Madison: John Elton Ross, distinguished emeritus of the University of Wisconsin, Madison and pioneer in the study of the role of mass communication in environmental decision making died December 3, 2020. He was 94.
John was a faculty member at the UW from 1956-1992, holding a joint appointment in Agricultural Journalism and Environmental Science. He served as Executive Director of the Pilot Project for Environmental Sciences from 1966-1968 and was instrumental in founding the groundbreaking Institute for Environmental Studies (IES) in 1970. As Associate Director of IES from 1970-1978, he oversaw development of an undergraduate program in Environmental Sciences, as well as the development and management of graduate programs in Water Resources Management, Land Resources, Environmental Monitoring and Conservation Management. He taught countless students how to communicate effectively about environmental and agricultural issues and share scientific information in a way that mass audiences could understand and put to use. He published 53 journal articles on topics from the impact of scarce water resources on the Arab-Israeli conflict to the role of scientific and technical information in resource policymaking. As early as 1977, he published work on climatic variation and its implications for food production. He presented an estimated 250 public lectures, and supervised numerous graduate theses, helping his students launch careers in areas such as developmental journalism and communication about environmental controversies and sustainability. One of the highlights of his career was a multi-year international collaborative study of Environmental Stability in Developing Countries with the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) that led him to travel to Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Qatar, and other countries in Western Asia, forming lifelong friendships with international colleagues. Throughout his career, he was a generous mentor to colleagues and students alike, and in particular extended a welcome to international students, who often came to his home for social gatherings.
John was born in Medford, Oregon on November 11, 1926 to Mildred Lura Slayton Ross and Floyd Angus Ross. As a boy, he lived with his parents and his elder brother, Edgar Floyd Ross, in Central Point, Oregon. His father owned a store, “Ross & Ross Confectionery and Billiards,” where John helped out with chores like stocking the candy jars. In the summer, his family visited the Slayton ranch in Prineville, Oregon, a cattle ranch settled by Samuel Ransom Slayton under an Oregon Donation Land Grant in 1869. It was there, at the age of three, that he met his life’s best companion, Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Basler, best friend of his cousin, Jean Graffenberger. When John was 14 years old, his grandfather, Edgar Truman Slayton died, leaving a portion of the ranch to Mildred, and the Ross family moved to Prineville permanently. John was raised with a strong work ethic on the ranch, rising before dawn while the coyotes were still abroad and howling, to reroute the irrigation water in the alfalfa fields or bring in hay, then breakfasting on one of Mildred’s exceptional pies before heading to school. One of many stories he later told about his ranch life was the time when he hoisted a bale of hay to discover the head of a live rattlesnake protruding from it, inches from his face. When the chores were done, John, Beth, Jean and Edgar would ride out on horseback together among the buttes and sagebrush of eastern Oregon.
After graduating from Crook County High School in 1944, John studied at Oregon State University in Corvallis, OR, earning his BS in Animal Husbandry in 1948. In college, he dated his childhood friend Beth Basler, who was studying English at the University of Oregon. One of John’s professors, impressed with his great intellectual curiosity, encouraged him to pursue an advanced degree, and John came to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he earned a Master’s Degree in Agricultural Journalism in 1949 and was one of the first students at the university to earn a PhD in Mass Communication, in 1954, with a minor in Economics. Time apart from Beth made John quickly realize that he didn’t want to be without her, and he persuaded her to join him in Madison. They were married in Portland on Dec. 10, 1950. From 1954 – 1956, John paused his academic career to serve in the U.S Army Medical Service, earning promotion from Second Lieutenant to Captain. In his early years as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Agricultural Journalism, he also worked part time on the City Desk at the Capital Times newspaper in order to support his now growing family. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1960, and Full Professor in 1965, serving as Chair of the Department from 1969-1970, Executive Director of the Public Representation Organization of the Faculty Senate from 1979-1985, and on the University Committee from 1987-1989. In 2009, the John Ross Chair in Science Communication was established in his name at the UW.
Between 1953 and 1967, John and Beth had five children, Tom, Anne, Laurie, Katie and Sally. They encouraged their children to be ambitious, curious and true to themselves. John was adept at ‘work/life balance’ well before the term was popularized, and his family knew it must be 5:20 pm every weekday when they heard the welcome sound of his footsteps coming through the back hall. Family dinners were lively affairs, with good food, much of it home grown, and wide ranging conversation and debate. On summer evenings after dinner the family weeded and harvested in their large vegetable garden. John and Beth were both excellent cooks and enjoyed spending time together in the kitchen preparing meals for the family or more gourmet fare for their long running ‘dinner bridge’ group. John baked bread, made sauerkraut and pungent home-ground horseradish, and canned pickles of all kinds. He emulated his mother’s talent for candy making, and later branched out to fresh pasta and Spanish tapas. Every August there was a road trip to see the grandparents in Oregon and go camping, hiking, swimming and rafting in one or another national park. Each holiday was marked by joyful rituals, but Christmas was the show stopper, with a 14 foot Christmas tree, homemade toffee and marzipan, and annualadditions to John’s prized collection of vintage wind-up toys that dated back to his childhood in the 1930s.
After retiring in 1992, John began a second career marked by collaboration with family members. He and Beth co-authored the book "Prairie Time, the Leopold Reserve Revisited," published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1998. In it, he presented a series of essays exploring the seasons and terrain of Wisconsin’s prairie habitat and relating plant and animal life to its physical underpinnings. Beth contributed vivid species descriptions of the wild residents of the prairie, and both authors provided the book’s luminous photographs. Photography was another shared passion that retirement allowed them more time to explore. Together with their son, Tom, they formed Geocentrics Press to sell their photography, and they travelled widely together photographing animals and landscapes in Yellowstone, the Galapagos, Kenya, Canada, Belize and Baja.
Following Beth’s death in 2015, John resumed an earlier interest in watercolor painting, recreating largely from memory the landscapes and wild creatures of his childhood as well as his many travels as an adult. He continued to enjoy the natural beauty of Wisconsin on frequent day trips into the Driftless Area with his daughters, explaining the geology of the region to his visiting grandchildren. He retained his characteristic intellectual curiosity until the end, quizzing one of his grandsons about the details of his college genetics class during a Zoom call on the day before his death.
John lived a long and rewarding life, but like so many others, he was taken from his family prematurely by Covid-19. He is survived by his five adult children and their partners, Thomas Slayton Ross (Judy), Steamboat Springs, CO., Anne Elizabeth Ross (Carolyn "Carrie" Nelson), Madison, WI, Laurie Basler Loescher (Amy Reynolds) Deer Island, OR., Katherine Mary "Katie" Ross (Tom Jones), Middleton, WI, Sara Angus "Sally" Ross (Scott Higgins) Middletown, CT; seven grandchildren, Austin Ross, Kyle, Garren, and Thea Loescher, John E. Ross "Jack," Elizabeth "Bess," and Samuel "Sam" Higgins, and a great grandson, Beckett Rooney Loescher.
“The end of winter’s shortest day is fast approaching. There is a need to get outside and break this spell of cabin fever with a long trek through the woods and across the prairie.” – John Ross, Prairie Time
Charitable donations made to the UW Foundation in John Ross’s name will be added to the John E. and Elizabeth B. Ross Science Writing Scholarship. Donations in John’s name to the Aldo Leopold Nature Center are also welcome.
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