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July 21, 2016

Obituary: Uldis Kaktins

Emeritus professor Uldis Kaktins, former chair of the Department of Geology and Planetary Science at Pitt-Johnstown, died July 2, 2016, at age 74.

Stephen Lindberg, a former office mate and co-teacher with Kaktins, called him “an exceptional geologist. Uldis was what you pictured as your classic, old-school, hard-rock, out-in-the-field geologist. I learned more geology working with Uldis than I did in my geology courses.”

Kaktins received three geology degrees: a BA in 1965 and PhD in 1975 from Boston University, and an MS from Syracuse University in 1969.

Beginning in 1975, Kaktins taught many courses at Johnstown on everything from prehistoric life to sedimentation and stratigraphy, and directed student research on contaminated mine drainage and other topics.

He began publishing academic papers in 1966, with an emphasis on the Johnstown flood of 1889, in which more than 2,200 people died following the failure of the manmade dam on Lake Conemaugh, which was constructed by the private South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.

Kaktins also had a private consulting practice in hydrogeology and geology.

William B. Kory, geography faculty member at Johnstown, recalls that Kaktins “always had a smile on his face — always had time not just for the faculty people but for the students.” Kaktins was very personable, with a dry sense of humor, Kory says: “A good colleague, a friendly kind of a person.”

Lindberg, an adjunct instructor in geology (in what is now the Department of Energy and Earth Resources), says Kaktins was “instrumental” in hiring him in 1997, since Lindberg previously was a high school teacher whose students Kaktins taught in summer courses. Lindberg later co-taught the Geological Field Methods course with Kaktins.

“He was an expert in hydrology, hydrogeology and geo-morphology” — the evolution of features formed by glaciers and mountains — notes Lindberg. They teamed for a geo-morphology course that ended each semester with a trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York, where the class traveled among many sites, and the students gave presentations. “That was always a wonderful experience to take part in,” Lindberg says.

Kaktins was, he adds, “a geologist’s geologist.”

Kaktins had just published new research findings in June about the Johnstown flood with several Johnstown colleagues; Lindberg called it “quite a revealing paper.

The paper, published in Heliyon, reviewed the 1891 scientific assessment of the flood’s cause, which had concluded that “changes made to the dam by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club did not cause the disaster because the embankment would have been overflowed and breached if the changes were not made. We dispute that conclusion based on hydraulic analyses of the dam as originally built, estimates of the time of concentration and time to peak for the South Fork drainage basin, and reported conditions at the dam and in the watershed.”

It found: “A properly rebuilt dam would not have overtopped and would likely have survived the runoff event, thereby saving thousands of lives.”

—Marty Levine 

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