Robert J. French

1936 - 2016

Robert French, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Southern Maine, also known for his knowledge, love and collection of road maps, passed away on March 3, 2016 at the age of 80.

Robert Joseph French was born on January 3, 1936, in Boston, MA. He grew up in the Brookline area of the city and graduated from Brookline High School in 1953. In subsequent studies he received a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College in 1957, a master’s degree in education from Northeastern University in 1967, and a master’s degree in geography from Clark University in 1972.

He joined the faculty at the University of Southern Maine in 1969 and taught geography in the Department of Geography-Anthropology for the next 27 years. One of the major areas of his research was prehistoric human settlement and subsistence along the southern Maine coast and he was co-director of a project which carried out coastal archaeological surveys in and around Casco Bay.

French retired from the university in 1995 and spent the next three years as coordinator of the Maine Geographic Alliance, an organisation of which he was a charter member. He was also a judge at the Maine State Geography Bee for several years.

He also pursued his geographical passion: road maps. His interest in antique cars had led him to collect old road maps over the years, and he was fascinated by the place of these maps in American culture. Prior to the advent of the automobile, ordinary people didn’t use road maps as they had no need for them; maps were also relatively expensive. But as Americans took to the road, gasoline companies started to offer free road maps. Their cover art promoted a romance of the open road, a sense of adventure and discovery. French argued that this changed map-making and let to the democratization of cartography.

Many of his maps went on display in 2001 at an exhibition he guest-curated called “Road Maps: The American Way,” held at the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education in Portland.

Several years later, he donated 4,500 road maps from his private collection to the Osher Map Library and his exhibit was put on display at Harvard University. Following the exhibits, he wrote a series of articles on roadmaps for the Roadmap Collectors’ Association.

In 2011, he self-published a novel, Road Map to Yesterday, a tale of the 1940’s involving life, love and war. The story links small town coastal Maine to people and events ranging from local scale to the broad expanse of the Pacific.

Another of French’s retirement projects was the design and building of a home in St. George, Maine, using old and new technologies. The land surrounding the home – 30 acres of spruce-fir forest and meadows – was placed in conservation with the Georges River Land Trust, part designated as wild land and part as managed forest.

Other hobbies included antique auto and bicycle restoration, hiking, fishing, tending the forest and land, and exploring Maine with his family. He was also a volunteer archivist at the Owls Head Transportation Museum which has a world-class collection of pre-1940s aircraft ane vehicles.

He leaves behind Shirley, his loving wife of 50 years, children Laura and Charles and their families including two granddaughters, Katherine and Elizabeth.