Boy Meets World

For Jeff Roet, the best way to explain the world is by looking down.The geography lecturer said he was “born with a spatial hardwiring and 3-D awareness” that enables him to envision the world as a map.

“By the time I was 6, I could read a map better than anyone,” Roet said. “I could glance at one that was upside down and still understand what it all meant.”

Although Roet showed an early propensity for geography, it took a sudden change for his gift to evolve into a near-obsession.

At age 19, Roet took the trip that made his life. Back in the 1960s, when he was “studying fun” at the State University of New York at Buffalo, a friend inherited enough money to buy 40 of his closest pals round-trip tickets to India.

A year later, with enough adventures and memories to last a lifetime, including visits to Nepal, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Greece, Roet returned home with a new focus.

“India was where I decided to become a geographer,” he says. “I had to find geography on my own.”

He explains that his atypical love of maps at a young age did not allow for a clear-cut path such as a love for music or mathematics can.

“If a kid is talented at playing the piano, you get him lessons,” Roet said. “But what are you supposed to do with a kid who can keep his parents from getting lost on a road trip?”

Dreams of Faraway Places

After Roet received a bachelor’s degree in geography, he worked odd jobs to make enough money to travel again.

His next trip was to Belize, where he lived on an island off the coast in the village of Caye Caulker. He was paid $10 per week to live in a house by the water. Roet snorkeled the barrier reef and ate fresh lobster daily. Electricity was reserved for Friday and Saturday nights “to keep the beer cold,” and he and his nine friends could go sailing whenever they wanted.

“I had enough money to stay for six months, but I left after three because it just didn’t feel right to be a beach bum,” Roet said with a smile. “I decided to go back and become a productive member of society.”

Northwestern University gave him a full scholarship for six years while Roet earned his master’s and doctorate in geography. He met his future wife, Jeanette, at a geography conference. And soon, he began dreaming about teaching.

“There was nothing I wanted to do except be a professor and study geography,” Roet said. “But, at the time, it was difficult to get a job. It was early July, and I started to lose hope.”

When his hope began to slop away, he decided to drink heavily one Saturday night.

“I was so depressed about not finding a job that I told Jeanette I was going to the store to buy vodka and grapefruit juice so I could knock myself out,” Roet said.

When he returned home, he made himself a huge cocktail. As he brought the glass to his lips to take the first sip, the phone rang.

“It turned into a celebration party,” Roet said with a chuckle. “I was not out even when I thought I was.”

Soon after, Roet moved south to teach at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Changing the Face of TCU


In 1999, Roet was offered a position at TCU in an effort to resurrect the university’s geography program.

“I was known as a program-builder,” Roet said. “Since I have been here, we have established a major and average about 12 majors per semester. Geography is now secure at TCU.”

Roet’s vision for the department also includes field trips. Every upper-division geography class has the opportunity to travel. Roet has taken students on field trips all over the world, including Italy, France, Honduras and Australia. This semester, Roet will take a group of 12 students to Barcelona, Spain, during Spring Break.

“Geography is about places,” Roet said. “It doesn’t work to teach in a classroom.”

Ben Tillman, an associate professor of geography who has taught geography at TCU for six years, said Roet “goes the extra mile to encourage students to get into geography.”

Tillman said Roet gets excited, and students enjoy his company.

“The students always get a kick out of how fast he walks at the head of the line,” Tillman said. “He’ll just keep on walking even when the light changes.”

A Cultured Family

School is not the only place Roet shows his enthusiasm for geography. At home, the walls are covered with pictures of his family in exotic places, souvenirs from their travels and maps of all kinds, Roet said.

A special map hangs at the foot of the stairs. It is a map of the world stuck with red, white and green pins. Each pin has a number on it, indicating the order of each place he has visited. Roet and his wife are in constant competition to see who can visit the most countries – they are currently tied at 35.

Their 6-year-old daughter, Jordana, has already been to 12 countries.

“I’ve only lost one tooth at home,” Jordana said. “My favorite trip was to Hungary. Mom and Dad let me jump in mud puddles while they did a wine-tasting.”

When driving home from Jordana’s cheerleading practice, Roet had an idea.

“Let’s go get Mommy from home, and we’ll eat some pho from our favorite Vietnamese restaurant,” Roet said. “It will make us all feel much better.”

Roet drives across Fort Worth to the corner of Belknap and Beach streets to Pho Nam. He places three orders of a noodle dish.

Jeanette shares her meal with Jordana, who anxiously digs in. After she is finished, Jordana regains her energy and asks to take a trip to the Vietnamese supermarket across the street.

“Look Jordana,” Jeanette said. “Pig stomach, ears and heart!”

“Over here,” Roet said. “I found some ducks! I think we should get one that doesn’t still have its head.”

The family sweeps through the store, finding items to take home with them. Roet purchases a frozen duck, a two-toned colander, a bag of mushrooms and four plates.

“Now we’ve had our field trip for the day,” Roet said. “We visited another country without ever leaving town.”

“Travel is a personal journey,” he said. “In India at 19, I started to become the person I am today. With travel, you grow, and you also see how people find the right answer for them. You begin to see the shades of gray instead of just black and white.