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A life that made an impact: Hastings geologist lived a life that inspired others

Hastings native Charlie Matsch didn’t live in Hastings long. He was the seventh of 10 children, and in his early teens was sent to St. John’s Preparatory School in Collegeville.

After he died on April 18, family and friends took a few minutes to share his life story.

He joined the U.S. Air Force and found himself stationed in Maine. It was during his military career that he became interested in geology, he had told his friend and colleage, Richard Ojakangas. When he finished his service in the military, he enrolled at the University of Maine, where he got his bachelor’s degree in geology.

Next was a stint as a petroleum geologist in Midland, Texas, and then a return to Minnesota to start his Ph.D. work. He finished his graduate work in Madison, Wis., working on some glacial deposits in southwestern Minnesota, and then made his way to the University of Minnesota, Duluth in 1970, where he would teach geology for 31 years.

That’s when Chris Hill got to know Matsch. Hill was about 10 years old then, and Matsch moved into the house next door. It ended up changing Hill’s life.

Hill went on to study gology at UMD and now teaches anthropology at Boise State University in Idaho.

While Matsch was getting his university teaching career started, he was also teaching outside of class. He would invite Hill along when he scouted out class field trips.

“I would be kind of his field assistant,” Hill recalled.

Being a teacher was Matsch’s first focus.

“He’s famous for being a great teacher, and he loved teaching,” Hill said, “so he really put a lot of effort into it and took great pride in his teaching.”

He was a strict teacher and had high expectations of his students, but was able to teach with personality, word games and little jokes that made lectures more memorable and funny.

He was an excellent teacher the students loved, said John Green, another of Matsch’s colleagues at UMD. He earned the University of Minnesota’s Horace T. Morse award, the university’s highest award for teaching.

After Matsch retired in 2001, he and Green would continue to go to UMD. Some of the retirees were able to occupy a small space in the department with a desk, phone and computer, Green said. He shared one of these little offices with Matsch for the past several years, and the two often ate lunch together. Naturally, their conversations ranged far and wide.

“He has a wonderful memory,” Green said.

He would talk about his days as a radio operator in the Korean War, the time he spent in Maine (a place for which he held a particular fondness) and more.

“He talked about so many things,” Green said.

One of Matsch’s less-favorite experiences was a geology field trip to west Africa, where he and an international team were studying ancient sediments. It wasn’t a place he wanted to return to, Green said.

Another trip was to Antarctica in the late 1970s, a three-month stay to study glacial sediments there that were formed by glaciers when the world’s continents had formed the supercontinent of Pangea, Ojakangas said. Ojakangas went on the trip with Matsch.

“I got to know Charlie very well,” he said.

They were among 35 international scientists, but Matsch, Ojakangas and two student assistants struck off to an isolated camp of their own, living in two-man tents about 100 miles away from any of their fellow scientists.

Matsch served as the camp cook, and would come up with all sorts of special dishes one wouldn’t expect to enjoy in an Antarctic landscape with nothing but tents for shelter.

“He improvised a lot, because we had to improvise out there,” Ojakangas said.

His congenial personality held up even in the southern reaches of the globe. The camps each had to call the main camp every morning. A missed call would lead the base camp to think something was wrong.

“Charlie, he liked to talk, and he was the one who always made the phone calls,” Ojakangas said.

He would comment on the weather, on what their little camp was up to at the moment and other little trivialities, while the other end of the line would simply hang up.

Matsch even left his mark on Hastings area geology. Sometimes he would take students to Chimney Rock here, Ojakangas said. Matsch had told him that as a young boy, he had climbed up the rocks and carved his initials into them.

He left his mark in other ways, also. He and Ojakangas co-authored “Minnesota’s Geology,” a local geological reference for laypeople and experienced geologists alike. Matsch also published other works, including one on North America in the ice age.

Matsch died April 18 at the age of 83. He was attending the annual Geological Sciences Banquet and Awards Ceremony, where he suffered a fall and sustained a severe injury.

“He was enjoying his life right up to within hours of passing away,” Hill said.

The legacy he leaves is one not just of professional success, but of living life to the fullest in such a way that impacted so many around him.

“He had so many friends and he enjoyed life so much,” Hill said.

At the celebration of life, held in Duluth, about 240 people showed up to remember Matsch’s life and honor his memory, Ojakangas said.

“He was a wonderful guy,” Green said.

“I really miss him,” Hill said, “but he gave me so much.”