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GGE Founder Willis Roberts Passes

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A Fredericton native, Willis Roberts graduated from the University of New Brunswick in 1940 with a bachelor of science in forestry, and in December of that year, he joined the Royal Canadian Artillery. He served in northwest Europe during the Second World War, and was discharged in October 1945 with the rank of Captain. He continued with the Militia, retiring in 1957 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and was awarded the Canada Decoration.

Following his return to Canada in 1945, he was employed with the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources as a forester and project officer, and was appointed Director of Surveys in 1957.

When he first received his land surveyor's licence in 1947, Willis recognized that any improvements to New Brunswick's surveying and land systems required the support of his fellow surveyors. He worked tirelessly to form the Association of New Brunswick Land Surveyors and was the Association's first president in 1954 and 1955.

Service New Brunswick and its predecessor, the New Brunswick Geographic Information Corporation (1989 to 1998), evolved from the foundation that Willis laid with the Land Registration and Information Service (LRIS), which operated from 1973 to 1988. However, the forerunner to LRIS was the Atlantic Provinces Surveys and Mapping Program (APSAMP), which was a surveying, mapping, land registration and databank program. APSAMP existed from 1968 to 1973, and was conceived and established solely by Willis. He also obtained support for the program from all four Atlantic provinces, and obtained full funding from the Atlantic Development Board. Willis served as APSAMP's technical director from 1968 to 1973, LRIS executive director from 1973 to 1979, then as president of LRIS International from 1979 until his retirement in 1982.

Thanks to his vision and dedication, New Brunswick has an outstanding survey and mapping infrastructure and a modernized land information system that has captured the attention of jurisdictions worldwide. Without Willis' personal drive and commitment, neither APSAMP nor LRIS would have developed as successfully as they did.

Willis Roberts is also known as one of the four “fathers of the department” referring to the Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering Department (formerly Surveying Engineering) at UNB. In 1959, Willis and then UNB professors Bill Hilborn, Ira Beattie, and Gottfried Konecny, took the now famous train ride to a surveying education conference in Ottawa, where the idea of developing a surveying department at UNB was formed (see By Any Measure: Fifty Years of Surveying and Geomatics at the University of New Brunswick). Their dream came to fruition in 1960, and Willis continued to be a strong supporter of the department, becoming an honorary lecturer.

In recognition of his significant contributions, Willis has received numerous awards.

In 1983, Willis became the 25th recipient of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society's Massey Medal, the country's highest honour in the field of geography. It was awarded “… in recognition of his achievement in creating for the Maritime Provinces the world's most advanced geographical system for land registration and information.”

The Association of NB Land Surveyors awarded Willis the George Sproule Award in 1989. The award, named after the province's first surveyor general, is in recognition of “… outstanding contribution in promoting and/or advancing the profession of land surveying.” Willis was the second member to receive this award, following Archie McLaughlin, Willis' long time colleague, who received it in 1983.

In 1992, Willis was inducted to the NB Forestry Hall of Fame, established by the Association of Registered Professional Foresters of New Brunswick, in recognition of his contributions to forestry and related activities in the Province.

The Canadian Institute of Geomatics (formerly the Canadian Institute of Surveying) presented Willis with an Honorary Life Membership in 2005. Willis served as CIS president in 1967-68.

He was also proud to have received his doctor of science honoris causa (honorary degree) from UNB in 2005, in recognition of his tremendous vision, passion, and accomplishments. His support for UNB was further demonstrated in 2007, when he and his daughters donated $55,000 to establish an undergraduate scholarship in Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering. This scholarship is in addition to the Hamilton-Roberts Entrance Scholarship in Geomatics Engineering, which he established in 1999 with his friend and colleague, Professor Emeritus Angus Hamilton. Willis was an active and supportive UNB alumnus, as well as an avid Varsity Reds hockey fan. At the team's last home game of the season on 7 March, 2013, his passing was acknowledged with a brief tribute and a moment of silence in front of 3,000 fans.

(Written by Stephen Hartley and Angus Hamilton)