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Saturday, March 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

James Holton was expert in atmospheric sciences

By Sara Jean Green
Seattle Times staff reporter

James Reed Holton
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His contributions toward a greater understanding of the Earth's atmospheric processes made him famous in scientific circles.

James "Jim" Reed Holton, a member of the elite National Academy of Sciences and a University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences for 38 years, spent his career unraveling the mysteries of chemistry and climate.

A brilliant researcher who lectured around the globe, Professor Holton also was a prolific writer who had a knack for making even the most complex concepts understandable.

Professor Holton was an avid jogger, skier, cyclist and hiker. Last summer he walked across England, and a few months later he biked across Washington. On Feb. 24, he suffered a heart attack and stroke while jogging at Husky Stadium. He died March 3 at the UW Medical Center. He was 65.

"The news of his death traveled around the world at light speed," said Dennis Hartmann, a longtime friend and chairman of the UW's Atmospheric Sciences Department.

Hartmann learned of Professor Holton's death late on March 3. By the time he got into his office the next morning, "I had already received at least 10 e-mails from China and countries all over the world expressing condolences," Hartmann said. "Jim was a giant in this field ... and this department is really feeling his loss."

Professor Holton was born April 16, 1938, in Pullman, the eldest of three children of Charles Stuart Holton and Helen Preptow Holton. After graduating from Pullman High School, he earned his undergraduate degree in physics at Harvard University.

In his junior year, he attended a dance and met Margaret Pickens, a freshman, his future wife. After graduating cum laude from Harvard in 1960, he received a fellowship to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his doctorate.

Professor Holton had already accepted a post-doctorate position at Stockholm University in Sweden when he was offered a job at the UW. "They saved the spot for him," his wife said.

The couple spent a year in Stockholm, where their eldest son, Eric, was born in 1964. Four years later, after the family had returned to the United States and Professor Holton began his UW teaching career, the couple's second son, Dennis, was born.

In 1972, Professor Holton authored a seminal textbook, "An Introduction to Dynamic Meteorology," that remains the standard in universities across the globe. He wrote the first edition on yellow legal paper, his wife said. The fourth edition of the text, which many atmospheric-sciences students refer to as "The Holton," is due out next month.

"The textbook has been so lasting because it's extremely lucid and clear," said the UW's Hartmann. "Dynamical concepts can be very hard to understand, but he has a way of making it understandable to people. He was a very good teacher for exactly the same reason."

In the simplest of terms, Professor Holton "was an expert in atmospheric dynamics — the science and mathematics of predicting the motions of the atmosphere," Hartmann said. His research and published papers helped explain wind patterns, weather predictions, climate change and ozone depletion, Hartmann said.

For the last 15 years or so, Professor Holton received the bulk of his research funding from NASA. One of his experiments is expected to be launched on a Titan rocket this summer, his wife said.

Professor Holton was "very approachable and unassuming," Hartmann said. He was also known for his kindness and generosity, once using some of his grant money to buy new carpet and desks for a student seminar room, Hartmann said.

For years, Professor Holton also served as board president of New Hope Farms, a Goldendale, Klickitat County, group home for developmentally disabled adults, where his youngest son, who was born with Down syndrome, lives.

In addition to his wife and sons, Professor Holton is survived by sisters Janet Klug, of Fresno, Calif., and Shirley Koral, of San Diego, and three grandchildren.

A memorial service is scheduled for April 3 at 10 a.m. in Kane Hall, Room 103, on the UW campus. In lieu of flowers, remembrances can be made to New Hope Farms, P.O. Box 89, Goldendale, WA 98620.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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