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Chase leads new geoscience chairman to FHSU

8/7/2014

By ELIZABETH GOLDEN

By ELIZABETH GOLDEN

egolden@dailynews.net

It's not too often someone moves to Kansas for the weather, but Grady Dixon wouldn't have it any other way.

Dixon, the new chairman of the Department of Geosciences at Fort Hays State University, is a scholar, a professor and a storm-chaser.

As a kid in Mississippi, he grew up watching storm-chasing documentaries.

"I grew up thinking, 'It's really sad I'll never get to do that,' " Dixon said. "Years later, I became a storm-chaser, and I've been teaching classes on storm-chasing for 15 years."

Dixon has vivid memories from his childhood, growing up in a mobile home.

"We had a lot of damaging weather where I lived," he said. "Whenever there were sirens or tornado warnings, we went outside and I would be laying in a ditch. My mom and dad would be standing up nearby, watching the horizon, looking for signs of anything. In Mississippi, all you can see is trees. It was a scary thought."

As a high school student, he already was interested in weather.

"I guess I had a pretty awful high school adviser," he said. "I would express my interest in weather and geography, and she said told me not to be a meteorologist because the only career option was to be on television."

Because of his math and science talents, he decided to major in engineering. It only took one class to steer him in the correct direction.

"I took one intro to meteorology class out of interest," Dixon said. "I changed my major three to four weeks into the course."

He received his bachelor's degree in meteorology, and his master's and PhD in geography.

As opposed to a traditional vacation, he prefers storm-chasing and has traveled across the country for his craft -- Hays included.

"If it wasn't for the storm-chase trips, I never would have considered this job," he said. "I had been through Hays so many times for trips, and I knew the area pretty well. I had grown to love northwest Kansas."

Dixon came to FHSU from Mississippi State University, where he was an associate professor for nine years.

The position was made available after former department Chairman John Heinrichs died Jan. 11.

"It's a difficult situation," Dixon said. "I had a colleague who passed away in my previous department. He was one of my mentors. That was in 2009, and the place still hasn't recovered. I'm not pretending to know how they feel here, but I do know it's a very unique situation. I know (Heinrichs) was very well-liked and had connections all across the state. Those are pretty big shoes to fill. I'm not trying to replicate anything he did or replace him. Hopefully he set me up to succeed pretty well because he did a good job for a long time."

Dixon hopes to help the department succeed by focusing on increasing the geography enrollment. The department of geosciences is divided into geology and geography.

"The geology side is doing quite well, with the oil boom," he said. "But the geography side needs some help recruiting. Some of my strategies will involve traveling to high schools and community colleges where students might already have some exposure to weather. I'll explain how much fun it is to study geography and weather, and why this is a great place to do it."

FHSU is among the few schools in the area to offer geography and meteorology classes, Dixon said.

"(The University of Kansas) has a really small meteorology program, and (Kansas State University) has a great geography program," he said. "But there's really nothing else. You have to hit Lubbock (Texas) before you get a program with weather. From the Dakotas to Texas, this is a school to consider because of affordability, but also the courses we offer."

Dixon officially began Monday.

"My son told me he was 'really happy I took a job in Kansas,' " he said. "The reasons are a little more superficial, but it's related to the parks, playgrounds and bunny rabbits. Those are all pretty important for quality-of-life. I'm very excited to be here and looking forward to the opportunity."