May 2023
Richard L. 'Dick' Powell

Richard L. “Dick” Powell, a geologist and avid caver who was associated with the Indiana Geological and Water Survey for 70 years, passed away April 23, 2023, in Bloomington at the age of 87. His celebration of life service was April 29.

Powell, a 1953 graduate of Evansville Central High School, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geography from Indiana University in 1959 and 1961, then a doctorate in geosciences in 1972 from Purdue University.

He was first hired at the Survey as a college freshman, working as a draftsman for the coal section headed by Charles Wier at 75 cents per hour, seven hours a week. In 1957 – after dropping out of IU, getting married (to Marion in 1956), and becoming a father (to Margaret Anne the same year) – Powell was washing dishes in the IU Memorial Union when Wier asked him if he wanted a job with the coal section as a geologic assistant. He said yes.

Thus began his professional opportunity to study a subject that had fascinated him since a boyhood trip to Spring Mill State Park: caves.

Powell’s 1961 circular for the Survey, “Caves of Indiana,” became an iconic publication of Indiana geology for the public and for cave enthusiasts. “For decades, worn paper copies of this book circulated in personal libraries,” wrote Lee J. Florea, then-chief editor of the Indiana Journal of Earth Sciences, when a revised version of the circular was rereleased in 2021. “For many, it was a pathway to understanding caves in Indiana.”

The rerelease was Powell’s final professional publication. It includes a first-person essay, “A History of ‘Caves of Indiana,’” which relates Powell’s early professional life, his graduate student days at Indiana University, and his entre into caving.

Powell credited former State Geologist Ralph Esarey with getting him back on the path to earning his first geography degree after low grades had prompted him to drop out, as well as for introducing him to Wier. Powell worked for both men, drafting maps, as a way to put himself through school.

Powell became a mentor for Indiana cave and karst enthusiasts. “Seemingly with no effort at all, he could make geology come alive,” remembered Arthur Palmer, who counted Powell as his unofficial graduate adviser. “I quickly recognized his vast knowledge of caves and the weird groundwater flow patterns in karst. He had no need for differential equations or technical wizardry.”

Marion also shared his love of caves. In retirement, they made many trips to Yellowstone National Park, where Dick studied geysers, did research on geological activities, and enjoyed fly fishing.

Powell also conducted extensive research on the Indiana whetstone industry. The fine-grained siltstone, mined in southern Indiana, was used worldwide for sharpening instruments and for grave markers. He and Survey coauthors published a series of posters in 2009 and an extensive StoryMap in 2020 – well past his official retirement from the Survey. He was still a Survey volunteer affiliate at the time of his passing.

Survivors include his children, Margaret Powell of Bloomington, Elizabeth Piekarczyk (Daniel) of Bloomington, Victoria Powell (Steve) of Sheridan, Arkansas, and Richard Powell (Kim) of Bloomington; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Read Powell’s catalog of work for the Survey here.