, using posters made by Wescott. The non-showing attracted more attendees than could fit in Schaible Auditorium and led to a loosening of censorship on campus. So many of his Film Group posters were stolen that they had to be put in glass cases.
Wescott's penchant for performance also extended to dance. Known as Walking Hawk, he was a superb traditional dancer and influential elder for the Soaring Eagle Intertribal Drum circle and the Crossing Paths Dance Drum. His enjoyment of dance and mentoring of many other dancers over the years led to many long-lasting friendships. He was drumkeeper for the Soaring Eagle Intertribal Drum and danced at the Midnight Sun Intertribal Powwow, the Alaska Native Arts Festival, the Harvard Powwow, and many other events.
Wescott also loved cars. He had a Porsche 356 coupe as a student, with which he used to race his friend and fellow Porsche owner Merritt Helfferich to Valdez and back. He also collected and restored a long series of classic cars, particularly MGs, among them an elegant art-deco 1937 MG-VA Tickford Drophead Coupe´ that crossed the winner's ramp at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, a clipper blue 1947 MG TC roadster (3387/XPAG 4060), and a yellow 1948 MG TC (5503/XPAG 6183). When his children were small he also owned a Jaguar 3.8 Litre Saloon and a Volvo P1800 sports car.
Wescott was a man of broad and deep interests, with a profound sense of humor, few words and a razor sharp intellect belied by his sometimes preoccupied air. He loved cats and always shared his home with one or two. He led an unconventional and beautiful life for his children, his friends, himself, for science and for art.
Plans are pending for a memorial service in summer 2014 in Fairbanks.
Published in Daily News-Miner on June 18, 2014