Waldo R. Tobler

Waldo R. Tobler

Waldo R. Tobler, professor emeritus at the University of California Santa Barbara, passed away at home in Santa Barbara on Feb. 20, 2018, at the age of 87.

Professor Tobler was one of the world’s leading cartographers.

He was a principal investigator and a senior scientist in the National Science Foundation-sponsored National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis based at UCSB.

Waldo Tobler was born in Portland, Ore., in 1930, to Swiss parents, Verner Tobler and Hanny Urech Tobler. His father was a consular official for the Swiss government, and the family moved to Seattle while he was a young boy.

They were transferred to Washington, D.C., at the start of World War II, and were on the first boat over to LeHavre, France, after the war, on their way to Bern, Switzerland.

Tobler joined the American Army in Switzerland, where, in addition to his native English, Sweitzerdeutsch, and French, the Counter-Intelligence Corps trained him in Russian.

Upon discharge, he returned to Vancouver, where his father was consul, after the war. He completed his undergraduate work at the University of British Columbia and received his Ph.D. in geography from the University of Washington.

At UBC, Tobler developed a strong attachment to maps, especially to the study of ancient and Renaissance maps.

At UW, he was one of a group of graduate students, under the leadership of Professor William Garrison, who were the first to develop rigorous scientific research in the field of geography.

He married Dorothy Weix in 1961 and they had two sons, Eric and Stephen.

Tobler’s professional academic career was first spent at the University of Michigan from 1961-77. He created software and was the first to use computers in cartographic and geographic research, with emphasis on mathematical modeling and graphic interpretations.

He was the inventor of novel and unusual map projections, including a type of equal area Mercator projection.

Well-known for his 200-plus publications, in 1970, one of his statements, was about observable characteristics of the earth’s surface. This became the heralded Tobler’s First Law of Geography,:

“Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related.”  

He left Michigan in 1977 to help develop what became the stellar Department of Geography at UCSB.

Through his many publications and attendance at scientific meetings, his influence went beyond these locations to the wider world of analytical cartography, statistical geography, social science, including regional science, and computer-based data analysis, and helped lay the groundwork for geographic information systems.

Among other inventions is his method for creating smooth two-dimensional mass-preserving areal data distributions.

Over the years, Tobler’s name became associated with sophisticated insights into the representation of data sets concerning social phenomena, especially migration, human movement, and spatial interaction.

He received the O.M. Miller medal in cartography in 1989. Tobler’s many honors include membership in the National Academy of Sciences, member of the Royal Geographical Society, and an honorary degree from the University of Zurich.

He was a long-time member of the Santa Barbara Swiss Club and a past president of that organization. He was a Sierra Club member and met Rachel on a Sierra Club hike to Inspiration Point in July 1982.

They were both smitten and were married two months later, Sept. 16, 1982. They were still smitten the day he died.

Waldo is predeceased by his sister Erica Weisskopf and her husband Dr. Alex Weisskopf; also by his sister Dr. Heidi Veronica Evers and her husband Dr. Joe Evers.

Waldo Tobler is survived by his wife of 35 years, Rachel Mendenhall Tobler; and two stepsons, Adam David Dyrenforth and his significant other Jeni Chen, and Eric Francis Dyrenforth and his significant other Dr. Amy Rodriguez.

His sons from his previous marriage, Eric William Tobler (Karen), of Ypsilanti, MI, and Stephen James Tobler (Vicky) of Cantonville, MI, also survive him.

Two nieces, Heidi Weisskopf and Kara Evers; and four nephews, Peter Weisskopf, Gene Weisskopf, Alan Weisskopf and Kent Evers, also survive him. His niece Krista Evers is recently deceased.

Waldo was a calm, quiet, strong, reasonable, stubborn, loving man who taught by example. He was humble and preferred listening to talking, and working to leisure. Scientific theory was his True North. As a translator, he was second to none.

He was private by nature; he preferred getting to know people over time and measured them, not by what they said, but by what they did. He loved classical music and opera, and reading scientific theoretical tomes. He honored his Swiss heritage.

He most loved being at home with his books and a computer. He was generous in love and miserly with criticism. Many, many students and colleagues have written about how much his encouragement meant to them in their academic endeavors.

He was a great hiker and a loving, sensual and thoughtful companion. His constant curiosity, his smile, his daily dandelion count, and his wry sense of humor will be missed more than we can say.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday, March 8, at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, Church, 4575 Auhay Drive, Santa Barbara, with reception to follow at the church. Parking lot access is on Arroyo Street.

In his memory, read a good book, look at a map, listen to some beautiful music, kiss your loved ones, take a hike, learn a new language, and stay curious about the world around you.

— Sandy Thoits