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POTSDAM — Among birch and scattered beeches behind Colton-Pierrepont Central School, two solar panels rise above a vaulted door.
You wouldn’t know what it is, unless of course, you know what it is. You wouldn’t know who Frank A. Revetta is, unless you open the door and look for yourself.
A professor who nurtured a growing geology program in Potsdam, a geophysicist who mapped the subterranean gravity patterns of New York and Pennsylvania, a friend to every news reporter in the north country when there was an earthquake, Mr. Revetta turns 95 in June. The planetarium at SUNY Potsdam bearing his name turns 60 next year.
He has lived quietly, impactfully, and even more quietly now with his wife, Joann M. Revetta, in the same Spring Street home they’ve shared for more than half their lives. The stars at the planetarium have faded, and the weekly shows that marked spring were last held in 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Mr. Revetta’s remaining shows were canceled. He talks about that with empathy and with disappointment. He talks about it with hope.
He’s the planetarium guy, the earthquake guy, the geophysicist, “but he’s much more than that, that’s for sure,” said John M. Wicke, Mr. Revetta’s son-in-law and director of strategic alliances for SUNY Potsdam.
Efforts to replace the aging planetarium system are ongoing through the university’s Advancement Office, where Mr. Wicke serves as development officer. How and when new technology would be funded is unclear. It may depend on donors and interest from the next mind to take up the laser pointer and show people how to look at the sky.
What is clear: Mr. Revetta’s legacy touches every corner of the north country.
The door at Colton-Pierrepont is an unassuming piece of that legacy. It opens to an underground seismograph named for Mr. Revetta. It gives way to his story, nearly a century in the making.
Mr. Revetta was born June 18, 1928, to Andrew and Anna Wilson Revetta. He and his younger brother, Eugene L. “Dean” Revetta, were “very different,” Frank said, yet they shared a characteristic sweetness and patience, family members recall. Dean, an Air Force veteran and grocer, died in August 2021 at age 90.
The Revetta brothers grew up ashore of the namesake river in Monongahela, about 17 miles south of Pittsburgh and 180 miles from the Pennsylvania-New York line.
The senior Mr. Revetta was a mechanical stoker in a Pittsburgh-area factory, and Frank was ready to follow a similar path until a friend of his told him about a scholarship.
“He probably would not have ended up going to college had it not been for the friend who recognized something in him and who knew of a way he could finance it,” Frank’s daughter, Lisa Revetta Orabi, said.
Being born during the Depression, and whenever money is such a consuming issue, she added, “having dreams like a college education seems like such a distant aspiration.”
Mr. Revetta took the opportunity to go to college, “and never forgot where he came from,” his daughter said. He earned his bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1953. He worked toward a master’s degree in geology and geophysics at Indiana University until 1954 before serving two years in the U.S. Army. He was a lab technician and later chief lab technician in Metz, France, responsible for running chemical tests on petroleum products used by the military.
When he returned to the United States, he worked for Geophysical Service in Texas, taught high school Earth science in Elizabeth near his hometown, completed his master’s degree at Indiana University Bloomington and did seismic surveys in Wyoming. After settling in Potsdam, he took a brief step away to finish his doctorate at the University of Rochester. His research included gravity surveys of both east-west ends of Pennsylvania and New York’s north country.
By the time he and Joann moved to Potsdam and he started working in 1962 at the village campus — then called Potsdam Teachers College — Mr. Revetta had established himself as an ever-curious Earth scientist. He looked underground and at the sky for stories in the rocks and stories in the stars.
He developed the Potsdam Seismic Network with stations across the St. Lawrence Valley including in Massena, Bangor, Potsdam, Star Lake and Brasie Corners, near Gouverneur.
Some stations are no longer active, others have popped up. The Colton-Pierrepont station, which the school dedicated to Mr. Revetta in 2015, is on the International Registry of Seismograph Stations for data sharing, as is the station in Timerman Hall at SUNY Potsdam.
The registry is jointly maintained by the International Seismological Centre in the United Kingdom and the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado. College campuses like in Potsdam and other community partners around the world feed into the centers.
The St. Lawrence Valley stations and dozens of others in New York are part of the Lamont-Doherty Cooperative Seismographic Network through Columbia University’s Earth Observatory. When the Earth shook seismographs in Colton, or Clifton or West Carthage, the observatory knew.
Columbia’s network, which was funded in part by the USGS, lost that support in 2020. While some stations are still operational and feed into the larger networks, data is no longer regularly analyzed by the Columbia network in Palisades, Rockland County, an observatory employee said.
From decades of analysis and record-keeping on campus, Mr. Revetta formed an early understanding of the region’s seismic activity. The conclusions: The north country experiences frequent, but typically weak earthquakes that don’t cause much damage. Nothing like the 7.8-magnitude quake in February that killed nearly 60,000 people and leveled 200,000 buildings in Turkey and Syria.
ADAMS CENTER — A minor earthquake was felt in Jefferson County early Friday morning.
At 1:30 a.m. Friday, the USGS program logged a 2.6-magnitude earthquake near Adams Center. North country residents in 13 ZIP codes provided more than 60 responses to the USGS, the most saying they felt it in Adams Center, Adams, Henderson and Watertown.
On the Richter Scale, earthquakes are noted with a magnitude between 1.0 to 9.0 or above, with quakes measuring less than 2.0 considered micro, and those in the range of 2.0 to 3.9 typically described as minor by the USGS — small indoor objects can be observed shaking.
Micro and minor earthquakes frequently occur near Massena. A 2.1-magnitude quake was recorded Feb. 20 near the intersection of Route 37 and Haverstock Road. The USGS center in Colorado received one report of a person feeling that earthquake as far away as Watertown. There were no reports of damage in Massena, or in Jefferson County after Friday’s quake.
The north country is most impacted by the Western Quebec Seismic Zone, which covers Ottawa and Montreal, the northern Thousand Islands, Adirondacks and east to Lake Champlain. An earthquake occurs in the zone every five days on average, according to the Geological Survey of Canada. The most recent major quake to cause significant damage was recorded in 1935 at the northwestern end of the zone.
Northern St. Lawrence County falls into a more active area because of the zone’s subterranean makeup. While the rest of St. Lawrence, along with Jefferson and Lewis counties, is in a less hazardous area, the tri-counties can still feel stronger tremors.
When Mr. Revetta was 16, long before arriving in Potsdam, New York’s largest recorded earthquake struck on Sept. 5, 1944. Measuring 5.8 on the Richter Scale, it knocked out power and damaged buildings in Massena and Cornwall, Ontario.
The Watertown Daily Times reported in 1944 that people in Pulaski and Saranac Lake experienced furniture moving and dishes breaking from that quake, with aftershocks throughout the day.
Then 66 years later, 5.0-magnitude tremors lasting about 30 seconds shook homes from Watertown to Malone and beyond. The earthquake centered north of Ottawa on June 23, 2010, and Mr. Revetta was at his station in Timerman Hall.
Mr. Revetta’s expertise has taken him elsewhere, to zinc mines, archaeological digs and hospital construction sites.
In 2008, at age 80 and having taught in Potsdam for 46 years, Mr. Revetta told the Watertown Daily Times that his work was still invigorating.
“It’s the searching that’s all the fun,” he said, “and when you find the answer, it’s not so interesting anymore.”
That’s still true.
In January, he turned on the planetarium and leafed through bound pages of seismographic images at his cluttered desk in the basement of Stowell Hall.
“Every time I picked up an earthquake, it’s up here,” he said, gesturing to wall-to-wall shelves of bound journals sorted by year. “This is what an earthquake looks like,” he said, opening to a page with a seismogram’s prominent peaks.
He searched for another image, then moved on to more mini lessons. Ever the professor.
When Mr. Revetta started teaching at Potsdam in 1962, the department was simply called “science,” a university spokesperson said. Housed in Stowell Hall when it was completed in 1964, the department included faculty from multiple disciplines and the planetarium. Geology was listed as a separate department starting in the 1968 yearbook. That year, Timerman Hall became the home of geology and physics.
After a brief hiatus during his doctorate program in Rochester, which he finished in 1970, Mr. Revetta returned to the developing Potsdam department. Through all those developments, he maintained his lab and planetarium, his office holding more books and journals each year and his list of accolades getting longer.
The National Association of Geoscience Teachers presented him with the 2012 Distinguished Service Award. A longtime member of the association, Mr. Revetta had served as its treasurer for more than 15 years, stepping down in 2011 at age 83.
Announcing the Geoscience Teachers award in 2012, the university wrote that Mr. Revetta had presented more than 180 abstracts with students as co-authors at professional meetings over his career, many through the Geological Society of America.
His State University of New York awards include the SUNY Potsdam President’s Award for Excellence in Distinguished Teaching, the President’s Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Endeavors, the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Distinguished Service and the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Distinguished Teaching.
He’s an honorary lifetime member of the SUNY Potsdam Alumni Association and in 1998 received the John M. Clarke Medal from the New York State Geological Survey.
His teaching style, he said, leaned heavily on applied research. For most of his career, he taught all year, including during shorter summer and winter terms. Subsurface tests for local construction projects like at Canton-Potsdam Hospital in 2010, earthquake data analysis and siting work for building proposals gave students practice with the practical.
While a student of Mr. Revetta’s, Anthony A. Cooper got that practice. He recalled conducting an isoseismal study to understand what people felt during the 1983 Goodnow earthquake. It was a 5.1-magnitude that registered on seismographs in the Adirondacks and as far away as Europe and South America. Another project required subsurface reviews for a proposed aquarium.
A retired Lisbon Central School science teacher and now in his third term as Madrid town supervisor, Mr. Cooper graduated from SUNY Potsdam with a geology degree in 1986.
He fondly remembers Frank and Joann hosting dinners for geology students — “He was always very welcoming into his world,” Mr. Cooper said.
Mr. Revetta flashed a smile when he looked at a picture of Mr. Cooper last month: “That’s Tony alright.”
Mr. Revetta’s abiding enthusiasm for learning about the world is part of what made him a great educator, Mr. Cooper said.
John A. Shatraw, who was a student of Mr. Revetta’s 15 years before Mr. Cooper, said the same thing.
Mr. Shatraw took a geology course from Mr. Revetta, but was an English and liberal arts student, graduating in 1971. Working first for the Courier Freeman and WPDM radio in Potsdam, then WWNY-TV in Watertown, Mr. Shatraw found himself years later contacting his former professor — as a journalist seeking information about an earthquake.
Mr. Revetta’s excitement teaching in a classroom extended to teaching reporters.
“That’s a very nice gift to have,” Mr. Shatraw said, “to want to share what you know.”
Like her father, Mrs. Orabi is a teacher — middle school French and Spanish for more than 36 years. “Everybody in my dad’s eyes is teachable,” she said. “It doesn’t matter your background or what you do or where you come from.”
“He’s the kind of professor who is so patient and willing to give anybody a chance,” she added. “I think he realizes that in life he was given lots of chances by people, and he didn’t forget that.”
Mrs. Orabi and her sister, Mia Revetta Wicke, grew up knowing their father was someone people turned to, someone they saw on the evening news or heard on the radio talking about an earthquake.
But when she went off to SUNY Potsdam herself, just a block away, Mrs. Orabi realized how much her dad meant to her peers: “I remember one student said, ‘Most college kids do not deserve a professor like your father.’”
When Frank met Joann at a wedding reception, he asked her to dance.
“It was a slow dance,” Joann, 82, said, “because he said he couldn’t fast dance.”
“After the dance, I followed up, I did,” Frank said.
They married at a church in Monongahela in 1961, and a reception at an Italian hall followed. They drove to Miami Beach and spent their honeymoon traveling around Florida. A year later, they had settled in Potsdam, where Frank was off to class and Joann worked in a few restaurants including Sergi’s and in the cafeteria of the now-closed St. Mary’s School.
Without a class to teach, an earthquake to review or a planetarium show to plan, Mr. Revetta spends much of his time at home with his wife. Joann having recovered from a heart operation last year, the Revettas have quiet days.
He scrolls on an iPad, does some light exercising and reads books.
He likes BirchBark in Parishville, the shop in the woods with 75,000 reads. He doesn’t drive anymore, so trips are infrequent. His home is a bit like BirchBark, books in every crevice. Joann, Mr. Revetta joked, has strong feelings about the stacks that keep getting taller.
His collection is almost entirely nonfiction, heavy on math and science.
“Nothing has really changed about him. I swear,” said Mr. Wicke, who married the Revettas’ daughter Mia in 1995. Mia works in the undergraduate admissions office at Clarkson University and lives with her husband in Massena. They, like Frank and Joann, met at a wedding.
Mr. Wicke had earlier taken a geology class with his future father-in-law. When he found out Mia was his professor’s daughter: “I made sure I studied extra hard.”
Mia’s older sister Lisa now lives in Connecticut with her husband, Ismail I. Orabi, whom she met in Potsdam. Their two grown kids, Abe and Ismail, visit their grandparents in the north country when they can.
“When I was born he was in his 50s, so I’ve gotten to see a significant portion of his life, which is rare for a grandchild,” Abe, 37, said. “I remember being a kid and hearing my friends complain about their grandparents coming to town and having to spend the weekend with them. I never understood that dread, because for me it was always the highlight of our month or year to be able to spend time with them.”
Spending their summers in New York away from their home in Connecticut, Abe and Ismail followed Mr. Revetta around. They experimented with rocks and watched as seismographs were serviced. Abe said his grandfather seemed to attract what he remembers as interesting characters.
“He was like this magnet for these social outcasts that everybody else seemed to find weird, yet had some relationship to my grandfather and he never seemed to find them weird,” Abe said. “He just accepted them.”
Lisa and Mia said their dad has always looked at people and at life with openness. Mr. Revetta, by all accounts, is a friend to anyone.
“I’ve had my heart set on a new planetarium,” Mr. Revetta said during a recent visit at Stowell Hall. He sometimes describes the planetarium as “the best teaching tool there is.” Everyone is welcome, and everyone can find something to like at a planetarium show, he argues.
The planetarium projector turns on, but the picture isn’t as clear as it once was. It looks like a hazy night sky, a film over the whole horizon. There are functions that no longer work.
“The meridian’s working, the stars seem to be working,” he said when he last turned it on this winter. Other north country educators have used the planetarium over the years, but not since before the pandemic.
A few north country school districts have iterations of a planetarium. The Shineman Planetarium at SUNY Oswego still holds community shows. But Mr. Revetta thinks the Potsdam planetarium is its own worthy treasure.
Mr. Wicke, in his role with the university’s Advancement Office, has facilitated talks with potential funders and planetarium vendors. A rough price tag for new technology for the existing dome could be between $300,000 and $500,000. But prices are always changing.
Still, Mr. Revetta is optimistic.
Before his last shows were canceled, he gathered with community members to look at the stars. The Feb. 7, 2020, show covered circumpolar constellations — groups of stars that center around the north star, Polaris, and are visible in the Northern Hemisphere all year round.
“You have to let your eyes adapt to the darkness,” Mr. Revetta told about 25 people sitting on long, vinyl benches. They craned their necks toward an illuminated sky.
The show was about to begin.
To learn about contributing to the planetarium, contact the SUNY Potsdam Advancement Office at 315-267-2106.
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