≡ Menu

Working for the Great Man

Working as Geography Research Assistant — “Chaya’s grandfather is a famous geographer,” I told a couple of guest to Chaya’s family home in Bangor. “What, did he win a Noble Peace Prize or something?” one of the guest jested with a sarcastic sort of giggle. “Yeah, he did,” I replied, “it is hanging on the [...]

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

Working as Geography Research Assistant

“Chaya’s grandfather is a famous geographer,” I told a couple of guest to Chaya’s family home in Bangor.

“What, did he win a Noble Peace Prize or something?” one of the guest jested with a sarcastic sort of giggle.

“Yeah, he did,” I replied, “it is hanging on the wall right over there.”

And there, hanging out on the wall above our dining room table as indiscreetly as any other wall ornament was Chaya’s grandfather’s Noble Peace Prize. We oogled at it.

Robert Kates, The Great Man

Robert Kates, The Great Man

Chaya’s grandfather worked 15 years as a steal worker in Gary, Indiana before attending college. It is said that he only wanted to become a school teacher so that he could have his summers free to go camping. He ended up contributing to the award of a Nobel Prize, winning a National Medal of Science, and a MacArthur Fellowship.

He clearly overshot his mark, though it is my impression that he was still able to accomplish his goal of having time to camp.

His name is Robert Kates, though he is obsessionally referred to as “The Great Man.” A title which is in no way a misnomer.

He is one of the most renown geographers in the world, and I first met him at his home in Trenton, Maine during Thanksgiving of 2008. We baked a turkey together.

It was an interesting encounter. For all of his scientific prowess and for all of my so-called worldly experience, neither of us knew how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. So we bobbled the slippy slimy fowl back and forth as if it were some odd sort of edible rugby ball, grappled around inside of it looking for innards and other special surprises, and then eventually just tossed the damn thing into the sink.

We soon gave up on our exploratory venture into the dead bird and resolved to reading the baking directions that were printed on its package. Like a couple of men demasculated by having to resort to the perilously belittling task of reading instructions, we tucked our tails between out legs and somehow managed to get the neck and innards sack out of the turkey and get the ugly thing into the oven.

While the turkey roasted we sat around his dining room table, which looked right out upon the ocean and Bar Harbor a short distance beyond. We ate tangerines, toasted sweet bread, and drank coffee. “Tenzies,” is apparently what it is called when you have a social breakfast at ten AM with Chaya’s grandparents. I did not previously know this, though I felt honored to have a spot at the Thanksgiving day “tenzies” table with The Great Man and his wife.

Professor Kates was tall, wore a large smile, and seemed to delight in simply irony and big talk about a big planet. I resorted to my usually conversational default and asked a lot of questions while keeping my ears open wide.

This was no mistake, as my ears were quickly filled to capacity. I listened to tales about how he and his family lived in Tanzania at the apex of its independence and were honored guest in China  before Nixon, how he conducted groundbreaking work on climate change, developed disaster response strategies, and was the long term editor of Environment Magazine.

His words danced as he told me stories of his days of working in Africa, traveling across Europe with his entire family on $5 a day, investigating the outcome of the Managua earthquake and various other disaster sites around the world, and other stories that stretched across the planet from end to end.

The professor’s wife, Ellie, held the tales together by throwing in vital pieces of background information about these journeys that she was always very much a part of.

“Where in the world do you want to return to most?” I asked the Professor.

“It is more like where do I still want to go!” was his reply. At 80+ years old, Professor Kates was obviously not finished traveling yet.

“I think I would like to go to South America.”

The journey continues.

The next summer (2009) I returned to Maine from traveling in the Middle East with Chaya.

“Would you be interested in a job as a research assistant?” Professor Kates asked me.

I quickly replied in the affirmative before I even knew what being a research assistant would consist of.

I was soon to find out.

Professor Kates wanted to compile his life’s work into a single online pdf library. It became my job to track down the hundreds of works that he published, organize them, and get everything ready to be assembled into this giant collection.

As I dug into the project I felt as though I was in the middle of a once great Mayan city of that was now covered in trees and vines and had fallen to ruins. I was standing before a giant pile of precious rumble that was once a pyramid, and it was my job to reconstruct it. Some of the pieces were before me, some of them were missing, and some of them no longer were where they should have been. So I dug into the job by picking up each brick, analyzing its features, and putting it back into proper position in the great pyramid of The Great Man’s work.

It soon began to take shape as I recorded which bricks of the pyramid were good, which were unusable, and which precious pieces were still missing in the abyss of the long buried city: I tracked down the various digital copies of his work and had scans made of the elements of the collection that were not yet digitalized. As each pdf file — each brick — of Kates’ work was located I plugged it into place, and the ancient pyramid began to again take shape.

Now the pyramid stands tall. Most of the pdfs have been put into position, and the reconstruction is almost ready for visitors.

RW Kates.org

Robert Kates Wiki


Rudiments of pay and travel fund savings

I was paid $18 an hour for this work, which is standard pay for a university research assistant, and I made around $800 in total from the project.

How to make money for travel project


Filed under: Geography, Maine

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

2 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

  • Bob L September 20, 2009, 5:53 pm

    Great job on the site. My only complaint, which is a common one I have, is that making the text larger and more readable is difficult. Because of the fixed width photo at the top, using Firefox, when you zoom, it will not re-wrap the text and the text just becomes too wide to see. With Internet Explorer, you have to go into internet options and accessibility to make the text larger, but that only helps a little.

    I know, minor detail that is a problem on 90% of websites, and only a few old farts like me complain.

    As for research, wow. Great job. I have tried to gather photos together to try to put a persons life into something like a timeline, and was amazed how difficult and time consuming that was, I can’t imagine trying to do that with a mans life and documents and everything. It looks great.

    As far as the Great Man and his Nobel Prize, my curiosity was piqued when I saw the framed prize on the wall. I was a little surprised when I had trouble finding his name as a winner. When I did find it, as a member of a team that received it, I was a little disappointed that it was not a solo award, but then I don’t understand such things much anyway. I kinda’ wondered what real contribution a *Geographer* could have really made to such a group. Once I had this basic info, searching became easier. I started finding his work everywhere in bits and pieces, and the types of work was varied and brilliant. I guess I pictured a Geographer as more of a Cartographer sitting and drawing maps, even though I should have known better. He really is a great man, and deserves a great website. I plan on reading most of this over time. The works I found when first looking into this were interesting to me, and I suspect there are a lot of his writings on this site that were, until you created this site, impossible to find.


    Bob L

    Link Reply
    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com September 20, 2009, 6:06 pm

      Hello Bob,

      Thanks for the suggestions! But I was just the one who gathered the info and not the web designer. They hire a professional for that haha. Soon enough, most of the pdfs of Robert Kates’ work will be on the site and ready to use.

      Yes, he really is a Great Man.



      Link Reply

Next post:

Previous post: