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William F. Brace, 85, MIT geologist and ardent outdoorsman

By Alli Knothe
Globe Correspondent / June 12, 2012
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A world-renowned MIT geologist, William F. Brace loved to work in the field and to participate in activities that brought him closer to nature. Along with hiking, skiing, and rowing, he was a marathon runner and for years took 100-mile bicycle rides. A woodworker, he built tables, chairs, and other furniture.

“Well-executed science is like a well-built piece of cabinetry. Each will be long-lasting; both have simple, clear, but elegant, lines,” Brian Evans and Teng-Fong Wong said in the introduction of “Fault Mechanics and Transport Properties of Rocks,” a 1992 Academic Press book about Dr. Brace’s work.

“Like the joinery in a hidden dovetail, Brace’s science contains thorough preparation and execution. He does not suffer half-measures; his endeavors are done correctly, whether they are woodworking, marathon running, rowing shells, playing the oboe, doing science, designing an apparatus, or writing a paper.”

Dr. Brace — who spent nearly all his academic life at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from his first day as a college freshman in 1943 to retirement in the late 1980s — died May 2 in Massachusetts General Hospital of complications of heart surgery. He was 85 and lived in Concord.

Dr. Brace had been the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Geology, and served several years as head of MIT’s department of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences.

“He was a mentor and adviser to a huge number of student and postdocs,” said Evans, a geophysics professor at MIT. “He never did something that he didn’t fully and completely understand. That kind of work ethic is the sort of thing that all these people picked up from him.”

Evans said Dr. Brace was one of a handful of geologists in the 1960s whose experiments led to further understanding of fault slippage, earthquake generation, and mechanical properties of rocks.

“The experiments were really fundamental in advancing quantitative understanding of tectonics and geomechanics,” Evans said.

In 1971, Dr. Brace was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He also was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and had been a Fulbright scholar and a Guggenheim fellow.

At 62, he retired to focus on woodworking, which he had been doing on the side for years. In a woodshop he built 13 feet from his back door, he made tables, chairs, dressers, and cabinets he gave to family and friends.

“He figured when he retired at 62, he would have 20 years to have fun in his shop,” said his wife, Peggy.

Born in Littleton, N.H., Dr. Brace was an only child. In 1946, he graduated from MIT with a bachelor’s degree in naval architecture.

He served in the US Navy and was sent to Bikini atoll in the Pacific, where his wife said he worked with a team of scientists that conducted nuclear tests.

Returning to MIT, he received a degree in civil engineering in 1949. After further study in the depart­ment of geology and geophysics, he was awarded a doctorate in 1953.

When he was 25, Dr. Brace met Peggy Grant at a dance in Cambridge. A year later, they ran into each other atop Mount Washington in New Hampshire and began dating soon afterward. They married in 1955 and lived in Cambridge for about two decades before moving to Concord.

In the 1950s, Dr. Brace joined the Cambridge Boat Club and rowed several times a week for about 20 years. When the Head of the Charles Regatta began in the 1960s, he volunteered with others to help design the course. According to a history of the boat club, he also helped organize early footraces for rowers during the winter months.

Dr. Brace’s wife said that from his 30s into his 50s, he ran more than 30 marathons and trained for 50-mile ultramarathons. He also enjoyed long-distance biking. During one family trip, he biked from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Mexico.

Doug Pfeiffer was an administrator in MIT’s earth atmospheric and planetary sciences department when he met Dr. Brace.

“The students loved him,” Pfeiffer said. “He was just a warm and generous guy, very unpretentious.”

Pfeiffer said he and Dr. Brace shared 75-to-100-mile bicycle trips in New England and California.

“You’d go on these trips with him and you knew it was going to be exciting,” he said. “It was going to be a challenge, but it was going to be fun. He had this great connection with the landscape and ­nature.”

Pfeiffer said they rode together for about 30 years until Dr. Brace, whom he described as a “very strong, legendary athlete,” was about 80.

Tim Grove — a professor in the earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences department — was one of Dr. Brace’s running companions.

“We used to get up at 5 a.m. and drive out to Mount Wachusett and run up and then down again about four times,” he said, “and then we were at work by about 8:30 or 9.”

Dr. Brace, whom Grove described as a “dedicated teacher and mentor,” spoke German fluently and taught himself Italian. He also was a bird-watcher and took up pressing plants that he found on his trips around the world. Dr. Brace organized trips for his family and for friends to the Grand Canyon, the Sierra Nevada, and other hiking destinations.

During the winter months, Dr. Brace and his wife skied as much as possible, sang in Boston’s Chorus Pro Musica, and danced at Pinewoods Camp in Plymouth.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Brace leaves two sons, Colin of Amsterdam and Nathanial of ­Seattle; a daughter, Sarah Towles of Seattle; and four grandchildren.

A memorial services will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday in First Parish in Concord, a ­Unitarian Universalist church.

Alli Knothe can be reached at

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