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  • Early Days with the Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers:Some Very Selective, Irreverent, and Personal Reminiscences1
  • Tom Martinson

the day broke clear and cool in Ottawa, Canada, on September 24, 1984. Already, members were discussing and debating points of their research, and soon the annual meeting of the Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers (CLAG) would be declared open and another day of camaraderie and confrontation would begin. It was another meeting of old and new friends whose goal was to know and tell more about their twin passions, Geography and Latin America.

Little did I know that later that day I would receive the CLAG Award for Exceptional Leadership and Service, and as I sat across the table from presenter Richard Wilkie, Chair of the Honors Committee, I reflected on all the priceless experiences and great friendships that had come my way because of the very people who chose to honor me. It is they, of course, who deserve the honor, for all the years of dedicated service they gave this organization, from the small band of 10 or 15 people gathering in a few planning meetings across the United States to the large and consequential international body it is today.

Years ago, Karl Butzer once asked me why I chose to take a service-oriented career path rather than a more traditional one involving research and publication. I didn't have a good answer then; perhaps I can do better now. Relating these reminiscences will help, for my story and CLAG's story are intertwined. I am one of the fortunate few who served from the beginnings of our organization until its maturity. My strongest memories are of the many people, friends, who I came to know through my time in our organization.

Long before CLAG and as a high school student in Oregon, I saw and heard of the rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba and the dramatic [End Page 14] changes that followed. I was fortunate enough to have taken two courses in Geography at my high school in Gresham, Oregon, so I saw the implications of this movement and the changes in the wind for Latin America, and I wanted to know more.

So, on my first day as a freshman at the University of Oregon, I knocked on the door of the Department of Geography and, as the door opened, I said, "I'm Tom Martinson. I want to major in Geography and study Latin America." After a moment of stunned silence, Gene Martin welcomed me into his office. Lucky me. That first Oregon geographer I metwas to be my friend and mentor for many decades, as he was a Latin Americanist. Gene Martin, master teacher, and Carl Johannessen, master investigator, guided my path through the program at Oregon, where I think I took all the courses for the major as well as some they created for me.

After I earned my Bachelor of Arts degree in Geography at Oregon, I was lucky again, for I received a National Defense Education Act fellowship to attend the University of Kansas, where Robert Nunley and John Augelli were developing a core group with Latin American interests. With their assistance I completed my coursework toward the PhD degree and, through the perseverance of Bob Nunley in persuading his dean to part with the money, was able to travel to Latin America for the first time.

It was an amazing experience. I was overwhelmed by a firestorm of scenes, smells, and spectacles, stirring all my emotions. I knew I had made the right decision those years ago to study Latin America. As I drove through Mexico and Central America in my Volkswagen Beetle, I began to absorb some of the issues and problems that would pervade my professional life for years to come.

But first there were more opportunities back home. I accepted a one-year teaching appointment at the University of Colorado, substituting for Don McPhail, their Latin American geographer, then on leave in Chile. There at the same time was Gary Elbow, finishing his dissertation on Latin America at the University of Pittsburgh. He and I were students together earlier at Oregon, he a graduate...


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