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Amherst College names diorama after late geologist Edward Belt 

  • Ed Belt is shown in the Joppa Flats Wildlife Sanctuary in Newburyport on Aug. 24, 2008. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Ed Belt leaning on an outcrop of marine invertebrate traces, his favorite kind of rock, in 2002. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Ed Belt, left, continued to work on a book version of a family movie he made with Rawn Fulton, right, of Searchlight Productions. When Belt could no longer make the trip to Fulton’s studio, Fulton brought his equipment to Belt, including when Belt was under hospice care. They worked on the book until Belt’s very last day. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Ed Belt and his wife, Emily Belt, on March 3, 2018. SUBMITTED PHOTO



Staff Writer
Friday, June 07, 2019

AMHERST — Speaking to a group of elementary school students in 2014 at the Beneski Museum of Natural History, Edward Belt was clearly at home standing in front of a diorama depicting Amherst 190 million years ago. As the kids circled around, he told stories about the dinosaurs that used to roam the area.

In a video clip from that field trip, Belt exhibits what many say was his true passion: teaching and mentoring young people.

A geologist who taught at Amherst College for almost four decades, Belt passed away on March 23 after a brief battle with lung cancer, surrounded by family in his Amherst home. He was 85.

Last Friday, family and friends gathered at Beneski to remember Belt, sharing stories of a man who left his own significant imprint on the Valley. And to honor that legacy, Amherst College announced that it is naming that same diorama after Belt.

“He was incredibly generous scientifically,” said Tekla Harms, a professor of geology and the director of the Beneski Museum. “He gave away ideas, he helped people … He was kindly in the good old-fashioned sense of the word. A real mentor to people, and just loved geology.”

Belt began teaching at Amherst College in 1966, becoming a full professor in 1978. He taught sedimentology, invertebrate paleontology and geomorphology until he retired in 2002, mentored countless students and was director of the Pratt Museum of Natural History — which later became the Beneski Museum — for 15 years.

Harms said that when she first joined the college in 1987, Belt immediately introduced himself. His office was right next to hers, and he would come in every day and say good morning.

“I didn’t realize until I became department chair what a gift that was, to have a senior colleague come in every day and wish you well, see what he could do for you, be in touch with you,” she said of Belt, the father of four daughters. Harms added that she was one of a long list of women Belt mentored, joking that many referred to themselves as his “fifth daughter.”

“I think Ed would be up to 100 daughters by now,” Harms said.

“When he took you on as his student, you were really part of his family,” said Vali Tamm, who as an undergrad studied with Belt from 1985 to 1989.

Tamm remembered showing up for Belt’s class on the first day with no clue what geology was. The class was Tamm’s last choice for a mandatory liberal studies course.

“I walked into this room with no idea about what I was going into,” Tamm said. “I was just riveted. He was fantastic, and he asked our opinions … I left the place with flames coming out of my shoes.”

Tamm went on to study geology as a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island, and Belt continued to advise her from afar. Tamm traveled widely with Belt and others to study geology in various locations, including the Badlands in Montana. Normally, Tamm said, relationships were tense between researchers and the ranchers whose land they had to ask permission to use.

“Ed Belt had them all wrapped around his finger,” Tamm said, recalling how he would ask the ranchers’ insights and invite them to have dinner with the researchers. “He valued people’s opinions regardless of their educational background.”

Family life

Beyond his impact in academia, Belt’s wife and four daughters remember him as a dedicated husband and father.

Kilty Belt-Vahle, 51, is the youngest of Belt’s daughters and spoke of his ability to connect with others. When he heard someone speak with a different accent from across the English-speaking world, she said he would unconsciously adopt their speech patterns — something Kilty saw as an attempt to relate to them.

“As I was growing up, I would get embarrassed that he so clearly had just adopted this person’s accent,” she said. “But, in the end, I find myself doing it.”

Belt’s daughter Aggie, 54, said that her dad was “incredibly supportive” throughout her childhood. When she entered art school and almost failed out during her first year, she said she questioned whether she should be “wasting” her family’s money on studying art. But she said her father got her back on track, telling her to do what made her happy.

“He was constantly making sure I knew he was being my biggest advocate and support,” she said.

Aggie Belt recalled a student of her father’s once describing him as someone who “always made people realize that mud matters.” That was certainly true in her case; now an art teacher at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, she makes clay pottery.

Belt was somebody who was constantly picking up new projects, his family said. He built model ships and train sets, focusing intensely on minute details to make sure everything looked as accurate as possible. He picked up tennis at age 60. And he fixed and refurbished antique furniture.

“We would joke, ‘If dad got bored, just go break a chair,’” said his daughter Anne Belt Ye, 56. “It was really fun because he really could fix just about anything.”

History was a passion of Belt’s. His wife, Emily, 85, said that when they visited her aunt’s house years ago, he was immediately enamored with the Victorian style and began taking photos of everything.

“I thought it was a pretty strange thing to do,” she said. “In the long run, we found out it was really wonderful to record a place I had grown up in and loved so much.”

His energy was never-ending, his family said. His daughter Emily Belt, 57, remembers her mother and father, both in their 80s, dragging a snow blower up to their roof during the winter. She recently read a letter from one of his students, who recalled being out in the field with Belt for a United States Geological Survey field study. The group was on the edge of a cliff, worried that they might slip. But there was Belt, running along the edge.

“He was naive enough just to follow,” she said of the student. “And Ed said, ‘Don’t look down, and just keep going. If you keep running, you won’t fall.’”

Belt preserved old family letters, made several films about his family with local documentarian Rawn Fulton and was writing a book version of one of his movies. He would go to Fulton’s studio to do work until his illness prevented him from doing so.

Even then, Fulton brought his equipment to Belt’s house, and the two continued to work on the book until Belt’s very last day, with Fulton sitting at his bedside.

“It was the most extraordinary experience, to be literally working at his deathbed,” Fulton said. “He was a person of immense, innate curiosity.”

Belt is survived by his wife, four daughters, six grandchildren, his brother, John Hewlett Keyes Belt, his sister-in-law, Louise McKeon Belt, and 54 nieces and nephews.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.