Seymour “Sy” Mack, a retired geology professor at Fresno State, was a creature of habit – a trait illustrated by weekday walks along a precise route at a precise time that became a decades-long tradition on the university campus.
Dr. Mack, recognized as a distinguished professor at Fresno State for his exhaustive research into groundwater and tectonics, died Sept. 15. He was 94.
One of his former Fresno State colleagues, retired chemistry professor David Zellmer, recalled Dr. Mack as “one of those people you really enjoy knowing.”
“Sy was knowledgeable about world affairs and could talk about just about any topic,” Zellmer said. “And professionally, he was excellent – and he was a really nice guy on top of that.”
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Dr. Mack was born in New York City in 1922 and graduated from high school there in 1938. After working for two years as a courier in Manhattan, he enrolled at City College of New York, but his education was interrupted by World War II. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, flying reconnaissance and weather missions while stationed in Brazil. After the war, he returned to CCNY, where his love of geology was fostered, his daughter Nancy Mack said.
“He took a geology course there and the professor really inspired him,” Nancy Mack said of her father. “He ended up just really loving geology.” He earned his bachelor’s degree in geology in 1947, and then went to Syracuse University for his master’s degree.
His first professional work in the field was as a petroleum geologist with the Texas Company in Mississippi, but he later returned to Syracuse for his doctoral degree in geology.
In 1973, Dr. Mack told The Bee that he considered going into engineering after the war. “But it was just no match for the excitement of geology,” he said. “The grand movements of mountains, ocean systems and the whole evolution of the earth just boggled my mind. That mountains pushed up from out of the sea was really exciting to me.”
The grand movements of mountains, ocean systems and the whole evolution of the earth just boggled my mind. That mountains pushed up from out of the sea was really exciting to me.
Seymour “Sy” Mack, Fresno State geology professor in a 1973 interview with The Bee
It was during his Ph.D. program at Syracuse that he met his future wife, Linda Linstromberg, who was working on a master’s degree at the university’s graduate school of citizenship and public affairs.
After Dr. Mack completed his doctorate, the couple married in 1952 and moved to California. After five years working with the U.S. Geological Survey, he began his teaching career at then-Fresno State College in 1957.
“He really didn’t have a lot of hobbies,” Nancy Mack said. “He really loved teaching and his family; his research was really his main hobby.”
In 1960, Dr. Mack and several other professors began a tradition of a daily after-lunch stroll on the Fresno State campus – always the same route, and almost always at the same time, said Zellmer, who chronicled “The Walk” on his university website.
Mack was the group’s informal “president,” Zellmer reported, “who starts the walk precisely at 12:34 p.m. following lunch.” The group gained and lost members over the years as some retired and others joined, Zellmer said.
“He loved walking; he walked just about every day of his life,” Nancy Mack added. “He liked to do things on a schedule.”
Zellmer said Dr. Mack continued to join The Walk at Fresno State until the tradition fizzled out around 2009 or 2010.
In 1965, Dr. Mack became only the second recipient of Fresno State’s Distinguished Lecturer Award; that same year he also won a National Science Foundation fellowship to study geochemistry and hydrology at Stanford University.
Wife on City Council
Dr. Mack’s wife, Linda Mack, became only the second woman elected to the Fresno City Council when she defeated an incumbent in 1973 and served two four-year terms.
It was indicative, Nancy Mack said, of the interest in politics that permeated the Mack household. “They were both interested in politics; it was kind of a family thing,” she said. “We all watched the news together and talked about politics at the dinner table.”
That interest also led him and several other Fresno State professors to co-found the Fresno Free College Foundation in 1968 in response to the college’s firing of colleague and poet Robert Mezey from his teaching position.
The organization was created to raise funds for Mezey’s legal fight against the school and to defend academic freedom in general. The foundation remains active today and operates radio station KFCF (FM 88.1), an affiliate of Pacifica Radio in Berkeley.
His wife’s entry into politics inspired Dr. Mack’s more domestic side. “My mom never really enjoyed cooking,” Nancy Mack remembered. “When she went on the City Council, he just sort of took over the cooking. He learned to do a lot of things and had a lot of recipes, (but) his favorite thing was Chinese food.”
Dr. Mack, in a 1973 interview with The Bee on being a “political husband,” boasted that “recently I learned how to do a really great pepper steak.” But, he admitted, “I kind of slough off on the dishes and don’t do them as often as I should.”
He continued doing most of the household cooking until he was about 80, “and once he quit cooking, he started watching cooking shows” on television, Nancy Mack said with a laugh.
Dr. Mack retired from Fresno State in 1985 but remained as a professor emeritus, and continued his geological research on groundwater long after his retirement, Nancy Mack said.
In addition to being a colleague, Zellmer said, Dr. Mack was also one of his teachers. “Even though I taught chemistry, I took a few geology classes from him, and he was a wonderful teacher,” Zellmer recalled. “He’d lead field trips into the Sierra, and he really worked well with his students.”
Seymour ‘Sy’ Mack
Born: March 4, 1922, in New York City
Died: Sept. 15, 2016, in Fresno
Occupation: professor emeritus of geology (retired) at Fresno State
Services: celebration of life will be held 3 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, 2672 E. Alluvial Ave.
Survivors: wife Linda Mack of Fresno; daughter Sarah Mack and son-in-law Tom Bartholomew of Seattle; daughter Nancy Mack and son-in-law Bill Geissert of Fresno; son and daughter-in-law David and Priscilla Mack of Squaw Valley; 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren