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John D. Fett

(1933-2009)

On July 14, 2009 John David Fett passed away suddenly in his home in Crystal Bay, Nevada.  He had been battling the progression of Parkinson's Disease, had recovered from having a brain tumor removed a few years earlier, and had recently found out that he was beginning to have congestive heart failure.  After his passing, family, neighbors, and friends, including some of his closest professional friends and business associates, helped to celebrate his life through their stories and reminiscences at his home.  His ashes were scattered from a float plane over Lake Tahoe during the event, celebrating his love for flying.

John was born in Brooklyn, New York, March 2, 1933.  He lived in Douglaston, NY, for much of his childhood and went to a parochial school while in New York.  He also enjoyed sailing and fishing during the summers, while the family stayed in their cottage in South Hampton on Long Island.  In 1947, his father Philip purchased a small apricot farm in Hemet, southern California, and in 1948, the family moved to Hemet.  He developed interests in math, the sciences, and history, joined a rockhound club, was an acomplished pianist, and most importantly, met Rheo Kennedy, who would be his friend for the next sixty years, and wife and partner for fifty years.

John completed his Bachelor's degrees at nearby RedlandsUniversity with majors in math, chemistry, and geology, as well as finishing a pre-medicine program.  His father passed away while he was in college, so he also took on responsibilities for work on the family farm.  Due to a mixture of talents, interests, and experiences, in 1954 he chose to start his grad school experience at Cal Tech (California Institute of Technology), doing graduate work in geophysics.  He also finished the undergrad classwork necessary for a Physics degree.  While at Cal Tech,  he and fellow classmate Harry Lawrence worked on a geophysical project near Barstow, California, and also a project for the Navy.  He gained diverse experience that he valued throughout the remainder of his career.  John was offered a research position at ColumbiaUniversity in 1956, and during the Geophysical Year he joined the crew of the research schooner Vema, to collect data across the Atlantic from Africa to Brazil.  The experience of collecting geophysical data, including marine gravity data over the mid-Atlantic ridge, from a beautiful sail boat, was one of the highlights of his life.  He also valued the people that he had met at both institutions, but decided to return to California, to family responsibilities.

John's graduate work at UC Riverside during the 1960s involved using both gravity and seismic refraction to define the aquifer in the San JacintoValley.  The density profile that he developed for his Master's degree in 1968 stands the test of time, and is valuable for geophysical modeling of similar basins today.  The seismograph that he built in the family dining room to find the top of the saturated zone, would later be the workhorse for his work as a consultant.  Today, the seismograph and the camper shell that it lived in, would seem like an historical curiosity, but in its day, it was high tech with more channels than had previously been available.

Also living in Hemet in the 1960s was Richard Proctor, chief geologist of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD).  They became friends and Richard told John of two of MWD's consulting geologists, Gene Nelson and Doug Hamilton, who were working on the enlargement of nearby Lake Mathews Dam.  John recalled Gene as one of his classmates at Cal Tech.   When John met Gene again, they, along with Doug and PE Dick Meehan, decided to form a new company, specializing in engineering geology and geotechnical engineering.  So in 1969 they formed Earth Sciences Associates, Inc. (ESA) in Palo Alto.  Dr. Richard Jahns, Dean of the School of Earth Sciences at StanfordUniversity, became a Director of the firm.  

After a couple of years, John decided he would rather be an independent consultant, so he  sold his interest in ESA, but they continued working together on projects for several years.  Both John's and ESA's consulting projects soon began to go global.  His work took him to Viet Nam and Korea, Central and South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean, as well as throughout the U.S., including Hawaii.  Specialties included using geophysics, hydrogeology, and geochemistry to solve salt water intrusion problems for beach resorts; helping countries assess their water resources in an attempt to plan for the future in farming districts; fault, earthquake, and volcano research; and the use of gravity in the search for karsts and tunnels. John had made friends with Cinna Lomnitz, from Mexico, while at Cal Tech.  This friendship grew, as Cinna and John shared work experiences in Chile, Mexico, and California, and as both geophysicists began raising their families.  The Lomnitz family hosted the Fett family in their lovely home in Mexico City after John had done salt water intrusion work inAcapulco. Later they stayed in touch via AGU meetings each year.

John was active in getting geophysicists added to the California Board of Registration for Geologists and Geophysicists; was a Director of the Eastern Municipal Water District; was on land use review boards, and was forever a champion of using science and engineering to make smart decisions on society's behalf.  His consulting work was practical and focused on helping landowners and communities find water efficiently, map landslides and faults, and measure subsidence from extraction of fluids or the rising of the ground, in the case of his crew's work on the Palmdale Bulge project for the USGS.  Three of John's coworkers in southern California were geologists Lou Blanck, Al Femingand Gary Rasmussen.  Also, geologist and fellow pilot Marshall Payne recalls flying with John over project sites in southern California in John's Cessna 172.  Gary was addicted to flying as well, both men loved sharing stories about their jaunts around the southwest.

In the 1970s, John started a gravity meter rental business in his garage.  This business allowed consultants and small exploration company crews to use geophysics for projects without having to purchase equipment that they may only use a few times a year.  The successful growth of this company, JD Fett Instruments, as well as his consulting, eventually lead him to decide to purchase LaCoste & Romberg, Inc. from Dr. Lucian LaCoste to make sure that he would continue to have "support" for his gravity meters.  With daughters that were now grown and in college, he and Rheo moved to Austin, Texas, to start a new chapter in their lives.  Rheo continued to help him run the instrument rental business.  Many of the gravity meters in the rental pool were eventually sold, to reduce the backlog in the orders for meters.  The company was moved to a larger building to support the business needs, and John's focus became improving the efficiency and precision of the production process.  Eventually, he oversaw research to develop new versions of the airborne gravity meter system, downhole gravity meters with greater tolerances for hole direction variations, and the modernization or servicing of many of the gravity meters that had been in the field, working hard for government agencies, universities, and companies.

During the 1980s, desk top computers, user friendly operating systems, and point and click mouse and software technologies had sparked the imagination of two young entrepreneurs, Dan Herold and Peter Flanagan, who wanted to develop an affordable computer system and software for processing seismic data.  Always the entrepreneur himself, John decided to sponsor their initial work and mentor their team through development and start-up.  As Russia opened its markets and communication with the western world in the1990s, John encouraged the Parallel Geosciences team to develop equivalent software for PC's (IBM and related companies).  Once again, John's lifelong theme emerged--of providing access to geophysics for those who may not otherwise be able to afford to utilize the science.  The systems are also ideal for use in situations where one would not want to risk a more expensive system and package.  Universities with small departments would be able to afford a system for research and training students.  John also wrote his own software for processing other types of data, and was still facing the challenges of learning new computer languages and operating systems when he decided to sell LaCoste & Romberg and JD Fett Instruments.  In 1998 he became semi-retired and moved to Nevada. 

After selling his two companies, he dreamed of designing a small electrical instrument that would be lightweight and rugged in the field.  His days for carrying heavy instruments over hill and dale were over.  He bargained to retain the acronym for L & R and worked with Byron Arnason to develop a resistivity meter that was perhaps a little larger than his original concept (a pocket-sized multimeter with little handheld probes), but still the pride of John, Byron, and the small team of craftsmen and engineers that helped them develop, design, and produce this meter and its follow-on relatives.  As with his software work, he was still involved in day to day discussions of modifications, upgrades, and expansions of the various meters' capabilities. 

John attended and exhibited at many professional conferences that featured geophysics.  He did not write many public papers, but one presentation that stands out was the one the he presented to ETH, in Switzerland, on their airborne gravity survey of the country of Switzerland with a new gravity meter system that triangulated locations and elevations via GPS stations on mountain tops.  Colleague Mark Halliday presented this work at an AGU meeting, and shares photos from three of these surveys on his website: http://www.MrHalliday.com  John was a member of AEG, AGU, SEG, EEGS (Environmental and Engineering Geophysical Society), EAGE (European Association of Geophysicists and Engineers), and was a Fellow of GSA.

John lost Rheo in August 2008, after she had struggled with Parkinson's for fifteen years.  He is survived by three daughters, three grandsons, and an older brother.  John's passing is a great loss to the applied geophysics community.

- By Phyl Porter  (aka  Phyllis Fett Halvorson Porter)
with edits and additional comments by Richard Proctor
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