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March-April 2018

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In Memoriam: James “Jim” Franklin Hurlbut (1920–2017)

They are called the “Greatest Generation.” Remembered most for their sacrifices in World War II and their efforts to rebuild a postwar world, they were so much more. Children of the Great Depression, they understood the values of home, family, country, and striving for the best their talents would allow. My friend Jim Hurlbut was all of these things.

Jim was born to Miles, a railroad engineer, and Evelyn Hurlbut and grew up with his brothers Arthur, George, and Ira in the little town of Antigo, Wisconsin. As a teen he showed an aptitude for all things mechanical and electronic. He went on to begin degree work in physics at the University of Wisconsin, at Madison. In 1941 he received his private pilot's license, joined the U.S. Navy, and flew seaplanes in the Pacific Theater carrying cargo and personnel from California to Hawaii, Guam, New Zealand, and Australia. Jim remained in the Naval reserve for sixteen years and retired with the rank of lieutenant commander.

In 1944 Jim met and married Bette Jackson, and when the war ended, he returned to the university to complete his studies. It was during this period that he began his lifelong involvement with minerals. He and Bette went on to be blessed with five children: daughters Susan and Louise, and sons James B., David, and Bryan. On the weekends Jim's clan headed for the hills, rockhounding gear in tow. Over the years his family grew with the addition of fifteen grandchildren and fifteen great-grandchildren.

In the early 1950s, while working at the University of Denver Institute of Research, Jim managed several Los Alamos National Laboratories and U.S. Airforce projects, including instrument design for evaluating nuclear weapon performance. Not long afterward, in 1956, Jim formed his own company selling electronic instruments and process components, adding geophysical instruments in 1964. He traveled extensively throughout the western states selling and servicing equipment. His son David runs the company now.

Jim joined the Colorado Mineral Society in 1948; and on 1 August 1949 (Colorado Day), he led the party from the club that attached the bronze plaque at the summit of Mt. Antero to establish the Colorado Mineral Park on the mountain.

In 1972 my wife, Kathy, and I first met Jim when we took his continuing education class, “Rocks and Minerals of Colorado,” at Colorado University–Denver. One doesn't hear the term dapper much anymore, but it certainly came to mind as part of our first impressions of Jim. At every session there he was in sport coat and his trademark bow tie. Ask anyone who knew him, and they will remember those bow ties. With his low-key teaching style, he molded two non-scientists into passable mineralogists. I took the course twice just to make sure I “kinda” grasped the crystallography part of the course. Jim taught this course for twenty years and introduced hundreds of people to mineralogy. He encouraged us to join a local mineral club, and another rockhounding family was created.

Jim's influence in the mineral world went well beyond his teaching into leadership at the highest levels. He served as a president of the American Federation of Mineralogical Societies (AFMS) and received the AFMS Recognition Award in 2004 for his significant contributions as lecturer, contributor of scientific articles, and judge at numerous mineral competitions. In 1956 while Jim was serving as president of the Rocky Mountain Federation of Mineralogical Societies, Willard L. Roberts introduced him to micromounting, and he was hooked for life. Not only did he build an award-winning collection of his own, but he also had the rare opportunity to curate several of the famous collections housed at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

In 1971 micromounts became a subset of the general earth sciences collections of the Denver Museum when C. E. “Shorty” Withers (also a Micro-mounters' Hall of Famer) began creating mounts from specimens in the general collection. The donation of his personal collection of more than three thousand specimens further enhanced the micromount holdings. The 1985 donation of Paul Seel's massive collection made the micromount collection world class. Fortuitously, Jim was there to tackle the work of curating and cataloging this windfall. Jim made the existing collections, and those that were added later, his personal babies, nurturing, organizing, cataloging, and spreading the word of their existence through outreach to local clubs and scientific bodies in the United States and Europe. It is safe to say that without Jim being in the right place at the right time, the micromounts would likely have been just another collection gathering dust in some obscure cubbyhole.

Jim's volunteering at the Denver Museum began around 1985, spanned some thirty years, and contributed 13,600 volunteer hours to the Department of Earth Sciences. That's the equivalent of nearly seven years of full-time employment.

When I retired in 2000, I volunteered to work with Jim. For the next sixteen years, I had the rare good fortune to learn mineralogy from a pro while we curated five large micromount collections and created yet another collection that now numbers nearly three thousand specimens. I was especially impressed with his knowledge of crystal forms when we reviewed the more than two thousand mounts in the Seel diamond collection. Looking through the ‘scope at each diamond, he would give me an exhaustive description—size, color, and especially crystallography that I typed into the catalog. He patiently made sure that not only could I spell “tristetrahedron,” but that I also understood what one looked like. In 2011 I was elated when he was inducted into the Baltimore Mineral Society's Micromounters’ Hall of Fame. No one could have been more deserving. His Hall of Fame plaque will hang in the new Avenir Collections Center of the museum. We had good times.

Over the years, Jim “nudged” me into any number of “jobs,” including being on the Denver Gem and Mineral Show's judging committee that he chaired for years and groomed me to take over in the early 2000s. A true teacher, he encouraged me to exhibit competitively in order to validate my role as a judge and to understand the challenges competitors face. Jim will be remembered as a key component in helping to grow the Denver Show.

Jim kept current with many aspects of the sciences through memberships in the American Physical Society, the American Vacuum Society, the Electronics Representatives Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Mineralogical Society of England, the Russell Society of London, the Colorado Mineral Society, the Littleton Gem and Mineral Club, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society, the Friends of Mineralogy, the International Mineralogical Association, and the Society of Mineral Museum Professionals.

That would seem more than enough to keep a guy busy, but not Jim. He also had a lifelong interest in traditional and mainstream jazz and played the clarinet and bass clarinet. He played with the Veterans of Foreign Wars Marching Band, the North Jefferson County Recreation District Concert Band, and the Boulder Jazz Club, plus he occasionally sat in with Your Father's Mustache Band. One of his personal jazz highlights was being invited to play at the Sacramento Jazz Festival. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Denver Jazz Club Youth All Stars Band.

As I was writing this tribute, I realized I could go on and on about his accomplishments, his stories, the fun we had taking museum exhibits to various shows; attending the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, the Baltimore Micromount Symposium, the New Mexico Mineral Symposium; and helping to sponsor Friends of Mineralogy Symposia on Denver Show themes. To know Jim was to be gifted with much to do and plenty to learn—all of it fun.

I heard from many of his friends about how they will miss him. As for me, I will think of him every time I see a bow tie, step foot in the museum, or marvel at the beauty of a mineral speck under a microscope.


Jim's daughter Susan Bucknam provided invaluable input and support in the preparation of this tribute.


Lawrence G. Havens, a retired English teacher, is an avid collector with a fondness for barite and Russian minerals.


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