Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Robin Buchannon, Research Assistant Professor Emerita of Geology and Geological Engineering

*Editor’s Note: The latest installment in the Ole Miss Retirees features is Dr. Robin Buchannon, Associate Vice Chancellor Emerita & Research Assistant Professor Emerita of Geology and Geological Engineering. The organization’s mission is to enable all of the university’s faculty and staff retirees to maintain and promote a close association with the university. It is the goal of the Ole Miss Faculty/Staff Retirees Association to maintain communication by providing opportunities to attend and participate in events and presentations.

Robin Buchanan has had an interesting career. Her many skills and interests led her to a variety of experiences and leadership roles. One has to envy her incredible travel destinations. She also has a great Ole Miss story to share.

Robin Buchannon. Photo by Robert Jordan.

Brown: Where did you grow up? What is special about the place you grew up?

Buchannon: I grew up in Chickasha, Oklahoma, a small town of about 20,000 in south-central Oklahoma. It is the home of the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, which was located about three city blocks from our home. I spent much of my youth running around that campus, in and out of the student union and the library stacks. When I was in high school, they opened a new performing arts center, much like our Ford Center. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend many musical and theatrical productions there. I guess from a very young age, I loved just being on a college campus. Still to this day, I love walking around the buildings and being among the students as classes change at Ole Miss.

Unlike Oxford, Chickasha didn’t enjoy SEC football and other major sports activities. We looked forward to rodeos all summer long, county fairs in the fall, homecoming and Veteran’s Day parades and the arrival of Santa Claus on the fire engine the day after Thanksgiving. When it came time to go to college, I left; and although it’s a perfectly nice place with really wonderful people, I left and never looked back.

Brown: Please talk about your childhood, parents, siblings and any crazy aunts and uncles.

Buchannon: I remember thinking that ours was the perfect family: a mom and dad, two boys and two girls. Boy, girl, boy, girl, in that order. I thought all families were supposed to have six members, because after all, Coca Cola came in cartons of 6 bottles, Hershey’s chocolate bars came in packages of six, the neighborhood drive-in sold hamburgers six for a dollar. I thought if a family did not have at least four kids, they simply weren’t finished yet. We were close to my mom’s side of the family, going often to spend time with my grandparents in Salina, Kansas. I had 15 cousins on that side, and we all enjoyed each other growing up and still visit and enjoy each other’s company to this day.

Brown: What were you really into when you were a kid?

Buchannon: I was really into gymnastics, or tumbling. I went to tumbling classes at the YMCA every summer, and at home, I was constantly doing cartwheels, round-offs, backflips—even in the kitchen while mom prepared dinner (which by the way, got me in a lot of trouble). When I wasn’t dancing around the kitchen, I was outdoors with one or more of the 16 kids who lived on my block. We all played outside until dark-thirty nearly every night, and when we weren’t outside playing dodgeball, hide-n-go-seek, or other games, we might be at the movie theatre, skating rink, or bowling alley. We just had a lot of fun every day.

Brown: What’s your favorite childhood memory?

Buchannon: I have a lot of happy childhood memories, but I guess spending time in Kansas with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins was my happiest time. My grandparents’ house had four bedrooms upstairs, mostly occupied by adults when we all gathered, and a full basement below, where the kids played for hours on end and slept at night on cots, dormitory-style. There was always a lot of cooking going on. Summer evenings were spent on the big front porch churning homemade ice cream or running about the yard catching lightning bugs in jars. Adults and kids played gin rummy or “go fish” into the late-night hours, and always woke to the smell of Grandma’s banana bread baking in the oven in the early morning. It seems surreal when I think about it, but it really was a most idyllic childhood, I suppose.

Brown: Tell us how/when your Ole Miss “story” began. Who hired you? How long did you work at Ole Miss? Talk about the interview process.

Buchannon: I graduated from Southwestern Oklahoma State University (SWOSU) in 1979, with a B.S. in Biology and a minor in Chemistry. SWOSU had begun as a teacher’s college, but when I was there, its main focus was pharmacy and although I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go into pharmacy, I started out as a freshman taking the courses that would be accepted should I decide to pursue that course of study. At some point, within my sophomore year, at about the time one had to apply to be accepted into the pharmacy program, a friend posed the question: do you really want to stand around all day and count pills? Perhaps I was too naïve (or stupid) to know that’s not all a pharmacist does, but as I thought about my future, the thought of staying indoors all day, filling prescriptions didn’t excite me. I wanted to do something that would allow me to stay outdoors, preferably somewhere in the mountains. I dreamed of being a national park ranger. I didn’t realize that park rangers have to carry guns, but that’s another story altogether. So, I concentrated my studies on courses that were focused on ecology, natural history, field botany, limnology. My favorite thing was looking at lake water through a microscope. I loved microorganisms and could sit in the lab for hours looking at a single drop of water through the scope. During that time, I had a professor of zoology who would go to extreme, exotic places during the summer to study and teach marine zoology—places like Ocean Springs, Mississippi. She suggested I go to summer school at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs. I figured this was as close as I was ever going to get to “study abroad,” so off I flew on only my second airplane ride, to Mississippi. Those five weeks in Ocean Springs would change my life. I loved paddling our little boat around the estuaries, in the hot sun, grabbing buckets of mud and seawater for later study back in the laboratory. I loved the smell of the salt air and the sounds of the marsh at night. I knew I didn’t want to ever leave this place.

By chance, one evening, I was late for supper. When I arrived in the old cafeteria, most of the other students were finishing their meals. I got my tray and looked for a place to sit. The tables were all full, except for one small table where a man was sitting alone; one of the handful of visiting professors who stayed on-site in an old army barracks that had been converted to dormitory and laboratory space. I joined him at his table and learned that he was the Chairman of the Geology Department at someplace called Ole Miss (funny name, I thought.) We started talking and I spoke of my interest in studying animals and their habitats, and how we had taken a week-long field trip across the entire state of Oklahoma from west to east studying the flora and fauna, sediments, soils and rocks that defined seven completely different ecozones in that relatively small distance. And I talked about studying microorganisms in the seawater that we had collected every afternoon since my arrival at the laboratory. Much like the lake water back home, seawater provided hours of entertainment. Two days later, I received a package by Federal Express. It contained an application for graduate school at the University of Mississippi. And the rest is, as they say, history. I was offered an assistantship to study geology, and specifically biostratigraphy, at Ole Miss. Biostratigraphy focuses on studying sedimentary rock layers and the fossil assemblages they contain as a means of determining the age of the layers, but more importantly, to correlate layers of rock over long distances both vertically and geographically. Biostratigraphic data are very useful in defining petroleum reservoirs. Finally! I found my niche. I was going to be a biostratigrapher and work in the oil industry and make the big bucks. That was the early 1980s. About the time I was completing my studies, the bottom fell out of the oil industry, and few of my graduate school colleagues were getting jobs in the oil industry. I began to worry because by that time I was 25 and needed to get a real job. Then one day by chance I was introduced to a nice man in the foyer of Carrier Hall. He was new at Ole Miss, having just become the new Director of the Mississippi Mineral Resources Institute (MMRI). He had recently welcomed a new son into his life and was happily showing off photos of his little son, Max. Along with admiring the photos, I was able to get in a few words about my studies, and he listened intently. Then we exchanged our obligatory “nice to meet you’s” and went our separate ways. The next day, my department chair called me. Seems that nice man I had met the day before was looking for a graduate student who had experience identifying microfossils in marine sediments to work on some subsea cores he had collected and brought to Ole Miss. I went to see him, he offered me a job, and I ended up working as a marine geologist for Bob Woolsey at the MMRI for about 15 years. In that capacity, I participated in many research studies mostly within the Gulf of Mexico, but also along the U.S. east coast. I also had the opportunity to spend a month at sea aboard a Russian research vessel, the Akademician Vinogradav, where I was able to put some of my skills to use studying sediments dredged from the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. While at MMRI, I helped form three research institutes at UM: the Marine Minerals Technology Center in the mid-1980s; the Center for Marine Resources and Environmental Technology in the mid-1990s; and the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology (NIUST)in about 2001. It was while working with the NIUST program that I met Dr. Alice Clark who would later become Vice Chancellor for Research and Sponsored Programs. Again, by chance one Saturday morning, Alice came into Bottletree Bakery where my husband, Denny, and I were sitting at the only table that had two vacant chairs. We offered her a seat at our table. Not long after that day, I was fortunate enough to be able to go to work with Alice. For the third time, it seemed that I simply had been in the right place at the right time, and found myself in situations that ultimately led to a long and happy career at Ole Miss.

Brown: What did you know about Ole Miss before you accepted a position here?

Buchannon: I knew absolutely nothing about Ole Miss before I came to graduate school here. And I mean absolutely nothing! I remember being totally astounded that the Civil War was still going on in Oxford, Mississippi in 1981.

Brown: Who influenced you in your early life? Did you have a mentor who influenced your career choice?

Buchannon: My 8th-grade gym teacher had a big impact on my life. I loved her class, but I wasn’t fond of her. She was grouchy and a little bit mean, and she liked putting students on the spot, forcing us to do things that were out of our comfort zones. I hated it; but by the end of that school year, I was smart enough to realize that she had had a profound effect on me. Long before the Nike swoosh came along, she taught me to “just do it.” While everyone else became paralyzed with fear when she would call their names to perform some little dance routine in front of the class, I learned to just do it, take it in stride, get it over with, forget about it, and move on (which is really not an easy thing for an eighth grader to do).

About the time I was learning this lesson, I learned this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. He said: “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” I think this is how I’ve spent my life.

I don’t know that anyone in particular influenced my career choice. I just remember getting the Weekly Reader on Fridays when I was in the second grade, and it always had a report or story about science. I always went to that section of the magazine first, and at some point, I made up my mind that I was going to be a scientist. I don’t think I really knew exactly what scientists did, but that’s what I had my heart set on. And I really never wavered from that.

Brown: If you were to go back to school, would you choose the same major?

Buchannon: Probably not. I think I would choose something more focused on a specific job, like pharmacy or maybe accounting. I truly value the liberal arts education, and I am certain that the whole college experience is a valuable one; nevertheless, if I could choose again, knowing what I know now, I would choose something more focused.

Brown: You’ve had a successful career. What’s the career highlight you’re most proud of?

Buchannon: I truly believe I did indeed have a successful career, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Among those things I am most proud of might be the small role I had in helping UM achieve the R1 Highest Research Activity Carnegie Classification and the role I had in developing the first building within Insight Park and the related expansion of the Maynard W. Quimby Medicinal Plant Garden. On a separate but equal level, I am proud of the role I played in encouraging and helping all of the staff members in the sponsored programs office to become credentialed by the Research Administrators Certification Council. When I started working at the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ORSP), we had zero Certified Research Administrators. When I left the ORSP and moved to University Relations in 2016, every pre-and post-award research administrator within the ORSP (who had been there longer than a year or so) was certified.

Brown: How did you meet your husband Denny? How long have you been married?

Buchannon: Denny and I met as students at Ole Miss. I was a graduate teaching assistant and he was an undergraduate student in my stratigraphy lab. We socialized a bit with other geology and engineering students, but we were really more acquaintances than friends. He graduated and left Ole Miss in 1983 and started working as an engineer for a construction company in Tennessee. In 1987, our paths crossed again when his company built the Crown Cork and Seal building over in the Batesville industrial park. A mutual friend invited us out for drinks one night, and we got married two years later.

Brown: What famous person would you like to be best friends with?

Buchannon: Paul McCartney.

Brown: What three words best describe you? Explain.

Buchannon: I’ve heard people say I have a calm, steady personality. That sounds pretty boring to me, but I’ve also been told that I’m kind. That’s not boring. I’m honored that someone would think that.

Brown: If you could master one skill you don’t have, what would it be?

Buchannon: Well, aside from learning to dance like a Rockette, I have always wanted to play a musical instrument. Maybe I’ll take lessons one day.

Brown: Describe your perfect weekend.

Buchannon: Denny and I have been known to fly to Paris for the weekend whenever the mood strikes us. That’s Paris, France, and of all the places we’ve been in the world, Paris is one of our favorites. We stay at a small boutique hotel near the Eiffel Tower and have breakfast every morning at a typical French café on Rue Cler. We enjoy spending time in the museums, but also just wandering around the neighborhoods. Paris was never on our bucket list; but now we try to return there as often as possible.

Robin and Denny in Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
Robin and Denny with friend, Karen Christoff, at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Brown: To what do you attribute the biggest successes in your life?

Buchannon: Tenacity. I’m not the sharpest crayon in the box; but I don’t give up.

Brown: If your life were a book, what would the title be?

Buchannon: The title would be “I Wanted to be a June Taylor Dancer.” The June Taylor Dancers appeared on the Jackie Gleason show on Saturday nights back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I never missed that show. They were high-kicking dancers, much like the famed Radio City Rockettes. Much of their performance was filmed from overhead cameras, and the viewer would see beautifully choreographed routines that looked rather kaleidoscopic as the dancers moved their arms and legs in perfect dancing harmony. Well, I never had a dancer’s physique or graceful movements, so regardless of how much I might have wanted to join their ranks, it would never happen. So, I think the book would be a tale of dealing with disappointment, moving on and making the most with what you’ve got.

Brown: In your opinion, what attributes/traits predict success in life?

Buchannon: Tenacity. It’s all about tenacity and determination to stick with something you start.

Brown: What’s your favorite way to waste time?

Buchannon: In retirement, I have discovered the joy of drinking coffee. Coffee is not something to be carried around in a paper cup as you scurry from one meeting to the next. It is something to be savored and enjoyed from your favorite cup or mug over conversation with good friends and family. I don’t think of it as a waste of time, but rather an enjoyable indulgence.

Brown: Where’s your favorite vacation destination and why is it your favorite?

Buchannon: Well, Denny and I have traveled extensively. Every place is our favorite place. However, our most memorable trip was a three-week hiking trek to Mount Everest’s base camp. The beauty of the Nepalese Khumbu region is unparalleled. Couple that beauty with the sense of accomplishment you feel when you reach the Khumbu Icefall at nearly 18,000 feet, and you’re standing at the base of the tallest mountain in the world with some of the most famous mountain climbers in the world, and you are simply blown away. It has to be the most incredible experience of my lifetime.

Brown: What has been your routine since retirement? Do you have any hobbies?

Buchannon: Well, I retired on June 30, 2018, and my retirement has been anything but routine so far. Over the past year, I spent quite a lot of time with my dearest friend, Susan, whose life was taken way too soon by liver cancer. Friends since the age of two, we remained best friends for nearly 60 years. In the past year, we spent countless hours with doctors, in diagnostic centers, and in clinical trials in hopes of extending her life beyond the five years her doctors predicted when they first found the cancer. In between all the appointments and the chemo treatments, we talked and shopped and went for pedicures when we were together and had coffee over the phone long distance when we were apart. We went on a cruise together up the east coast to see the changing fall colors. I was with her almost continuously in the final six weeks of her life. She died on June 6.

Robin with best friend Susan in Canada 2018.

So now, it seems like I’m starting over in retirement. July was a repeat of last year, getting used to the new routine of just being at home. I do some volunteer work with Memory Makers; but mostly I enjoy spending time with friends, meeting for lunch or coffee. Football season approaches, and Denny and I have several trips planned throughout the fall (one to Paris, of course). Life is good.

Brown: What are some things that you have marked off your bucket list?

Buchannon: I like to tell this story about Denny. When we were first married, nearly 30 years ago, he cut a word out of a magazine and taped it to our refrigerator. “Experiential.” He explained that we were going to experience life, not accumulate things or have a big, fancy house. Travel would be a priority, as would watching and cheering for the Rebels, seeing the latest movies, going to concerts and attending theatrical productions. Anything that would broaden our views of life. My reply was “don’t you think you should have told me that before we got married?” Regardless, this is how we have lived our lives. We’ve traveled all over the world; have seen Paul McCartney in concert 14 times in the U.S., the UK and Europe. We go to the movies and concerts regularly to “keep up.” We’ve visited many of the best-known museums throughout Europe. We’ve been dog sledding in the Canadian Boundary Waters; and have hiked the “W” trail in Patagonia. And in all things, we’ve had the incredible opportunity to meet and get to know people from all around the world. Knowing how other people live and the difficulties they face have made us more caring and compassionate human beings, I think. So, although it may seem that the bucket list is made up of traveling here or there, seeing this or that, that’s not what it’s really about. Ultimately, it’s about learning about people: what makes us alike or different; and being accepting of each individual as he or she is.

Hiking to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Robin and Denny on the famed “W” trek in Chile’s Torres Del Paine National Park.
Robin and Denny dog sledding in the Canadian Boundary Waters.

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