After I heard about Laurie’s death I kept looking for a mention of it in the alumni magazine. I never saw one. After nearly two years of waiting I contacted the alumni office and they confirmed that one had never been written. They suggested that I write it and I said I would. So I contacted many of her friends and they in turn suggested others. Ted Conover offered his help and we wrote something for the alumni magazine together. (See below.)
We received almost 3,000 words of tribute. We could only include 650 or so for the alumni magazine. The alumni web site, however, afforded us the opportunity to post everyone’s tributes in full. As you read these tributes I’m sure you will feel the love that those who knew her felt for this remarkable woman.
Jim Hamilton, August 2008
On June 26, 2006, Laurie Wirt died from injuries suffered in a kayaking accident on the Cache la Poudre River in Colorado. Raised in Boylston, Massachusetts, Laurie majored in geology at Amherst and received her master’s degree in geosciences from the University of Arizona in 1989. She worked as a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, first in Tucson, Arizona, and later in Denver, Colorado. For the last nine years before her death she lived in Boulder, Colorado, with her husband, Kirk Vincent. In addition to Kirk, she leaves behind her sister, Betsy, and her brother, Ted.
We asked some of Laurie's friends and loved ones to share their memories for this piece. Space limitations allow us to use only a selection of them here. For lots more, please visit the Memory section of the Class of 1980 page of the alumni web site.
Fellow geology major Dan Cohan remembered Laurie’s “quick sense of humor and whole-body laugh,” and observed that “rivers were important to Laurie throughout her life.” The department had no specialists in hydrology or environmental engineering, but “those were Laurie’s interests and she pursued a course of study and thesis research to immerse herself in those topics.” Serena Benson remembered Laurie as a “scientist deeply dedicated to making a positive impact on our environment” as well as a “kind, loyal, high-principled, intrepid, and tireless friend.”
Laurie’s work included a study of the effects of development on one of the last free-flowing rivers in the West. A national environmentalist journal, the High Country News, credited her with raising awareness among Arizonans of how pumping water from the Big Chino aquifer could threaten the Verde River. The Arizona Republic described Laurie as a hero among conservationists for her study. A former colleague and hydrologist, Steve Monroe, recalled how Laurie "was of a different stripe than the average government researcher," taking an activist approach and meeting regularly with citizen groups.
Laurie’s Amherst classmates remember an enthusiastic, focused person who worked hard, played hard, and valued her friendships. Jeff Singer said “I once figured out that she had managed to visit with me (and my wife, Anne, as well as eventually our children) at every place I had lived on both coasts since graduation. She was that kind of friend — loyal, deeply interested in your life, and always up for a road trip or adventure.” Laura Yerkovich, another geology major, recalled a bike ride she took with Laurie and Serena Benson during the 20th reunion, and a conversation they had about Laurie’s mother’s death. “She was always open to new friendships and to meaningful conversation.”
A fellow Boulderite, Kim Hedberg, remembered that “you could always count on Laurie for laughter, answers to obscure questions, and any help you needed, be it insight on home repairs, taking care of a dog, or just listening.” Sue Dahl remembered Laurie’s ferocity as a competitor on the track team and saw her mustering similar zeal in the fight for rivers. Adrienne Lynch Dubin and Marina Buckley MacIntosh roomed with Laurie freshman year. They remember her energy and said that she “lived her life with a passion that seemed to wrap around and bring life to those she treasured like a warm blanket.”
Kirk Vincent, Laurie’s husband, expressed his thanks to Laurie’s college friends. He remembered “her vivid green eyes sparkling with a bit of mischief,” adding, "she often uttered the outwardly-frivolous phrase, ‘keep things light and fluffy.’ This was not frivolity. She never shirked doing the right or honorable thing. It was, fundamentally, the way that she approached her life, which was all about having fun while being loyal and compassionate to those she loved, and doing meaningful work and activities. I believe that is how she would want to be remembered, and that ‘keep things light and fluffy’ (Laurie style) is how she would want us all to move forward in her absence."
— Jim Hamilton ‘78 and Ted Conover ‘80
As Laurie’s husband I have too much to say, but will make only two observations. First, this picture is indelible in my memory: her vivid green eyes sparkling with a bit of mischief. That makes me smile.
Second, she often uttered the outwardly-frivolous phrase “keep things light and fluffy.” This code-phrase was not really frivolity. She never shirked doing the right or honorable thing. This was, fundamentally, the way that she approached her life, which was all about having fun while being loyal and compassionate to those she loved, and doing meaningful work and activities. I believe that is how she would want to be remembered, and that “keep things light and fluffy” (Laurie style) is how she would want us all to move forward in her absence.
Laurie had strong and warm memories of her days at Amherst. I want to personally thank you for being such great friends to Laurie, and for influencing her in such positive ways. Selfishly, I want to thank you for sanding off some of my sweet wife’s rough edges before I met her!
I was Laurie’s friend and colleague in the Geology Dept. at Amherst. She was a fun person to be around, and a source of positive energy in our tight-knit group of geology majors. She had a quick sense of humor and a whole-body laugh, and she enjoyed the give and take of good-natured sarcasm among her colleagues.
Laurie was unique in many ways. She was a high-energy person who was serious and uncompromising about her work. She put everything she had into her studies and her independent research. While she was by no means a “grind,” she had the self-discipline to focus on her academics and to push distractions aside. She worked hard and she played hard.
At a time when Amherst was still adjusting to coeducation, Laurie left no doubt in the mind of anyone who knew her that Amherst’s academic and social communities were greatly improved by the inclusion of talented and spirited women.
And she followed her own muse, choosing to do what was important to her despite the prevailing tendency among other geology majors to follow the interests of the geology faculty at that time. Specifically, in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Amherst’s geology faculty was predominantly engaged in “hard rock” geology, petrology, geochemistry, sedimentary stratigraphy, and structural geology. No one was emphasizing hydrology or environmental engineering, but those were Laurie’s interests and she pursued a course of study and thesis research to immerse herself in those topics.
Laurie had a strong sense of wanting to participate in society and to make a difference via her life and work. It was a natural choice for her to do her senior thesis research on an environmental topic, which was the question of how the Connecticut River was affected by artificial water flow patterns introduced by hydroelectric pump storage and release.
Rivers were important to Laurie throughout the rest of her life. She was honored as a passionate and staunch defender of the Upper Verde River in Arizona, where her research with the US Geological Survey helped clarify the anticipated effects on the wild river of proposed pumping by the city of Prescott Arizona. Everyone who knew her and worked with her admired her passion and her fearlessness in the face of resistance.
She drew people in with her laugh and her wit. She knocked them back on their heels with her intellect, passionate focus, and hard work. When I knew her at school, she seemed to get about as much out of life as was possible to get in a given period of time.
She epitomized the motivated, intellectually curious person who was already ablaze, for whom an Amherst education added fuel to the fire.
Needless to say, she is sorely missed.
I met Laurie Wirt in our first year of college in the fall of 1976 and we soon became friends. We started a more serious relationship in our second semester and were together for much of the next three years, ending in our senior year. However, we never stopped being friends over the next 26 years. In fact, Laurie stayed over at my house in West Hartford just before our 25th Reunion. I once figured out that she had managed to visit with me (and my wife, Anne, as well as eventually our children) at every place I had lived on both coasts since graduation. She was that kind of friend – loyal, deeply interested in your life, and always up for a road trip or adventure. I also visited her in her beloved Boulder and enjoyed hiking with her on mountain trails that she knew like the back of her hand. In walking with her in those mountains, I remembered the first time I visited her home in Boylston, MA and she led me at a full gallop out her backdoor through the woods on a hilly trail down to a glistening reservoir for a swim. To me this is how she lived her life. Any of you who were at our 25th reunion may recall her complete joy in connecting with her classmates, her passionate conversations about the environment and politics, and her boundless energy on the dance floor. She will be deeply missed.
I knew Laurie in college, but really only in passing as we were both geo majors and so shared the building but somehow weren’t in many classes together and weren’t at field camp in Montana at the same time. We connected after college – at our 15th reunion as I recall – at her initiative. She sought me out to talk about her mother’s death – I listened and tried to give comfort as best I could – I assumed she had sought me out as my college boyfriend and fellow geo major David F. Quinn had died our senior year so she knew I’d had my own experiences with mourning. So that started a post-reunion friendship. We always connected at reunions – I remember a particularly wonderful bike ride she and Serena Benson and I took during our 20th. I had spoken with her after our 25th as she had taken the lead on creating a fundraising effort among like-minded folks in our class that would reach beyond Amherst in its goals. She called to speak to me about fundraising as she knew I had been active in the fundraising efforts of our class which has been so generous to Amherst over the years. She felt that she was taking a long time in getting her effort off the ground post-reunion but (and I’ll never forget this given the circumstances of her death) she said that she had learned through kayaking “don’t leave the eddy until you are ready.”
Laurie was a sensitive, thoughtful, wise woman and we are all the poorer for her death as you well know. She was always open to new friendships and to meaningful conversation. She had a special quality – completely unique and wonderful!!
You could always count on Laurie for laughter, answers to obscure questions, and any help you needed, be it insight on home repairs, taking care of a dog, or just listening. I miss her smile and her ever upbeat outlook on life.
While I admired Laurie professionally as a scientist deeply dedicated to making a positive impact on the environment, our personal connection was nurtured by our many unforgetable outdoor adventures. From a magical hitchhiking trip to the Outer Banks with Chuck Lacy one spring break at Amherst, to her visit to see me in the Peace Corps in Bomboja, Liberia and our subsequent travels in West Africa, to floating down the Grand Canyon, to our final trip in Costa Rica months before she died, what wonderful memories I have of a kind, loyal, highly-principled, intrepid and tireless friend. When I last saw Laurie she told me that she was very happy with her life choices, only wishing there was more time to fit in everything she wanted to do. For her sake and selfishly, I wish there had been more time as well.
With the exception of Laurie’s junior year in Boulder, CO, Marina Buckley and I had the privilege of sharing close quarters with Laurie beginning on day one of freshman year in 109 Pratt Hall through the last day of senior year in A Building. Her family and friends never took a back seat in her life. She lived her life with a passion that seemed to wrap around and bring life to those she treasured like a warm blanket. Her energy and passion for the people and issues that were important to her were such that it is still difficult to imagine her as gone. Laurie will always live in the space she created in our hearts. We celebrate the strong positive influence she had on our lives…every day.
She had a “Golden Heart with Playful Spirit.” Laurie’s playful gusto for life manifested itself in many pranks from tipping cows in the fields near Amherst to playing on my vulnerable gullibility when she conspired with an orange-clad swami friend of hers to blow my mind in the middle of the night at the Worchester bus stop by having him pretend he was a fellow former Amherst student.
Do you remember how intense and excited she could get about something that inspired her? Do you remember the unique, unusual sound of her voice and the way she breathed? My memories of her keep coming back to the way she smiled and inhaled and laughed and the crackly timber of her voice. She basically exuded enthusiasm in a physical and aural way that makes me smile when I think of her.
The last thing I did with Laurie Wirt was attend the Dinosaur Tracks lecture at the old GeologyMuseum. The museum was scheduled to close soon, and those great slabs were to be trucked to the new location 200 yards down the road. Designed to display and house the stones, the room had changed very little in the last century.
As a Geo major, Laurie had spent a good amount of time in this place, but her connection to it went deeper than this. As the lecture unfolded, she realized that it was an ancestor of hers who had been instrumental in locating and excavating a great number of them. He had gone to a public lecture by geologist and clergyman Edward Hitchcock, who later became president of Amherst College.
Laurie’s family has lived in Massachusetts for generations, farming its valleys and building its towns; and they’re still here, sprinkled from Methuen to Belchertown. Gazing at the rocks and their crazed patterns of footprints, Laurie shared her pride and surprise. 150 years ago, Hitchcock had explained the origin of the tracks, helping people to understand that to gaze upon them was to gaze back in time. It must have been almost impossible to grasp this new understanding that they were walking the same ground as these strange beasts.
The tour leader said that the rocks had been used as sidewalks. Laurie’s ancestor, a contractor who had laid many of them, directed Hitchcock to the places where more might be found. If Laurie’s experience is any evidence, then these stones still have the power to alter our sense of ourselves, and to reveal the deeply personal connections between past and present.
Most of the people at her East Coast service seemed to be family members. I kept catching Laurie in small resemblances: her mouse-brown, kinky hair, the shape of her chin and forehead. Her sister Betsy certainly laughed the same way, with quick intakes of breath, eyes wide open and staring to see if you got the joke. It didn’t seem ridiculous to believe she would show up soon: the service was on a wide terrace with a view of MountWachusett—her MountWachusett, and the great, clear reservoir that was in her childhood backyard. It seemed more like a wedding. We were standing and waiting; and there was a trombone playing “Walk With Me,” nearly drowning out the two guitars. I was sure she would show up soon in a white, lacey dress on the arm of her bridegroom, and call off the charade.
But that’s what they call denial. One of her oldest childhood friends read a poem, her voice breaking. Laurie’s brother gave an account of her first 16 years—how she was reclusive, how she preferred art and books to people, how playing field hockey and running track forced her out. Then her sister offered a quick summation of the years after. But Laurie was the family radical, leaving the state, daring to make a difference, and Betsy could offer few details about her work out West. I remembered her ferocity as a competitor on the track, and can imagine what a tenacious opponent she was to organizations that sought to misuse water resources out there.
It was easy to mistake Laurie for someone ordinary until you caught the glint in her eye. I never saw her lose a race, though she rarely showed up for practice. She claimed she got plenty of training scrambling up and down hills, getting data for her labs.
It is a rare and special thing to have 250 people come to your memorial service, and have all of them marvel at what a wonderful person you were. All of them are finally understanding what that cliché means, that a light has gone out in the world, since, in thinking of you, there is no heaviness of anger or jealousy; nor disappointment lingering, unresolved. They find instead that they have thought of you in moments when they were happy, as I have, usually outside with the wind in my hair, or when, on a river or a lake, I lean out of the canoe and feel the water streaming through my fingers like silk ribbons.
Those wishing to send flowers, or to make a donation, might consider contributing in Laurie’s name to The Nature Conservancy, 1510 E. Fort Lowell, Tucson, Arizona, 85719. The Nature Conservancy will use the fund to support the Verde Watershed Association’s seminar series, inviting a number of well-recognized experts to speak on the subject of Ecologically Sustainable Water Management. The basis of the series will be Laurie’s work on determining the hydrologic source and flow of the Verde River.