Even after almost 50 years working in Alaska for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Frederic “Ric” Wilson gets almost giddy talking about his work.
“It feels like I’m living a life of adventure,” Ric said. “An adventure that hasn’t ended.”
Ric, the son of an art teacher and accountant, grew up during an era of segregation. They were the first Black family in their neighborhood. Moving to Alaska, logging thousands of hours in helicopters, living on ships, and becoming intimately connected to the Earth’s story through its dirt, rocks and waterways wasn’t something he ever imagined for himself.
“Growing up in Chicago, I had never seen a rock until I got to [college in] northern Michigan at Michigan Tech.”
He intended to major in civil engineering, but a required geology course opened up his world. He switched to geology and never looked back.
Ric Wilson first arrived in Alaska in August of 1973 to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Alaska, likely the first Black graduate student the geology department ever had. Although he only intended to stay for a year and a half, he said Alaska “sucked” him in and people here made him feel like family.
Becoming a research scientist did not come without its barriers though, particularly in education. Even as a kid, Ric’s parents fought for him to part of the class to integrate a white high school. Failing that, he went on scholarship to the University of Chicago Laboratory High School. Although he enjoyed his master’s program in Alaska, it was a drastically different experience when Ric left to pursue a doctoral degree at Dartmouth College. He was likely the first Black graduate student that department had, too. Instead of embracing him, Ric recalled one of the faculty members telling him: “It’s clear I didn’t know anything about geology, even though I had a master’s degree, and that I needed to start with a beginning textbook all over again if I thought I was going to be able to stay there.” Nonetheless, he earned his Ph.D. there in spite of that professor..
When Ric came back to Alaska in 1980 to build a laboratory for the USGS on the Alaska Pacific University campus, he said he knew he was home.
“It just felt right. I felt welcome,” Ric said. “I always felt like people treated me as a second-class citizen, whereas up here I never felt that, I never felt that at all.”
That’s not to say Alaska is a utopia. Once, when on a run through an Anchorage neighborhood, Ric recalled being stopped and yelled at by a motorist: “You’re not allowed in this neighborhood! Get out!” Ric said he just kept running and afterward shared the incident with a few running friends.
“When Ahmaud Arbery was shot, one of them came to me and they said, ‘We thought that you were just overblowing that situation and now we realize no, this is real’,” Ric said.
Those moments have been few and far between for Ric, though. He is much more interested in talking about the ways geology and earth sciences can help inspire the next generation. “Geology and earth sciences can help kids know and understand their place in the natural world and in their community,” he says. “That’s especially important for Black kids who don’t usually get that opportunity to explore.”
“For a long time, I felt like what we call the ‘lonely only,’ I’m the only Black here,” Ric said. “It doesn’t mean that I forget who I am because I can never forget who I am, but it sure means I’d like some company. And I’d like to go out and help develop that company.”
In Alaska, not only did Ric find a lifetime of adventure, he found belonging.