Environmental Science, Policy and Management professor Gary Sposito is not fond of having his picture taken. When a friendly deputation (including his GSIs and departmental chair, colleagues, and staff and, oh, God, a photographer) invaded his Wheeler Hall classroom earlier this month to surprise him with an honor, his first impulse was to cross his arms in front of his face, not like a perp-walked mob boss, but more reminiscent of an exhausted exorcist facing the ultimate evil.

His students in Environmental Soil Chemistry 126, however, were delighted, and their infectious cheer soon jollied him into relaxing and somewhat dubiously going with the flow.

The unexpected fanfare was about Sposito’s behind-the-scenes role in guiding the grad students who help him teach his courses, for which work he was about to receive the Faculty Award for Outstanding Mentorship of GSIs, one of UC Berkeley’s earliest honors to faculty members for that noble and highly voluntary activity.

The award came from the hands of Jeff Reimer, chemical engineering professor (and department chair), who heads the Graduate Council’s Advisory Committee for GSI Affairs, but it was instigated by Sposito’s present and former GSIs, who nominated him, thus subjecting him to this happy torture.

Sposito earned his Ph.D. in soil science at Berkeley in 1965 (in under two years, which required a special waiver). On his journey away from and then back to Berkeley, he taught physics at Sonoma State University and soil science at UC-Riverside, with such distinction that he became perhaps the only person to have won Distinguished Teaching Awards from both state university systems in California.

His Berkeley GSIs extolled both his generosity and his individualized constructive criticism. One nominator said, “he was always very careful never to outright tell me what to do in my class. Rather, he asked just the right probing questions to facilitate my coming up with teaching ideas on my own. In my eyes, that is terrific mentoring. I repeatedly felt empowered and gained a sense of self-confidences in my teaching abilities.”

Once the award was in Sposito’s hands, his students called out, “Speech, speech!” To which he answered, “No speech, I have nothing to say. I really don’t. I have no idea why this happened. I wouldn’t know any other way to do it than the way I did it. I was just being natural. I started my career in a strictly teaching institution in the Cal State system for about nine years and taught five courses per semester, and I guess you really learn to teach in an environment like that. It’s a lot of work, but it was really good experience. It’s a very rewarding kind of career. Otherwise, I have nothing to say. But I’m certainly grateful!”

Sposito’s self-effacing ways are known, and noted, beyond Berkeley. When the American Chemical Society held its 2006 annual meeting in San Francisco, a four-day symposium was held under the title “Physical Chemistry of Soil and Aquifer systems: A Symposium in Honor of Garrison Sposito.” Colleagues reporting on the event in a journal referred to it in a group photo caption as “A Symposium in Honor of Gary, eyes closed in quiet forbearance.”  — Dick Corten

Gary Sposito with Jeff Reimer
Gary Sposito with Jeff Reimer

(Originally published in eGrad, May 2010)