PHOENIX: (602) 906-9600 | PEORIA: (623) 486-1955

Date of Birth: December 15, 1931

Date of Death: October 12, 2021

On October 12th, 2021, Richard “Dick” Ellefsen walked on after a short battle with congestive heart failure. He was 89, just two months shy of his 90th birthday. A member of the Coos Indians of southwest Oregon, Dick believed that people do not die, but instead “walk on,” signifying a continuing journey of the spirit. If you Google Teddy Roosevelt’s speech “The Man in the Arena,” you’ll get an idea of Dick Ellefsen’s approach to life. He was an enthusiastic participant in the arena of life, a doer of deeds who knew great enthusiasms and devotions, and who spent himself in worthy causes. Among them, he was a wonderful father, husband, teacher, colleague, researcher and friend. Dick was born on 12/15/1931 to Nelson and Daisy Ellefsen and grew up in Coos Bay, Oregon. He attended Marshfield High School, then Santa Rosa Junior College. With the start of the Korean War, he served proudly in the US Air Force from 1951-53, stationed mainly at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn where he helped process GI’s returning from WW2 and the Berlin Airlift. After leaving active duty, he received his bachelor’s degree from San Jose State College then went on to earn a Master’s from Clark University (Worcester, MA) and a Doctorate in Geography from the University of California, Berkeley. In June, 1954, he married Arlene Carlson. After spending a year in India, they began raising three children in San Jose and Santa Clara. Late in life, and after Arlene’s passing, Dick moved to Indian Wells, CA and then to Sun City West, AZ. In 1960, he joined the Geography faculty at San Jose State where he would teach for 40 years. He achieved the title of Professor in 1970. He loved to teach and took every opportunity to do so, often employing the Socratic method. Teaching wasn’t limited to the classroom; he took scores of students on field trips throughout the mountains, valleys, and cities of California. Among his many accolades, he earned the 1966 Distinguished Teaching Award of the California State University, the 1974 SJSU Outstanding Professor Award and the 1995 Outstanding Educator Award from the California Geographical Society. Dr. Ellefsen shared his love of geography with his students, and helped many of them establish careers as geographers. Always believing that work and life are one and the same, he continued to work until age 85 as a consultant, conducting research for a wide number of governmental agencies and private corporations. During his long career, he authored over 80 publications and delivered over 150 presentations. Dick was an early adopter. He took up golf, hiking, frisbee, cycling and running before those sports were fashionable. On their honeymoon in 1954, he and Arlene bicycled over 4,000 miles from Santa Rosa to New York, via Canada. He purchased one of the first Apple Macintosh computers. Dick helped pioneer the technique of land-use mapping using LANDSAT satellite data and invented the urban terrain zone (UTZ) classification system used by the US Army today. There are many descriptors for Dick Ellefsen: Independent thinker, golfer, public speaker, world traveler, tribal elder, proud American, doting father. But in his final days when asked to describe himself, Dick said he wanted to be remembered as a geographer, one who interprets the landscape and the relationships between the earth and its people, climate, geology, oceans, resources, and economic systems. Throughout his life, he conducted field work in over 45 countries in Asia, Latin America, and Europe. He found himself at home wherever he traveled, whether in the desert, plains, mountains, cities, or barrios. And wherever he went, he struck up conversations with anyone he met. Arlene, his wife of 62 years, walked on before him in 2016. His remaining family include son Eric (Lile), daughters Karen and Wendy (Guy), grandchildren Evan, Garret, Miles, Annalise and Carson, sister Lynn, niece Cathy (Jim), nephew Chris, aunt Connie and many cousins.

Service Information

We will be holding a Celebration of Life for dad in the spring of 2022.


Contributions can be made in Dick's name to the USO.