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Francis Hole, champion of soil, dies at 88

January 16, 2002

Francis D. Hole, the geography and soil science professor who led a grassroots campaign in 1983 to have Antigo silt loam named Wisconsin’s state soil, died Tuesday, Jan. 15. He was 88.

Hole was one of UW–Madison’s most popular former teachers, and a sought-after guest lecturer. For many years, Hole used his battered violin, soil auger and suitcase full of puppets to great effect as he performed soil songs, soil poems and puppet plays about the earth beneath our feet.

“Soil is the hidden, secret friend, which is the root domain of lively darkness and silence,” Hole once wrote. “My goal in promoting popularization of the soil resource is not so much to attract young people to careers in soil science as to give all children and their parents and grandparents a chance to enjoy the soils of their native landscape.”

Hole spent a lifetime teaching folks not to treat soil like dirt. As he wrote in a 1989 poem based on a popular children’s rhyme:

Darkle, darkle, little grain,
I wonder how you entertain
A thousand creatures microscopic.
Grains like you from pole to tropic
Support land life upon this planet
I marvel at you, crumb of granite!

Hole was born Aug. 25, 1913, in Muncie Ind. He received a B.A. from Earlham College in 1933 in geology and biology; M.A. from Haverford College in French in 1934; and a Ph.D. in soil science and geography from UW in 1943.

Hole joined the UW faculty in 1946 as assistant professor of soils. He published widely and cowrote a standard textbook, “Soil Genesis and Classification.” He received the university’s distinguished teaching award in 1974.

He retired in June 1983 but remained active in education. As an emeritus professor , he lectured to any interested audience, from preschoolers to academics to retirees, about humanity’s stake in the soil. As he sometimes recited:

By sense of touch the feet assess
The nature of the wilderness
Of earth beneath. Yet human speech
Cannot express what feet can teach.

Hole began a campaign in 1983 to get lawmakers to name Antigo silt loam the state soil. Ridiculed in the media, with a group of McFarland sixth-graders initially his only backers, Hole ultimately found common ground with lawmakers and prevailed.

A conscientious objector to World War II, Hole worked in civilian public service camps in 1944-46 and remained devoted to nonviolence throughout his life.

Hole was a Quaker who took his diagnosis of prostate cancer in 1996 as a spiritual signal: “It’s a love letter from the divine,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “And I turn to the divine and I say, ‘It’s about time I paid attention to you.'”

A memorial service will be held at the Unitarian Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, Madison, on Saturday, Feb. 2. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be sent to Earlham College, Richmond, Ind. 47374.