Robert Thomas Kuhlken, retired professor of geography and former geography department chair at Central Washington University, died on January 1, 2021. He was 67.
Kuhlken was a lifelong scholar, educator, and tireless observer of the natural world. He was more comfortable outdoors than in, and always eager to explore new terrain. He studied at the University of Virginia at Wise and Oregon State University and was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to study agricultural terracing in the Fiji Islands while earning his doctoral degree in geography from Louisiana State University.
His specialization in human geography and his focus on land management fit perfectly with his desire to learn and explore. He favored traveling via public transportation on excursions throughout Mexico, South America, Polynesia, New Zealand, and Europe to get an unfiltered view of the local culture.
Kuhlken brought the results of these travels to the classroom, sharing his firsthand experience with his students. He taught college geography for more than three decades, spending most of his career at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, where he retired in 2015 as professor emeritus in geography.
He taught thousands of students at CWU. Countless first-year students with little knowledge of the rest of the world were captivated by Kuhlken’s enthusiastic spirit of adventure, his colorful stories, and deep insights into human and physical landscapes across the globe.
Kuhlken also taught courses focused on cultural geography, Oceania and North America, and urban and regional planning. His planning courses drew, in part, on his nearly 10 years of experience as a professional planner in Oregon before beginning his academic career. Quite a few of his students have gone on to successful careers as planners themselves.
As a scholar, Kuhlken’s work emphasized cultural ecology, historical geography, and environmental literature. He co-authored A Rediscovered Frontier: Land Use and Resource Issues in the New West which Rowman & Littlefield published in 2006.
He also published on topics as varied as Pacific archeology, zydeco music, and arson. In more recent years, his passion for fishing led to new scholarship on the geography of recreational fishing and the sport of angling.
More than anything, Kuhlken loved to be outdoors with friends and family—hiking, fishing, sailing, biking, gardening or just feeding the birds in the backyard. In remembrance, please donate to the National Park of your choice.
He is survived by his wife, Cynthia McGill Kuhlken; his stepson, Jeff Acker; and his brothers William Kuhlken, Kevin Kuhlken, and Karl Kuhlken.