Never Hold Back

Dr. Robert E. Sheriff learned early in his career “to never withhold information or ideas for later use,” leaving a lasting legacy to his family, the geophysics community, and our society.
This article appeared in Vol. 11, No. 4 - 2014


Robert E. Sheriff.  April 19, 1922 - November 19, 2014

It is with great sadness that we must inform readers that Bob Sheriff passed away on 19th November, 2014 in Missouri City, Texas. He was 92.
To make a gift in Bob’s memory, the family has requested contributions be made to the Robert and Margaret Sheriff Endowment in Applied Geophysics at UH. More information can be found here - University of Houston
We would like to extend our deepest sympathies to Bob's family, friends and colleagues.

Robert Sheriff sharing his expertise in seismic stratigraphy. (Credit: Robert Sheriff Collection) Possibly best known for the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Exploration Geophysics, first published in 1973, Bob Sheriff’s accomplishments go literally to the ends of the earth – from his family’s travels to his contributions to geophysics and education. Now in its fourth edition, the encyclopedic dictionary has remained one of the Society of Exploration Geophysics’ (SEG) best sellers. It is a valuable and comprehensive reference that is a must to just about anyone in the oil and gas business. This alone would have been a bequest that would have assured Bob’s place in the upper echelon of the science. However, his contributions to geophysics and seismology, teaching at the University of Houston and short courses around the world, writing text books and articles, have all made Dr. Sheriff a household name to both students and professionals in geophysics. Adding to this, the Sheriff Scholarships for the SEG Foundation that finances foreign graduate students at the University of Houston, as well as endowed Chairs and Professorships at the University, proves his influence is truly global.

Getting Started

After graduating with degrees in physics and chemistry, young Bob Sheriff entered graduate school at Ohio State to study physics. The year was 1943 when the US was deeply involved in World War II. Bob was soon to be out of university deferments necessary to stay in school so he interviewed with The Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where he landed a job. “The pilot plant was manned by a bunch of physics graduate students from all over the country,” says Bob. “We talked freely among ourselves… [making] my Oak Ridge experience magnificent as we taught each other.”

Bob and Margaret traveled the world throughout his career. They are pictured here in Turkey in 1989. (Credit: Robert Sheriff Collection) Working at Oak Ridge also brought Bob another life-changing experience. A sister of a pilot plant colleague joined The Manhattan Project team as a chemist. Bob was introduced to the new employee and they “hit it off beautifully”. Bob and Margaret, the chemist, were soon married in 1945. The couple stayed at Oak Ridge until the spring of 1946 before returning to Ohio State University to complete graduate studies. Bob was able to teach physics classes while in graduate school until he received a scholarship from the National Science Foundation. Margaret worked on a geology degree.

While still a student, Bob interviewed with Chevron and received an offer for a job at their La Habra facility (a technical center that operated from 1948 until it was closed in 1999) in Orange County, California. Anne, their first of six children, arrived in 1950 and they made their move to “the mountains and a sea shore” as Margaret put it. Being from Kansas, California had quite the appeal and she thought they were “set for life”. Little did she know where their future adventures would bring them…

Becoming a Wandering ‘Geo’physicist

“I knew nothing about geophysics [when accepting Chevron’s job offer],” says Bob. “Dr. Allen Reilly, the manager of the La Habra facility, was just starting geophysics research. He told me it was easier to teach geology to a physicist than physics to a geologist. This is how I became a geophysicist.” Bob joined SEG at that time “to get their magazine and learn geophysics” and has been an active member ever since.

During his early days at Chevron, Bob was eager to learn all he could about geophysics, including how things were done in the field. This would lead to the start of a yearning to see the world. After a year and a half of assigned projects at La Habra, he was transferred to New Orleans where he worked with a geophysicist who was on Chevron’s research committee. They traveled to geophysical operations all over the country. “I got to meet lots of important people and see lots of situations,” recalls Bob.

After transferring back to California, Bob began supervising seismic work in foreign locations, mainly Latin America and the Caribbean, and he spent a considerable amount of time visiting these locations. He was then transferred to Port of Spain, Trinidad. At that time, Margret was pregnant with their sixth child. Bob came back for the birth and when number six, Linda, was nine weeks old, Margaret and the family made the move to Trinidad. Two years later, they all moved on to Perth, Australia.

The transfer to Australia came with an added benefit for the Sheriff family – a six-week vacation plus a week of travel time. “Between company geophysics courses and visiting our offices along the way, I managed to stretch our vacations to three months,” says Bob. Consequently they were able to plan some very extensive trips to all corners of the world.

After over five years there, Bob requested a transfer back to the United States. “Our children knew a lot about the rest of the world but little about the US, so we figured it was time to move back,” Bob recalls. 

The ‘Glossary’ is Born 

While their time in Australia was filled with traveling adventures, Bob still had a job to do, which included training and familiarizing personnel with new terms and concepts in geophysics. To fill this need, he created a 30-page pamphlet describing various geophysical terms in an industry that was evolving quickly.Bob also used it as a recruiting tool when visiting Australian universities. The glossary was distributed to other companies that were part of the Australian joint operation. One of those companies was Shell, which distributed it throughout their organization.

The Sheriff family returned to the States in 1966 and settled again in New Orleans. By then, one of the past SEG presidents had received a copy of the geophysical glossary that Shell had distributed and recommended it to the SEG membership. “I was asked to update and expand the glossary,” says Bob, “but I was concerned about Chevron releasing this update. Well, the current president of SEG was Neal Smith, also a Chevron employee, who thought ‘releasing it to SEG would be good for the company’. I reported this to my manager and it was first published as one of the issues of Geophysics magazine.” Bob received the Kauffman Gold Medal, which is awarded for outstanding contributions to the advancement of the science of geophysical exploration. The little 30-page glossary had by then grown to 429 pages in its 4th edition as the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Applied Geophysics.

A Second Career

While in New Orleans, Bob was contacted by his old boss, Lloyd Geldart, from La Habra, California, who was teaching at McGill University in Montreal. Bob was asked to review the chapter on seismic work for a revised geophysics book series by Eve and Keys. “I told Geldart that the chapter was not acceptable because it did not describe geophysics as it is done today,” says Bob. “Consequently, I joined a group of authors and wrote the new seismic chapter for the book.” This would be the start of Bob joining the academic ranks and writing more geophysical text books.

Bob was transferred to Houston in 1970, retiring from Chevron after 25 years of employment, and went to work with Seiscom Delta. While at Chevron in Houston, he had joined the University of Houston as an adjunct geophysics professor for four years, and continued teaching for another five years during his employment with Seiscom Delta. In 1980, the very respected geophysicist, Milton Dobrin, who had developed the university’s geophysics program, died suddenly while jogging in the early morning hours in Houston. That is when Bob began his second career in earnest, becoming a full tenured professor.

Bob not only taught at the University, but also spent a lot of time teaching short courses for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) on a number of different subjects. One he is particularly proud of was Seismic Stratigraphy. He had written a paper on the subject, and subsequently a book, and was invited to help teach the course in 1975. He brought this new concept to many skeptical geologists and geophysicists. The project turned out to be a success and was repeated for several years, eventually expanding to four courses a year.

Bob taught other courses for different sponsors, especially overseas. “To provide time to teach these courses plus some sightseeing, I often took halftime positions at the university,” recalls Bob. “People were eager to have me teach them and I ran across many good students. That is when Margaret and I endowed the Sheriff Scholarships of the SEG Foundation. It finances two foreign graduate students every year at the University of Houston. It is wonderful to give deserving students the opportunity to advance their education. It is one of the things I have been very proud of.”

Bob quit teaching in 2006 but his manner of teaching lives on through the people he touched along the way. Hua-Wei Zhou came to the University of Houston in 1989 partly because of Bob’s influence on exploration geophysics. He had this to say about Bob Sheriff: “…a giant figure in the world of exploration geophysics… When I think about Bob, a number of key words pop up in my mind: kindness, honesty, hardworking, seeking perfection, generosity and wisdom.”

Wouldn’t everyone want such a legacy?

Special thanks to Barbara Barnes and Anne Sheriff Makowski for making this profile possible.


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