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John Boatwright

1951 - 2018 Obituary Condolences
John Boatwright Obituary
John Lord Boatwright, "Jack"

January 28, 1951 - September 20, 2018

John Lord Boatwright, Jack, distinguished research scientist at the United States Geological Survey, died September 20, 2018 of interstitial lung disease, the result of a bone marrow transplant he received in 2008 to treat leukemia. Jack made the most of the ten additional years he was given, dedicating himself to his family and his community.

Jack was born in Portsmouth, VA, on January 28, 1951, the son of the late Victor Taliaferro Boatwright and Mary Howard "Billy" Boatwright, and he grew up in Stonington, CT. He was graduated from Stanford University in 1975 with a BA in physics and an MA in geophysics, then from Columbia University in 1980 with a PhD in seismology. His PhD thesis and abiding interest in seismology was source theory, that is, in the physics of the earthquake source itself. Jack began working in the US Geological Survey Branch of Ground Motion and Faulting in Menlo Park in 1980 and retired thirty-eight years later, on September 11, 2018.

Jack was highly regarded for his studies relating earthquake rupture dynamics, radiated seismic energy, and strong ground motion, and he developed new approaches to image the properties of earthquake sources. He undertook intensive studies of modern earthquakes throughout the U.S. and in eastern Canada, applying his methods to obtain a better understanding of source directivity, seismic wave propagation, and ground motion amplification. Jack also brought greater understanding to the earthquakes of the past. His extensive analysis of shaking intensity from the 1868 M6.8 earthquake on the Hayward Fault and the 1906 M7.9 earthquake on the San Andreas Fault drew upon both historical reports and his own meticulous fieldwork, including an inspired investigation of toppled tombstones in cemeteries in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Mendocino, Sonoma and Santa Cruz Counties. Jack served with University of California (Berkeley) and the California Geological Survey as the USGS lead on implementing ShakeMap for Northern California, mapping intensities for important historical earthquakes. In the 1980s and 1990s, Jack formed an enduring collaboration and friendship with the scientists at the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica in Rome, where Jack undertook some of his most important theoretical work.

Throughout his career, Jack was committed to public service. He made seminal contributions to bridge the gap between scientific discovery and risk reduction, forming partnerships with scientists, engineers, and public officials at the local, regional, and national levels. He also served as both the Northern California Coordinator for the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program and Chief of the Earthquake Effects Project in the Earthquake Science Center. On October 16, 2018, the City and County of San Francisco issued a proclamation in honor of Jack's work to strengthen the resilience of the Bay Area's built environment. On July 4, 2019, the Department of the Interior will present Jack with its highest tribute, the Distinguished Service Award, which his family will gratefully accept in his memory.

Jack was a fearless champion for science in the public interest and a strong advocate for advancing women in the sciences. In that same vein, he held his doctors and the many nurses who cared for him over the past decade in the highest regard. Should you want to honor Jack in some way, please consider giving to the University of California at San Francisco, where Jack was treated for ten years; to the Earth Science Women's Network; or to an organization known to you that champions truth, equality, compassion, and hope. More than all of his justly earned accolades, such a gift would perpetuate his memory in a most fitting way.

Jack left a vast body of scientific work, but he was not only a scientist, he was a writer. He wrote poems virtually all his life, exploring language and poetic form. He brought a poet's sensibility and skill to his scientific undertakings and a profound understanding of physical reality to his poetry.

Jack is survived by his wife of 33 years, Tia Lombardi, his son Charlie, of San Francisco, and his daughter Phoebe, of New York City; his two sisters Mary Dorsey Boatwright and husband Enrique Ucelay Da Cal of Barcelona, Spain and Mary Taliaferro Boatwright and husband Paul Feldblum of Durham, NC; his sister-in-law Louisa Holt Boatwright of Newport, RI; and his cousin Elizabeth Crowley and husband Robert of Bronxville, NY. Jack loved his family, drawing everyone together – especially the children – with math puzzles and physics problems, with discussions about politics and sports, and with heated games of hearts. Jack was enormously proud of Charlie and Phoebe, Charlie's partner Ellen Huynh, his nephew Joseph Feldblum and his wife Amelia O'Rourke-Owens, his nephew Sammy Feldblum, and his niece Victoria Boatwright. He extended this embrace to his children's friends and their parents, many of whom knew him as an irreverent, inspired coach, and as a thoughtful and trusted, if ironic advisor.

William Howard Boatwright, Bill, Jack's twin, was killed in a car accident on February 5, 2015. In the months before his own death, Jack was writing an essay, "The Sound Before Us: Ice Sheets, Sea Level, and Sailing in Fishers Island Sound," dedicated to his brother, whose superior skill as a sailor was a source of pride, pleasure, and inspiration for many, Jack chief among them. In the essay, Jack explores the glacial geology of Fishers Island Sound, where he and Bill sailed as kids, from the perspective of the easy sailor he was.

Jack was a graceful athlete and passionate sports fan, a lover of great literature and classic blues, and perhaps above all an aficionado of friendship, gifted with the ability to love with all his heart. He lived his life and faced his death with modesty and quiet bravery. His low-key heroism will not be forgotten. A celebration in Jack's honor will be held for family and friends in May.

Published in San Francisco Chronicle on Jan. 28, 2019
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