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September 9, 2011
By John Trent
James “Jim” Taranik’s professional life straddled many worlds, from NASA to Nevada, from the classroom to the laboratory, from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) to the University of Nevada, Reno.
He was, without question, one of the transformative figures in the history of higher education in the state of Nevada.
Taranik, who served as president of the Desert Research Institute and was dean of the Mackay School of Mines and who helped establish the success of the re-organized Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering as the school’s first director, passed away in June. He was 71.
A memorial service celebrating Taranik’s life and many accomplishments will be held at 3 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 12, at the DRI Plaza, on the DRI campus, 2215 Raggio Parkway in Reno.
“Jim was a true champion for Nevada,” wrote Jon Price, director of the Nevada Bureau of Mines & Geology and longtime colleague, on a special memorial site for Taranik on the DRI web page. “As dean of the Mackay School of Mines, president of the Desert Research Institute, director of the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering, and professor in the Department of Geological Sciences and Engineering, he led efforts that built strong research programs, attracted excellent faculty and support staff, and secured funding for new buildings.
“Jim also volunteered on behalf of the geoscience and mining professions, with significant service in recent years to the American Geological Institute and the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration. He worked hard at filling the pipeline of students needed for the mining professions and at guiding the mining industry to earn its social license to operate through safety and health for workers and communities through environmental stewardship.”
Taranik received his bachelor’s degree in Geology from Stanford University, where he was a varsity water polo athlete, and received his doctoral degree in Geology from the Colorado School of Mines.
Taranik served with high distinction for 29 years in his various posts within the Nevada System of Higher Education. He came to the University in 1982 following his service as chief mission scientist on the Space Shuttle Columbia’s second flight. Serving as dean of the Mackay School of Mines, he helped raise $28 million, which led to the construction of the Laxalt Mineral Research Building and the earthquake retrofitting of the Mackay School of Mines building and library.
After becoming president at DRI in 1987, Taranik instituted the institute’s strategic and budgetary planning processes that refined DRI’s mission. He re-organized the DRI Research Foundation, created DRI Research Parks, Ltd., and established 150,000 square feet of new facilities, including the Dorothy Gallagher Great Basin Environmental Research Laboratory.
He returned to the University in 1998, becoming the Arthur Brant Chair in Exploration Geophysics in the Mackay School of Mines. When the campus’ academic structure was re-organized, Taranik became the inaugural director of the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering in 2004, a position he held until 2009, when he returned to the faculty. He helped the school achieve immediate national and international success, including a memorable celebration of the Mackay School’s 100th anniversary in 2008.
In anticipation of the Mackay School’s celebration, Taranik in 2007 commissioned a special Mackay commemorative coin. 2,500 coins were produced on Coin Press No. 1 (which had originally been delivered to the Carson City mint nearly 140 years earlier in the midst of the Comstock boom) at the Carson press now housed in the Nevada State Museum.
During a special ceremony for the first Mackay centennial coins, Taranik noted the historical significance of the coins. And then, with the seemingly inquisitive, yet knowing, smile that was so common on his bespectacled face, Taranik added that the coin brought back memories of his boyhood.
“As a kid who was a coin collector, I had those old Carson City dollars that were produced here,” he said, his face full of wonder. “So this is a very special moment.”
It was a moment like so many with James Taranik, a man who never stopped learning, who never stopped achieving, and who never seemed to forget the kindest courtesy or the warmest recollection.