Uldis Kaktins Leaves Legacy as Researcher, Mentor, and Friend


posted July 06, 2016

Uldis Kaktins, PhD, a longtime University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown professor of geology, died on July 2, 2016. He was 74.

He was born on June 10, 1942, in Riga, Latvia, to Zigurds and Zenta Kaktins during the heart of World War II. When he was about 2 years old, the Katkins family fled Latvia to escape Stalin and deportation to Siberia. Five years of his childhood were spent in displaced persons camps in Austria and then Germany, while his mother and father struggled to move their family to the United States.

On arrival in Boston, Uldis fondly remembered drinking his first glass of fresh milk and eating a donut. He grew up in a Boston ghetto, and joked about being picked on because he was short, had a funny name, and didn't speak English. But, the family put down new roots and Uldis worked hard to get an education. He served in Vietnam and wrote his thesis by hand on the floor of his Bachelor Officer's Quarters during the Tet II Offensive.

He earned his PhD from Boston University and worked as a professor and chairperson of the geology department at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where he taught from 1975-2008. Uldis taught and mentored countless students, many of whom became close family friends.

"He was a remarkable person, geology professor, and scientist, who touched and inspired the lives of thousands of students at UPJ," Pitt-Johnstown colleague Neil Coleman told the Tribune-Democrat.

Dr. Kaktins was published more than 20 times for his geological research and served more than 30 years as a private consulting in hydrogeology and geology. Dr. Kaktins spent many years researching the Johnstown Flood and the dynamics related to the South Fork Dam, which failed in May 1889 and caused a flood that killed 2,209 people.

"The flood history was a passion of his," Coleman said. "Over the decades, he collected every bit of information he could on the subject." Coleman called Dr. Kaktins a friend and mentor who taught Coleman was a student at Pitt-Johnstown.

Shortly before his death, Dr.Katkins was interviewed for a Tribune-Democrat story titled Johnstown Flood debate renewed: UPJ geologists' report questions findings of early investigation into cause of 1889 dam failure, which was published after his death on July 5, 2016.

He is survived by his wife, Nina Kaktins, three daughters, a brother Egils Kaktins, a sister-in-law, and numerous nieces, nephews and grandchildren.

 The University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, located in the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania, was founded in 1927 and is the first and largest regional campus of the University of Pittsburgh. Pitt-Johnstown is recognized by the Princeton Review as a “Best in the Northeast” college, by G.I. Jobs as a “Military Friendly School,” and by Pennsylvania Business Central as a "Top 100 Organization.” Additionally, Pitt-Johnstown has been presented with The Seven Seals Award by the US Department of Defense’s office of Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR). Pitt-Johnstown is the regional leader, educating for success in the Real World. The distinctive combination of our people, programs, and place results in exceptional performance in preparing students for career and professional success.