Interviews in 1987 with the late Robert W. Frey

Andrew K. Rindsberg

Geological Survey of Alabama

Robert W. ("Bob") Frey was North Americaís foremost ichnologist during his lifetime (1938-1992). Working at the University of Georgia and its Sapelo Island marine station, Frey's research focused on the ichnology of the Georgia coast and on general principles in ichnology. He edited The Study of Trace Fossils (1975), a readable introduction to the study of ichnology. Together with James D. ("Jim") Howard, Bob Frey directed many graduate students, some of whom went on to publish excellent work in ichnology. Among them are Paul B. Basan, J. M. Edwards, Stephen W. Henderson, Stephen Letzsch, Taylor V. Mayou, and Anthony J. Martin. After Howard opted out of science to sail the worldís oceans, Frey developed another productive, long-term collaboration with S. George Pemberton.

Robert W. Frey's wife, Sharon, worked as a nurse in Athens, and can be accounted as one of the major factors in Bob Frey's success. He typically worked at his University office until 5 o'clock and then worked at home until 2 in the morning. Sharon was a fine person who knew well how to make guests comfortable. About a year after her husband succumbed to cancer, she died of complications from a needle prick in the line of duty. They are survived by two children, Eric and Valerie, who live respectively at Athens and at Watkinsville, Georgia.

Bob Frey was my major advisor when I was a Master's student at the University of Georgia; George Pemberton was also on my committee while he worked there. After I left Athens, Georgia to study with John Warme at the Colorado School of Mines, I interviewed my former advisor by telephone on the recent history of ichnology on February 18 and 22, 1987. As we spoke, I jotted down notes, paraphrasing rather than recording them verbatim. Nonetheless, the reader who knew Bob Frey will recognize his voice here and there.

The Interviews

When did you first hear about trace fossils?

As an undergraduate at the University of Montana, in Missoula. Ager's textbook [1963, Principles of Paleoecology] was probably the first source. The other inspiration was local Pleistocene varves of glacial Lake Missoula, with abundant insect trails, similar to those described by Savage [1971, "A varvite ichnocoenosis from the Dwyka Series of Natal"]. These have never been worked up since then by anyone.

Later, at the University of Indiana, where he did his Master's and doctoral work, the Paleozoic sections (notably the Mississippian) were rich in trace fossils. Frey did not go "whole hog" on trace fossils till his studies on the Cretaceous Niobrara Chalk [Frey, 1971a, b], when he realized that the work could scarcely do without them. In the meantime, he translated ichnologic articles by Seilacher, Häntzschel, and so forth as exercises in his German reading class.

A course in 1965 at the Duke Marine Lab at Beaufort, North Carolina, gave Frey his first real experience in the actuopaleontology of modern tracks and trails. The Beaufort papers came largely from this work [Frey, 1968, 1970a, b]. While he was on a tidal flat with bucket and shovel, he had a pregnant conversation with a passer-by who had just completed a postdoc at Sapelo Island. This fellow said that Jim Howard, who still working on his own doctoral, was working on the same kind of things at Sapelo and that they were both crazy. At that time, Frey thought he was completely alone in his enthusiasms. Frey wrote Howard, and they got along very well.

Next summer, Frey was in Kansas working on the Niobrara Chalk [Frey, 1969, 1970c], and Howard was in Utah working on his [Howard, 1966]. Howard stopped by on his way west to Utah, and that is where they met. Later, Howard consolidated his position at Sapelo, which had been tenuous, and helped Frey get a postdoc there. [And collaborated on a long string of papers on modern and ancient ichnology, including classic work on the Georgia coast and the Cretaceous of the U.S. Western Interior.]

Jim Howard went to Indiana, but only as an undergraduate. Don Hattin was not his "mentor," but Ken Hamblin was. Interestingly enough, Hamblin had started out at Georgia, moving first to Kansas, where he picked up Howard as a grad student, then to Brigham Young University. Howard followed him to Brigham Young.

Do you think chance played much of a role in your career?

Yes, I think chance plays more of a role in our lives than most people realize.

Do you regard any particular person as a mentor?

"This is going to sound egotistical, but no, I don't." Except for correspondence with Walter Häntzschel, which was full and rich, Frey was mostly self-taught. Don Hattin's great enthusiasm was for the Niobrara, not its trace fossils. The Crossopodia paper [Hattin and Frey, 1969] developed from Hattin's collection, but only after Frey's interest in trace fossils had become evident.

What courses have you taught in ichnology?

Frey's first attempt at teaching a college course in ichnology was a seminar on "Trace Fossils" at the University of Georgia in 1979, co-taught with S. George Pemberton. [Attending students were Steve Henderson, Jaime Martinez, James Redwine, Andrew Rindsberg, Armando Salazar, and the late Joe Wadsworth. The seminar consisted of lectures followed by oral reports and discussions of readings.] Later, at a date Frey does not recall, he offered a more formal course in Trace Fossils.

What do you consider to be the most productive periods of your career?

"That's hard to get at. In terms of gathering new information and acquiring new data, the first years at Sapelo Island stand out. In terms of years of experience, I'm at my most productive period right now."

What factors are particularly helpful for research?

"This sounds trivial, but (a) at an early professional age, I moved to a virgin territory--the Georgia coast. And (b), ichnology too was a virgin field at the time."

Do you have any comments on how the Ichnology Newsletter got started [1968]?

"The Ichnology Newsletter has been quite successful. It was Jim Howard's idea first--he put out feelers when he was still in grad school. The first issue was rather skimpy [23 mimeographed pages], but reasonably well received. More contributions followed for issue no. 2, which solidified the concept. It was rather exciting to work on the next few issues."

Due to international contacts?

"Yes, and we received a great number of reprints. Sapelo's library, you've seen it, is not adequateÖ"

I've noticed how, in the last few issues of the Ichnology Newsletter, you keep having to ask for reprints to be sent to you. You'd think they'd do that automatically, out of self-interest. But I suppose the journals don't give out so many reprints anymoreÖ

"My list for automatic reprint recipients is pretty short--about half the length of Richard Bromley's. He lists some people I'd never even heard of before."

How did it happen that you stopped editing the Newsletter [after the 1973 issue]?

"The Newsletter eventually took up too much of our time, at a time when other projects were pressing urgently."

Like The Study of Trace Fossils [completed 1973, published 1975] and the massive Senckenbergiana Maritima projects [Howard and others, 1972; Howard and Frey, 1974]Ö

"ÖAnd we mutually agreed, approaching each other at about the same time, to pass the editorship around.

"You know, for fifteen months, I practically spent more time on ships than on land. Cores and cores."

Could you comment on the first few meetings of the Trace Fossil Research Group?

"The Trace Fossil Research Group was an idea of the SEPM Research Council. Jim Howard recommended it and organized the first few meetings. I attended some of the early ones, but fewer and fewer as time went on." [The SEPM Trace Fossil Research Group last met about ten years ago.]

I notice in the Newsletter that the "upper rank" of ichnologists tends to drop out of communicating in the "Work in Progress" section, although the newsletter has hundreds of subscribers. Clearly this is not the major way that they are communicating these days. How do most ideas get transmitted?

"As time went on, communication in formal meetings became less necessary. Instead, it took place at conventions, by letter, and by telephone."

  • Ager, D. V. 1963. Principles of paleoecology: McGraw-Hill, New York, 371 pp.

    Frey, R. W. 1968. The lebensspuren of some common marine invertebrates near Beaufort, North Carolina. I. Pelecypod burrows. Journal of Paleontology, 42: 570-574.

    Frey, R. W. 1969. Stratigraphy, ichnology, and paleoecology of the Fort Hays Limestone Member of the Niobrara Chalk (Upper Cretaceous) in Trego County, Kansas. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA, 368 pp.

    Frey, R. W. 1970a. The lebensspuren of some common marine invertebrates near Beaufort, North Carolina. II. Anemone burrows. Journal of Paleontology, 43:308-311.

    Frey, R. W. 1970b. Environmental significance of recent marine lebensspuren near Beaufort, North Carolina. Journal of Paleontology, 44:507-519, pl. 89-90.

    Frey, R. W. 1970c. Trace fossils of Fort Hays Limestone Member, Niobrara Chalk (Upper Cretaceous), west-central Kansas. University of Kansas Paleontological Contributions, Article 53 (Cretaceous 2), 41 p., 10 pl.

    Frey, R. W. (ed.) 1975. The study of trace fossils: a synthesis of principles, problems, and procedures in ichnology. Springer-Verlag, New York, 568 pp.

    Hattin, D. E. & Frey, R. W. 1969. Facies relations of Crossopodia sp., a trace fossil from the Upper Cretaceous of Kansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma. Journal of Paleontology, 43: 1435-1440.

    Howard, J. D. 1966. Characteristic trace fossils in Upper Cretaceous sandstones of the Book Cliffs and Wasatch Plateau. Utah geological and Mineralogical Survey, Central Utah, Coal Bulletin, 80:35-53.

    Howard, J. D. & Frey, R. W. (eds.) 1974. Estuaries of the Georgia coast, U.S.A.: sedimentology and biology. Senckenbergiana Maritima, 7:1-305.

    Howard, J. D., Frey, R. W. & Reineck, H.-E. (eds.) 1972. Georgia coastal region, Sapelo Island, U.S.A.: sedimentology and biology. Senckenbergiana Maritima, 4:1-222.

    Savage, N. M. 1971. A varvite ichnocoenosis from the Dwyka Series of Natal. Lethaia, 4:217-233.