Living

Beloved CSU geology professor retires after recovering from car crash that killed wife

DANNY REDDING/Special to the Ledger-Enquirer 
 In this August 2012 photo, the last one of them together, Columbus State University geology professor Bill Frazier and his wife, Sandy, tour Badlands National Park in South Dakota the day before she died in a car crash as they drove through Wyoming on the way to Denver for their flight home.
DANNY REDDING/Special to the Ledger-Enquirer In this August 2012 photo, the last one of them together, Columbus State University geology professor Bill Frazier and his wife, Sandy, tour Badlands National Park in South Dakota the day before she died in a car crash as they drove through Wyoming on the way to Denver for their flight home.

He made rocks and fossils seemingly come alive.

His expertise is in geology, but Bill Frazier's impact was on people, the people of Columbus State University, from where this beloved professor retired last month after 41 years at the 58-year-old institution.

Jeannie Patrick, who graduated in December and now works in the CSU Coca-Cola Space Science Center, took three of Frazier's courses, including the geology of Georgia, which entailed field trips around the state. When she found a fossil at Bear Lake in Charlton County, she equally marveled at Frazier's ability to make the moment meaningful.

"It was just a shell," she said, "but with him, it was like, 'Oh, my gosh, it tells you so much more than that."

Whether it was through one-on-one conversations or the classroom lectures that first used a carousel projector and then a PowerPoint presentation, Frazier told stories that spanned the millions of years to produce the rocks in his slide shows or in his students' hands. As a result, he impressed students and fellow professors alike.

"The respect of his colleagues is unbelievable," said Dennis Rome, dean of CSU's College of Letters and Sciences. "I've never seen such deference and, if I may, reverence in a way."

Frazier, who chaired CSU's Department of Earth and Space Sciences, returns the compliment.

"The faculty in this department, but also all across campus, are good people," he said. "They're friendly. I have good friends here."

And he gained a new appreciation for those friends when their support helped him recover from the 2012 car accident that killed his wife and left him with multiple injuries that forced him to miss a whole semester.

"It's amazing what he's overcome," said CSU paleontology professor David Schwimmer.

Path to Columbus

Frazier grew up in the Carolinas. He graduated from Greenville (S.C.) High School in 1964. He earned a bachelor's degree in geology from Furman University in 1968 and a doctorate in sedimentary petrology from the University of North Carolina in 1974.

He taught at Madison College, now James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Va., from 1972-74, until he found himself on the losing end of a political tussle.

"Apparently," he said, "I ruffled some feathers."

Frazier, fresh out of grad school, dared to speak up at a faculty meeting to advocate for the students who wanted the labs to be open more often.

"I was more or less asked if I wouldn't mind leaving Madison," he said with a chuckle.

Frazier saw the job opening at Columbus College advertised in a geology journal. He was hired as the first faculty member for the college's new geology major.

For a geologist, the Chattahoochee Valley is a wonderland. Columbus sits on the Fall Line, where the Piedmont meets the Coastal Plain, giving Frazier an abundance of material to explore and teach.

"But in the end," he said of what he cherishes most about CSU, "it's the people."

Atop that list of people are his students. Some have gone on to careers on the national level with prominent agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and some have found their niche locally, working for area companies, governments or school districts.

"I genuinely love teaching, seeing them learn, seeing the light come on in their eyes," he said. "Geology is one of those subjects that most people don't know much about. Starting them out, showing them what's out there, showing them what we do, but also showing them the Earth's history. It's genuinely fascinating. It's like they're first- or second-graders. They just go, 'Oh, wow!' because they've never heard of this before."

Trusted chairman

Frazier has seen the institution grow from a college to a university.

"There's a world of difference," he said. "The change from is not just a name. It's a real difference. Research is now emphasized a lot more. A lot of people in this town really don't know how good this school is, and it's getting better all the time."

Frazier played a key role in bringing to town the president who led that transformation. He chaired the selection committee that recommended hiring Frank Brown in 1988. By the time Brown retired 20 years later, the university had raised $100 million in a capital campaign and started the expansion from its main campus in midtown to its RiverPark campus in downtown.

Brown succeeded Francis Brooke, who resigned after the faculty's no-confidence vote. So the professor who rocked the boat at his previous college helped calm the water here. In fact, Frazier developed such respect at CSU, he chaired the committees that selected many of his bosses, from department chairman to dean to vice president to president.

"He managed to be a gadfly and accepted by the administration at the same time," Schwimmer said. "That's difficult to do. He spoke up, but he was very diplomatic."

Frazier and Schwimmer coauthored "Regional Stratigraphy of North America," which the Geoscience Information Society named the Outstanding Geoscience Reference Book of 1989.

Fateful trip

Just before CSU's 2012 fall semester started, the administration asked Frazier to attend a fundraising seminar in Denver. Because the seminar would last only one day, Frazier decided to leverage the flight and use vacation time to treat his wife, Sandy, to a trip out West the rest of the week.

After the seminar in Denver, they drove through Rocky Mountain National Park, stopped in Bill, Wyo., pop. 11, and on to South Dakota, where they visited Mount Rushmore and one of this students interning in Badlands National Park.

"We really were having a good time," Frazier said. "We always had."

They woke early on the morning of Aug. 12, 2012, a Sunday, to pack and drive back to Denver for their flight home. Both were drowsy as they traveled south through eastern Wyoming, along the Nebraska border, so they took turns driving.

About one-third of the way through what was supposed to be a six-hour drive, Frazier was napping in the front passenger seat when he heard Sandy shout, "Oh, no!"

"I'm almost positive she just drowsed off at the wheel," Frazier said.

According to the Wyoming Highway Patrol, Sandy, 65, and Alan Henriksen, 67, of Rapid City, S.D., died at the scene of the head-on collision about 27 miles north of Lusk, Wyo.

As reported in the Lusk Herald and the Rapid City Journal, the Fraziers were southbound on U.S. Highway 85 when their Dodge Caravan crossed the two-lane road's centerline and into the path of the northbound Gulf Stream motor home driven by 64-year-old Muriel Henriksen. She was flown by helicopter to Rapid City General Hospital and listed in fair condition. The Henriksens' grandchildren, ages 7, 10 and 12, were treated and released from the Niobrara Health and Life Center in Lusk.

Frazier's injuries included several broken bones (leg, arm, wrist and ribs) and a cracked vertebra, which made his stooped neck from his juvenile rheumatoid arthritis hang even lower. He now also relies on a cane.

The pain, he said, was "almost zero. The adrenaline was such that I couldn't feel much of anything."

Frazier found other blessings amid the horror. Their vehicle's windshield fell between them, so he couldn't see his unresponsive wife after the accident.

"From everything I heard, it was just as well," he said. "I don't want to get too maudlin, but the truth of the matter is that she was not in open-casket condition."

Before the EMTs arrived, other drivers and passengers stopped by the wreck and helped him out of the vehicle while he hollered for them to check on his wife. Somebody carried him to a foldable camper chair in the shade of a semi. As the EMTs worked on the occupants of the other vehicle, Frazier asked a bystander about his wife and was told, "She didn't make it."

His reaction: "Stunned. It takes a while to really grasp things like that."

The highway, which was dry and had favorable weather conditions when the crash occurred around 11 a.m., was closed for approximately three hours, the Herald reported. One of the drivers of those delayed vehicles was Tamera Britz, who became an angel in the lives of Bill Frazier and his son, Bruce.

'He looked so sad'

Britz, 50, is a finance manager at a car dealership in Wheatland, Wyo., but back then she was a business manager for Wyoming Child and Family. On that Sunday morning, she was driving alone on U.S. 85 North to Rapid City, where her daughters were visiting her parents.

When she came upon the accident, her car was perhaps the fifth out of 15 in line. Britz saw Frazier sitting in the folding chair with his head hanging down.

"He looked so sad," she said. "He looked in shock. He said his wife didn't make it."

So she called her husband and asked him to pick up their daughters while she comforted Frazier. During the 20 minutes it took for medical help to arrive, she said, Britz repeatedly told Frazier, "We're going to take care of you. We're going to help you."

Then she followed the ambulance that took Frazier on the half-hour ride to the hospital in Lusk. Although she wasn't a relative, she convinced the nurse to let her stay with Frazier in his room.

"He was all by himself," she said. "I couldn't just leave him alone."

Britz offered to call one of Frazier's family members on his behalf. He asked her to reach his son back in Georgia.

Bruce, a former sports anchor and reporter for WRBL, is the public information officer for the Dalton Police Department. He had just returned to Dalton from a friend's bachelor's party in New Orleans when Britz called on Frazier's cellphone.

"It's kind of a blur," Bruce said. " She basically said, 'There's been an accident. Your dad asked me to call you and have you call everybody else. He's in this care center.'"

Bruce asked, "How's my mom?"

Britz replied, "I don't think she made it."

"I think she knew," Bruce recalled, "but I don't know how you tell a stranger that your mother's dead."

Bruce said he was "just dumbfounded. Complete disbelief. Brief rage and anger and then just sort of swung into action, trying to find a flight to get me out there."

Britz assured Bruce she would stay with his father until he arrived.

'How much he loved her'

Because his injuries were too severe to be treated at the hospital in Lusk, Frazier was airlifted to a trauma center, Regional West Medical Center, in Scottsbluff, Neb., about 90 miles away. Britz again followed in her car.

There in the ICU, the reality of the collision hit Frazier.

"He teared up, and he talked about his wife," Britz said. "He was saying how they were very close, and he was reminiscing about what they were doing and how much he loved her and how hard it would be to go on without her. Then we talked about his work and his passion for geology and teaching."

Britz slept that night on a couch in the waiting area outside Frazier's room. The next morning, she saw a man briskly walking toward Frazier's room.

"Bruce?"

"Yes."

"Let's go see your dad."

Five minutes later, Britz left father and son alone and returned to her life.

"I was amazingly thankful that she was there, a human being to talk to," Frazier said. "I couldn't believe how nice she was and how helpful she was."

And maybe, just maybe, Sandy sent Britz.

"It's the sort of thing you think about," Frazier said.

"We've talked about that before," Bruce said, "because that was the kind of person that mom was. She would have done the exact same thing."

Sandy, a retired oncology nurse, served as the unofficial school nurse at Wynnton Elementary School, where she also volunteered in the office. Neighbors of their Lakebottom home appreciated her gardening.

CSU appreciated Britz's act of lovingkindness and sent her a gift card to express it. Now, every time she goes past that spot on U.S. 85 as she drives to her parents' home, she remembers that beloved geology professor from Georgia and "how precious life can be and how we have to be thankful for what we have."

Recovery

Frazier is grateful for the lack of memories of the accident and for the lingering memories of his wife.

"I think about her all the time," he said.

Even in his dreams.

"It's like she really is there," he said.

Frazier also was boosted by the outpouring of concern from current and former colleagues and students

"Friends are a good thing," he said. "I've had their support for a long time, but that's when it really comes into focus. It gave me a new appreciation for a lot of my friends and students. I could not have gotten through all of that with any measure of sanity at all if I didn't have people all around me, metaphorically saying, 'Get better. Get better.'"

It took Frazier the entire fall semester to recover. He taught for three more years, until his physical limitations proved too much.

"I think a lot of people define themselves in terms of their jobs," he said. "I am a teacher. I am a professor. I am a geologist. Had I not been able to do that, it would have been like not being whole again."

Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when he was in high school, Frazier had both hips replaced 10-15 years ago. Then by 2014, after several falls, his balance had become so unsteady, he underwent a series of scans that eventually revealed a mass in his brain.

"It scared the heck out of me," he said.

More tests determined it was an acoustic neuroma, a rare but noncancerous tumor that develops on the main nerve leading from the inner ear to the brain. Radiation treatments stopped its growth but didn't shrink it.

"It's still there," he said, "so I'm still a little bit unsteady."

But he's been a rock for CSU.

'More than a teacher'

Schwimmer credits a conversation he had with Frazier for bringing him here in 1978 from Buffalo, where he was a consulting geologist.

"He was kind of like the core of our department," Schwimmer said. "He's extremely competent. He's an old-fashioned general geologist, but he can teach a wide variety of fields. He's sort of like a geologist for all seasons."

And a colleague for all reasons.

"He was fabulous to work with," said CSU physics professor Kimberly Shaw, co-director of UTeach Columbus. "He always had time to listen to you. He always was supportive if you had a hard time, and he was the first to celebrate with you if you succeeded."

Students also rave about Frazier's influence beyond the classroom. Bill Rollins, a Manchester, Ga., native and now senior principal geologist at Jim Stidham & Associates Inc. in Tallahassee, Fla., graduated from Columbus College in 1982. He drove 3½ hours to attend Frazier's retirement party last month.

"He was more than a teacher," Rollins said. "He was more like a confidant. He was always encouraging you. He was one of those professors you remember for the rest of your life."

No wonder Frazier was honored as Columbus College's Educator of the Year in 1985 and CSU's Advisor of the Year in 2000.

"I've seen the school grow, and I just can't emphasize enough how good the school is, in all of its facets," he said, "and I am proud to say that I had a hand in it."

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow him on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.

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