In Memoriam: Tributes pour in for Donald 'Digger' Gorman, beloved professor

August 25, 2020 by Michael McKinnon - A&S News

A great professor and an inspiring man.

One of those special bright stars. Extremely knowledgeable — he was the original Google before Google was invented.

A remarkable colleague and friend, and the perfect gentleman.

Those are just some of the kind words used to describe Donald “Digger” Gorman, who taught in the Department of Earth Sciences (then Geology) in the Faculty of Arts & Science for more than 40 years. His passing at the age of 98 on April 20, 2020 inspired an outpouring of tributes from colleagues and students around the world.

“Professor Gorman was a truly remarkable colleague and friend,” remembers Jeff Fawcett, emeritus professor in the Department of Earth Sciences.

“His impact on students as a teacher, mentor and friend set a standard that many would try to emulate but none could match. He was interested in students as people, especially if they showed any interest in minerals, mineral exploration and geology. He opened doors for them in terms of summer and permanent employment. He was friendly, relaxed, approachable and would always make time to hear their views.”

Donald Gorman inside a lab.
Donald “Digger” Gorman.

Born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, in 1922, Gorman earned a bachelor of science degree at the University of New Brunswick in 1947 before studying economic geology as a Beaverbrook scholar at the Royal School of Mines in London, England from 1948 to 1949. (That first degree had been interrupted briefly by his service in the Canadian Navy during World War II.) He’d become enthralled by minerals at the University of New Brunswick and arrived in Toronto with a $500 scholarship cheque and two letters of recommendation from UNB professors.

“When I got up here, I had my eyes wide open as to just how advanced U of T was over the University of New Brunswick,” Gorman recalled a few years ago. On the advice of U of T’s world-renowned mineralogy professor, Martin Peacock, and others, Gorman took six undergraduate courses to ensure he was up to speed.

“I guess I did, shall I say, so well in the undergraduate courses that Professor Peacock said it wouldn’t be necessary for me to take a master’s degree,” Gorman recalled. “He wouldn’t hold me up and put me directly into the PhD program. That started me out in 1948 as a full-fledged graduate student under the world-renowned Professor Peacock.”

He earned his PhD in 1957 from U of T, where he would teach mineralogy for 41 years.

He will forever be remembered for setting students up for their geoscience careers with the skills to recognize the important common minerals — as well as the less common ones, says John Gittins, U of T emeritus professor who enjoyed a 60-year friendship with Gorman.

“His approach was that it was all very well to send back a mineral you could not identify in the field for identification with a million dollars’ worth of instrumentation, but if it was chalcopyrite that you had confused with pyrite, the error might have cost your company a mine and you could expect to be drawing unemployment insurance soon,” Gittins says. “He stressed the practical needs of a mining exploration geologist. Decades of our graduates have taken with them that skill.”

It wasn’t just these practical lessons that set him apart, but also his listening skills and desire to help students excel.

“Digger was a great listener and it is one of the many traits students remember and loved him for. His door was never closed when he was in the department,” Gittins recalls. “His time was yours for as long as was needed. A comforting arm around the shoulder sent many a student back to facing whatever had brought them to see him.”

 Professor Ed Spooner with Donald Gorman.
 From left, Earth Sciences Professor Ed Spooner with Donald Gorman.

Beyond U of T, Gorman was a popular lecturer at the Royal Ontario Museum and the Walker Mineralogical Club, the oldest mineral club in Canada, which named him its honorary president in 1981. In 2009, he was inducted into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame after being nominated by his long-time friend and colleague Fawcett.

In 1981, the International Mineralogical Association approved the name “Gormanite” for a newly discovered mineral. In 2004, he was included on U of T’s list of Great Teachers from the Past, a select group of 96 former faculty members that includes only one other Earth scientist.

Gorman’s impact on students and the mining field will continue through the D.H. Gorman Explorers Fund Graduate Scholarship. Created in 2009 by Keith Barron to honour his beloved former professor, the scholarship provides undergraduate and graduate Earth sciences students with much-needed funding so they can focus on their studies and continue their research. Such support is invaluable, especially during the current pandemic when so many students have seen work opportunities diminish or disappear completely.

The scholarship is a fitting tribute to a well-respected professor who educated and inspired his students for more than four decades. The scholarship has been presented 17 times to 12 different students since its inception.

“I am so very pleased and delighted that students have benefitted from the scholarship, and have been able to support their studies and remain in Earth sciences,” says Keith Barron, who received his bachelor of science in Earth sciences in 1985 and established the Gorman scholarship in 2009. “Digger's legacy is alive and well.” 

 Gorman was predeceased by his loving wife Reta, was a proud father of five children and is fondly remembered by his 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Digger’s powerful impact on Earth sciences alumnus

There are a fortunate few who can say honestly an educator, a mentor or a friend made a huge difference in their lives and that their path through life would have steered in a different direction had it not been for them.

Professor Donald H. "Digger" Gorman was all of that for me, and, frankly, I have no idea where I would be had I not had several words of encouragement from him at a time when my career prospects in the Earth sciences looked very bleak.

In 1985, just before I graduated with a bachelor of science in geology, I was lucky enough to meet with a representative of a Toronto consulting company at the Prospectors & Developers Association convention, who hired me on the spot. At the time, the oil companies were busy closing their minerals divisions and hundreds of geologists were thrown out of work.

I missed my convocation because I was in the mountains of B.C. looking for gold and thinking myself supremely fortunate. The boss promised me a permanent job at the end of the summer, but it was not to be. The fates intervened and I was laid off after a lengthy drought and fire ban forced us from the bush in August. After writing 166 letters to mining companies and getting 60 replies — all “no" — I hit rock bottom, taking a job stacking bags of granulated plastic on pallets in Brampton. On my odd day off, I went down to U of T to scan the notice boards for jobs.

After a very depressing morning — on which a manager at a uranium exploration company had shown me a filing cabinet stuffed with resumes and told me, "You're at the back of this. You’re young; you should go back to school and retrain for something else” — Digger spotted me in the hallway dressed in my jacket and tie. He invited me into his office and gave me the pep talk I needed.

Thirty years later, the company I would start discovered the Fruta del Norte gold deposit in Ecuador. That pep talk changed the lives of myself, my staff, our families and now the thousands of people working at the mine.

I was surprised and delighted when I was presented with the Thayer Lindsley Discovery Award by the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada, and there was Digger in his tux at the awards ceremony to congratulate me. I told him he was partly responsible for the evening's events and promised him I would set up a scholarship in his name.

I am so very pleased and delighted that students have benefitted from the scholarship and been able to support their studies in Earth sciences.

Digger's legacy is alive and well.

Dr. Keith M. Barron
Chairman/CEO, Aurania Resources Ltd