Mitchell native honored for contributions to scienceDr. Tom Riggert has traveled a bit. From the wetlands in Africa to the rugged mountains of Scotland to the frozen ice and snow in Antarctica, his work as a scientist has taken him all over the world.
By: Candy DenOuden, The Daily Republic
Dr. Tom Riggert has traveled a bit. From the wetlands in Africa to the rugged mountains of Scotland to the frozen ice and snow in Antarctica, his work as a scientist has taken him all over the world.
That work has garnered international recognition and more than one prestigious award, the most recent bestowed from his alma mater in Missoula, Mont.
Riggert, 72, was named as one of four of the University of Montana’s 2012 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients, which he received Sept. 21.
“It is quite a thing here, they make a very big fuss over it,” Riggert said.
He was nominated by his former college peers and selected by a panel of university faculty based on his work in environmental consulting.
“Each year they select three or four people that have had what they consider an outstanding career,” Riggert said. “They feel that you have brought a distinction to the university through your work, and they want to recognize your contribution.”
The award ceremony coincided with the university’s homecoming, which rang especially true for Riggert, who has been living in Australia since 1962.
“I guess I had this feeling like it was coming home, I’ve made full circle,” Riggert said of learning he had been named a Distinguished Alumni. “I left the University of Montana and I’ve kind of worked all through the world, and coming back here now is completing the circle.”
Just as exciting as the award itself, Riggert said the week gave him a chance to reconnect with the classmates that nominated him.
“I think they’ve all aged but I’ve stayed the same,” he said with a chuckle.
No matter where he goes or what awards he wins, Riggert never forgets his hometown of Mitchell.
He remembers walking to the high school when it was still on East Fifth Street. He remembers the barber shop on the first block of Main Street that his dad, George Riggert, owned.
He remembers pheasant hunting and the fervor surrounding opening day.
“Which was the most exciting time of the year,” Riggert said.
The first Riggert in the area was Tom’s grandfather, who homesteaded on Enemy Creek south of Mitchell, in 1889.
“He was one of the pioneer-types,” Riggert said. “We’ve been in Mitchell before it was Mitchell.”
Though his parents have died and his siblings have moved out of Mitchell, Tom said he will always feel strong ties to the area.
“It’s always been a place, to me, that I have really fond memories of,” he said.
And, in a way, he said there will always be a Riggert in the area.
“The cemetery in Graceland out there is full of us,” he said with a laugh. “They’ve got a whole collection of Riggerts out there.”
But, it’s not just the history. Riggert said it’s also the present that keeps South Dakota in his thoughts. “Growing up in Mitchell was such exposure to wildlife and hunting and fishing — fishing in Lake Mitchell — it really was the basis for my career,” he said.
Mitchell to Antarctica
So, how does a boy from Mitchell end up traveling the world as a scientist?
“I think graduating, getting my education, was my world passport,” he said.
As a teenager, Riggert worked with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, aging pheasants.
“I worked with a biologist there and said, ‘yeah, this is what I want to do for a career,’ ” he said. “I suppose I never once thought I’d be traveling the world.”
“I guess it just goes to show, if you want it, it’s out there. You can be from Mitchell or anywhere else, and you can do this.”
After graduating from Mitchell High School in 1958, Riggert went to the University of Montana, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology in 1962. Then, Riggert and a classmate, Bill Emison, decided to go to Australia to research wildlife.
“We had no job to go to and no money, but a lot of enthusiasm,” he said. “It just worked out that I have now lived overseas for 50 years.”
Once “down under,” Riggert earned a doctorate from the University of Western Australia in ecology. He decided to go even farther south, and in 1963-1964, he was the first American to join the New Zealand Expedition to Antarctica — one of the highlights of his long career. While there, Riggert was part of a field team. He worked as a biologist studying a rookery, or colony, of Adélie penguins.
“We were interested in finding out if building a base was causing this population to decline,” he said.
Their work was based at the Hallett Station, which was built jointly by America and New Zealand in the late 1950s. Located in the Antarctic circle, Riggert said the frosty conditions were challenging. “It was the very early days of exploration,” he said. “It was really very difficult, the temperatures. Well, it was a bit like South Dakota.”
Just like his introduction to wildlife, he said his South Dakota upbringing had helped prepare him for the cold.
“I said, ‘Look guys, don’t complain, I used to walk to school in stuff like this,’ ” Riggert said. “I was well-trained.”
And, chipping through the ice and snow paid off — Riggert said his team discovered human interference was having a negative effect on the penguin colony, and was able to set up guidelines to minimize the damages.
“The birds were very sensitive to human interference,” he said. “We were able to set up some rules saying how the birds had to be cared for. It was sort of a human management program rather than a wildlife management program.”
In 2005, he returned to Antarctica, this time as an observer.
“I wanted to see what approaching Antarctica from the tip of South America — Cape Horn — was like,” he said. “It was really interesting.”
But, Antarctica was just the tip of the iceberg.
A Winston Churchill Fellowship, one of the highest academic awards given in Australia, gave Riggert the opportunity to take a sixmonth world tour of his choice. He chose to study wetlands in several countries, including Scotland, Kenya and Zimbabwe.
In Australia, Riggert was employed as the first wildlife biologist for the state of Western Australia, an area of approximately 1 million square miles.
Riggert did that for 13 years, along with a stint as a senior research scientist for Australia’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.
After that is when Riggert’s career really took off.
By then a veteran scientist, Riggert set up his own companies, Riggert Consultant Ecologists and Waste Management Strategies, and went to work as an environmental consultant.
“From there, I worked throughout Australia and many parts of the world,” he said.
Similar to his studies on Adélie penguins, Riggert spent 35 years working with private enterprise to ensure all developments met conditions set down by the Environmental Protection Agency. It is this work that gained Riggert an international reputation and contributed to his Distinguished Alumni Award.
With his other business, Waste Management Strategies, Riggert said he cleaned up contaminated sites, such as the James Hardy asbestos manufacturing plant in Perth, Australia. On that job, Riggert said his company removed 90,000 tons of asbestos-contaminated soil with a crew of 165 men.
“It was a big undertaking,” he said. Even with those jobs, though, Riggert said he was able to tap into his wildlife biology foundation — particularly in making sure wildlife were taken care of no matter how big, or how blundered, a project was. “It was still always connected with wildlife,” he said.
Other career credits include work with National Geographic and NASA, and though he sold his companies, he is far from retired. He now teaches environmental engineering at South Bank Institute of Technology in Brisbon. “I find that I can’t retire,” he said. “You have to keep involved. You just need to keep active.” So, it’s back to work.
After spending two weeks in Montana, Riggert made his way back to Australia, to continue doing what he loves.
For Riggert, though, who has dual citizenship, he said it’s not really “going home,” or “leaving home” so much as another cycle of his welltraveled life.
“I always love coming back to the United States,” Riggert said. “I’ve been writing a book and it’s called ‘Someday I’ll come home.’ And this is a good chapter.”