Born in Holly, Michigan, February 25, 1869, Dr. James Church came to Nevada in 1892 to teach Latin and German, literature, and art appreciation. Despite initial misgivings about Reno, both its dramatic surrounding high mountain desert and its sometimes rough downtown, Dr. Church stayed. In 1894 he married his college sweetheart, Florence Humphrey; they had two sons, Willis and Donald. Vigorous and inquisitive, he was the first Euro-American to complete a winter climb of 10,776-foot Mt. Rose, just south of Reno, in 1895.
In 1898–99 he returned to Michigan for graduate studies and then went to Germany where he completed his doctorate in 1901 at the University of Munich. No longer the reluctant Westerner, Church was happy to return with his family to Reno and the University of Nevada, where he continued to teach until 1939.
Church and others founded the Mount Rose Meteorological Observatory in 1906, and he made regular ascents to observe snow and weather conditions for the United States Weather Bureau and the University of Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station. In 1909 he devised the technique that would determine the water content of the Sierra snow pack. He eventually gained an international reputation for this methodology to predict water resources.
Widowed in 1922, Church began traveling internationally to consult on snow measuring techniques. For three years, commencing in 1926, he was part of the University of Michigan Greenland Expeditions, and during the 1930s he traveled to Russia to consult with scientists studying snow. In the 1940s his travels ranged across the Americas and northern Europe and to the Himalayas.
Dr. Church also had a deep commitment to the fine arts. He persuaded his friend Charles F. Cutts to participate with him in founding the Nevada Art Gallery (now the Nevada Museum of Art). From 1931, until his death in 1959, he provided the personal leadership—and continuous financial support—that helped sustain the Nevada Art Gallery. While he originally thought it should be part of the University of Nevada, objections from some regents led him to rethink the plan. He developed a town/gown plan for a community institution with a permanent university presence on its managing board. Regrettably, it was a formula that assisted neither institution.
In the early 1950s Church was still active on the Nevada Art Gallery's board when it truly became independent from the university after the death of Charles Cutts, whose estate provided an initial endowment of the Nevada Art Gallery. Church is described by those who knew him as a gentle, modest man who worked tirelessly for the advancement of cultural life in Reno until his death in 1959.
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