A close-up of a painting of Fred Spilhaus, executive director of the American Geophysical Union from 1970 to 2009.
A close-up of a painting of Fred Spilhaus, executive director of the American Geophysical Union from 1970 to 2009. For the full painting, which includes a copy of Eos tucked in his hand, click here. Credit: AGU

“He was bigger than life.” “His legacy will not soon be forgotten.” “He left a lasting mark on all he touched.” These sentiments, which are often spoken about a recently deceased individual, can seem like clichés.

But for A. F. “Fred” Spilhaus Jr., executive director emeritus of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), who died on 30 April just 3 weeks shy of his 80th birthday, they are far from just words.

Those who were fortunate enough to know and work with Fred may speak of his vibrant personality, his strong work ethic, his generosity with ideas, his seemingly unflagging energy, or his attraction to good food and wine. And Fred embodied all of that.

Fred held an unwavering passion for AGU and was deeply dedicated to its members.

However, those committed to the advancement of science know that there are fathoms more. Fred held an unwavering passion for AGU and was deeply dedicated to its members.

When asked, shortly before his retirement, what he felt was most important among his contributions to AGU, Fred noted, “the openness of AGU and the ability for anyone involved in the Earth and space sciences to join and stay a member. Of equal importance to me is the fact that AGU always puts the integrity and quality of science first.”

A Commitment to Communication and to Keeping Dues Affordable

Fred held three degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including a Ph.D. in physical oceanography. After a short stint as an analyst for the CIA, he was hired in the summer of 1967 by AGU to be assistant executive director.

One of his early assignments was to make the stodgy quarterly Transactions, American Geophysical Union into a monthly magazine, which he did with the January 1969 issue, adding Eos to its title. Ten years later, Eos became a weekly tabloid newspaper. Fred served as editor in chief of Eos for 40 years.

Early in Fred’s tenure as AGU’s executive director (1970−2009), he attended a conference for society managers where a speaker talked about the importance of reducing the financial threshold for membership so that more could join. The principle was to have a low entry fee and then charge for the products and services members used. Fred was so struck by the concept that for more than 3 decades—until his retirement—he was able to convince the Council (today’s Board of Directors) to keep dues at $20 for members and to reduce and maintain dues for students at $7. Fred had a strong numeric base for keeping the dues low: The dues must always cover the incremental costs of serving an average member; they always did.

Fostering an International Organization

A picture of Fred Spilhaus sailing off Cape Cod. Credit: Spilhaus family

When Fred joined the staff of AGU, he became an employee of the National Academy of Sciences. AGU had been founded within the academy as the U.S. national committee for the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics. Only U.S. residents could be full voting members of AGU because each member was also a member of the “committee”; others were classified as associates and could not vote or hold office.

When AGU was “invited” to leave the academy and it became a separately incorporated nonprofit organization in 1972, Fred thought it would be good to get rid of the two-tiered approach to participation. Although the Bylaws Committee put forward a document that eliminated all geographic distinctions, before adopting the proposed bylaws, the Council reinserted U.S. residency as a condition of holding the office of president.

Five years later, when Canadian J. Tuzo Wilson was nominated as a candidate for AGU’s president-elect, no one checked the bylaws. Tuzo won the election. So that he could serve, a special election to change the bylaws was held, and the last vestige of AGU’s being a U.S. society was removed by vote of the membership.

The Importance of Giving Back

AGU had strong publications and meetings programs, but Fred said there needed to be a third leg to the stool, one from which AGU could give back to the broader community. This became the education, public affairs, and public information programs.

With the help of thoughtful members, a public policy effort took shape. Fred had seen such activities become divisive in other organizations when politics rather than policy took over. Thus, AGU’s public affairs program became firmly rooted in providing solid scientific information that could be used by decision-makers in legislative and regulatory entities rather than a program that lobbied for particular legislation. The first public policy statement adopted by AGU, issued in 1981, dealt with the importance of underlying scientific principles when Earth science was being taught at the precollege level.

Fred saw a worldwide network of such societies serving the advancement of science at the local, national, and international levels.

Having clear guidelines for how policy statements would be prepared was critical to maintaining AGU’s position as a learned society. The guidelines ensured that members had the means to provide input to the policy statements before they were finalized.

Fred was also a great believer in the importance of having strong national and regional scientific societies. He saw a worldwide network of such societies serving the advancement of science at the local, national, and international levels.

Although he wanted AGU to be welcoming to all Earth and space scientists and students anywhere in the world, he did not want the size and success of AGU to keep other societies from developing. He gave unstintingly of his advice to the leaders of other organizations and helped to lend AGU’s resources for the good of others. As new societies got started, it was common to hear their leaders explain their programs with “you know, it’s like AGU’s” Chapman Conferences or Macelwane Medal.

A Strong Leader

Fred’s mantra was “There is no end to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.” He had an uncanny gift for listening to what members were saying, especially in committee meetings, and was quick to figure out how to shape those thoughts into a policy, an action, or even a new direction for AGU. Fred brought the mindset of a scientist to analyzing problems and developing solutions.

A snapshot of Fred Spilhaus after he won the Waldo E. Smith Medal in 2010. Credit: Alik Ismail-Zadeh

He loved being in the midst of the action, but he didn’t seek to be the center of attention. He had no need for personal aggrandizement. Those who experienced his infectious laugh or shared in his joy in a good story, especially a self-deprecating one, may be unaware that Fred relished solitude, where he could recharge his batteries.

He was a man of strong opinions; this meant that Fred didn’t always see eye to eye with everyone in the various walks of his professional life. Fred appreciated that others held passionate views that differed from his. He enjoyed intellectual sparring and having well-founded, civil arguments. He never took arguments personally and never held a grudge.

Fred had the greatest respect for his predecessor, Waldo Smith, and frequently said that he was glad to have had a 3-year apprenticeship under Waldo’s tutelage. When Fred was nearing retirement and the AGU officers insisted that he have his likeness painted, Fred refused to have it hung until a portrait of Waldo was painted and hung first. Fred’s last official act as executive director was to host a small reception of members in the Washington, D. C., area to unveil Waldo’s portrait.

In 2010, Fred was delighted to receive the AGU tribute that had been named for his mentor: the Waldo E. Smith Medal. It is perhaps fitting that Fred was one of the last to receive the medal before it was designated as an award.

A Lasting Legacy

AGU would not be as strong today if Fred Spilhaus had not answered the call and made AGU his life’s mission.

Many of us who saw the energy and passion Fred devoted to supporting the volunteer leaders, especially during difficult financial times, know that AGU would not be as strong today if Fred Spilhaus had not answered the call and made AGU his life’s mission. Today’s members and leaders can count themselves fortunate that Fred had broad shoulders on which they could stand.

Fred Spilhaus—scientist, executive, mentor, man of courage, bon vivant, colleague, friend—turned his zeal for defending the integrity of science and for advancing our understanding of Earth and space into a career that enriched individuals and organizations around the world. Although his legacy will remain, the man who built it will be sorely missed.

—Judy C. Holoviak (email: jholoviak@gmail.com), former deputy executive director, AGU


Holoviak, J. C. (2018), A. F. “Fred” Spilhaus Jr. (1938–2018), Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO102549. Published on 13 July 2018.

Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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