Remembering David Firman
by Anne Firman Post
My father, David Firman, was a Professor of Geography at Towson University from 1957-1981. Towson was where my Dad worked, but it was also an integral part of my life during early childhood. Back then it was called Towson State Teachers College and Dad used to take us for walks in the Glen where we observed, caught, and released countless frogs, turtles and bugs. The Glen was much larger and unpolluted by surrounding development, and those childhood days spent there with my father inspired me to become a wildlife biologist.
My father often brought us to activities on campus and one of my favorites was watching students dance and wind colorful ribbons around the Maypoles on the front lawn of Stevens Hall on May Day - a holiday probably no one celebrates anymore. I also remember retrieving arrows from the big round archery targets in the field above Lida Lee Tall School playground, near where Smith Hall now stands. Dad was an accomplished archer who at one time competed in Olympic tryouts and continued to enjoy target shooting throughout his life. In the picture at right, you can see my brother and I watching the festivites from the lower right corner.
My brother and I attended Lida Lee Tall elementary school on campus. We went to work with my Dad, waiting for school to start in his impressive Stephens Hall office with its huge, tall windows framed by rich dark wood, its enormously high ceilings, and what I thought were marble floors and steps. My father or one of his students walked us across campus and down to the Lida Lee Tall School from Stephens Hall.
Like many of his generation, World War II defined my father’s life. Captivated with airplanes since boyhood, he was trained as a pilot and engineer and served in the China Burma India theatre with the 61st Air Service Group from 1944-1946. From air bases in India he flew in and repaired C-109 cargo planes (and other aircraft) used to ferry fuel and weapons over the Himalayas (the Hump) into China. I remember him saying that severe weather and poor maps made the trips extremely hazardous. He is pictured at right standing in from of Windy City Winnie.
After the war, Dad remained in the Air Force Reserves eventually retiring with the rank of Colonel. What he actually did was a mystery to us, as he would disappear to the Air Force Air Systems Command at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington D.C. for a few weeks every summer to work on Top Secret assignments which he wasn’t allowed to discuss with anyone, including my mother.
While stationed in India he became fascinated with Southeast Asia – the lush tea gardens and plantations, its exotic people, strange spices, and its wildlife, especially tigers, and he took hundreds of photographs to document his experiences. After the war he returned to school earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from UCLA and a PhD in Geography from the University of Maryland, College Park.
He was awarded two Fulbright grants to study in India and Pakistan and was actually returning home by ship from his first Fulbright when he received a telegram that his wife had given birth to twins – my brother and me. During the second grant, my mother, brother, and I accompanied him and lived for a year in Pakistan while he taught at the University of Peshawar and traveled through remote, rugged, terrain via Volkswagen Bug accompanied by an interpreter, doing research and taking photographs of people and landforms. Photography continued to be a major interest for the rest his life.
I don’t know much about his career at Towson, other than he was Chairman of the Geography Department for several years, taught many courses on Asia, and was Director of the International Studies program – the first interdisciplinary major at Towson. Following his retirement in 1981, he continued to teach in the College of Continuing Studies for ten more years. I do remember that he became involved in early environmental movements like stopping the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, and was the first “conservationist” I ever knew.
He received his first National Geographic magazine in 1935 and we still have it. I remember there were always National Geographics scattered throughout our house opening up a whole new world of people, landforms, and wildlife from around the globe for us. In addition to the National Geographics, I grew up surrounded by maps, as true to his geography profession, my father loved maps and even papered our family-room walls with real maps of the world instead of wallpaper.
My two regrets are that I never attended one of his classes at Towson to watch him teach, although I had the opportunity several times, nor did I ever take one geography class during my entire college career. I ended up teaching a couple of college courses myself, and always wondered what kind of a teacher my father was. If anyone has memories of his classes, I would appreciate hearing about him.
I will always remember my father as the consummate college professor with his tweed wool jackets and ties. I never saw him with a pipe although he smoked one before I was born. He kept gum in his jacket pockets to chew when his throat got dry from lecturing, and whenever I wanted Juicy Fruit I knew where to go. Dad possessed a deep intellectual curiosity about the world, a sincere appreciation and respect for other cultures of the world especially Asia, and the desire to pass on his knowledge to others by teaching.
I also remember his ability to whistle beautiful tunes, and his kindness toward everyone he met. In fact, his favorite saying was “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted”, (from AESOP’s The Lion and the Mouse,) and that’s how he lived his life.
Irv Buck, Towson '72
I'm a 1972 graduate of what was then Towson State College. I majored in History, Geography and Secondary Education with the intention of teaching high school. My geography advisor was the late Dr. Dave Firman, a quintessential educator, mentor and gentleman. I hope his memory and achievements are still honored at Towson.
My plans to be a teacher never worked out, but I did secure employment at the Defense Mapping Agency through a tour of their Bethesda facility conducted for Towson's Geography/Cartography students. That opportunity turned into a very rewarding and successful career as a military cartographer and regional intelligence officer with the Department of Defense. I retired from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency in 2005 after 31 years as a Senior Executive serving as their Deputy Director for Military Operations. It was a wonderful career that I look back upon with great pride and satisfaction. Since retirement I have kept busy as a geospatial consultant and subject matter expert in the Washington DC area and beyond. I also serve on the Board of Directors of Fugro Earth Data International in Frederick MD, a firm engaged in remote sensing and mapping. In fact, I leave tomorrow to attend GEOINT 2011 in San Antonio, the geospatial community's premier forum for national security applications of geospatial information.Many years have passed since my happy days on York Avenue, but the education I received, the people I met, and the values I learned at Towson have stood me in good stead.