Philip M. Bethke ’52 died November 14, 2011.
(view alumni profile - Log-in required)

Read obituary


Philip Martin Bethke died in Bethseda, Md., on Nov. 14, 2011, after a short struggle with pancreatic cancer. Another splendid member of the Class of ’52 is gone.

Anyone lolling around the Great Hall on a winter’s night, dreary with frozen rain, will remember Phil Bethke bundling up and setting out across the campus on one of his regular intervals to check his senior geology project in the old geology building. None of these friends will be surprised that he went on to a distinguished career with the U.S. Geological Survey. A star lineman in the New Trier (Winnetka) High School football team on Chicago’s North Shore, Phil went on to make a major contribution to Amherst football, until permanently sidelined by a knee injury. That gimp and its increasing complications stayed with him the rest of his life, the source of many a wry comment on the fortunes of intercollegiate athletic wars. It produced a robust if quiet skepticism in him about institutions of any kind in the business of cultivating and promoting unreasonable heroics in their members.

After getting his Ph.D. in 1957 at Columbia, Phil taught at the Missouri School of Mines for four years before moving to the U.S. Geological Survey. Best known for his extensive field work in Creede, Colo., he worked as well in the Reston, Va., headquarters. During Phil’s long career, he did seminal work in mineralogy, producing, by our count, 107 papers, a textbook and, as coauthor, Ancient Lake Creede. Phil was a member of six professional associations, serving as treasurer of the Mineralogical Society of America and president of the Society of Economic Geology. His culminating honor was the Meritorious Service Award of the U.S. Department of Interior.

As important as Phil Bethke’s work was in Reston, it was in Creede that his heart lay. He and his wonderful wife, Jean, made themselves at home in the small old mining town that they came to love. They became very involved in life in the community and built an airy timber-framed house on the bank of the fledgling Rio Grande River, only a few miles from the river’s head. Your authors were lucky enough to spend a lovely weekend there a few years ago, visiting the mines he knew so well and had studied so thoroughly.

Phil leaves his wife, Jean McKay Bethke, seven children and 10 grandchildren. We of the class offer our condolences; we will miss him greatly.

—James Fernandez ’52

—William McFeely ’52