Geosciences student hikes for professor’s legacy

Some students buy gifts or write letters to show their professors appreciation. James Amato raised $12,000 and hiked 500 miles to show his.

Amato completed his undergraduate degree at UWM in 2015 and is working toward his master’s degree in geosciences. He’s also the driving force behind the Dr. Thomas S. Hooyer Award, a scholarship bearing the name of one of Amato’s most beloved professors. Tom Hooyer was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, during Amato’s undergraduate studies. He passed away on May 4.

“Tom gave me my first shot at research. He was a really good mentor to me. He was an amazing scientist, a driven athlete, and overall a genuinely nice guy,” Amato said. “He enjoyed hobbies that have kept him outdoors including backpacking, skiing and bike racing. Tom was 52, married to Anne Medeiros and was the father of Nieve and Nolan.”

ALS is an invariably fatal, neurological disease that causes the body’s nerve cells to break down, resulting in progressive muscle weakness until walking, swallowing, and even breathing becomes difficult.

After he first heard Hooyer’s diagnosis, Amato knew he had to help.

“I was getting ready to do this crazy, long, solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). I read somewhere that using your hike for a cause can be a really great experience. I immediately thought of Tom and what I could do to make good out of this unfortunate situation,” Amato said. “I wanted to use my hike as an opportunity to raise awareness about ALS. I reached out to the Hooyer family with some options, and they really liked the idea of doing a scholarship in Tom’s honor.”

The PCT spans 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington. Amato completed the Central California section of the trail, 520 miles through the High Sierra, in just 29 days. He would hike about the equivalent of a marathon each day, carrying 40-60 pounds over 90,000 feet of elevation change on rough terrain.

“Every day I was confronted with a new challenge, and each time I managed a way to overcome it: severe blistering, dried up waters sources, bad weather – the list goes on. There were several occasions I just wanted to give up, but those were the times I found inspiration to move forward through Tom and his situation,” Amato said. “Among the hardships there were plenty of pay offs. You would just see the most amazing things on the trail, just spectacular views every day.”

Amato set an original goal to raise $3,000, but donors exceeded his expectations and gave $12,000.

Since then, more have donated to the scholarship fund, which will support domestic and international field research for undergraduate and graduate students. Today, a donation page is available at, and the first awards were handed out this spring.

Hooyer earned his bachelor’s degree from Calvin College, master’s degree from Northern Illinois University and his doctorate in geology and geophysics from Iowa State University. He spent his career in the University of Wisconsin system, serving with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey in Madison, conducting glacial geology research worldwide, and most recently, teaching at UWM.

His legacy will support geosciences students for years to come. It’s Amato’s way of not only honoring a beloved professor but also sharing his love of his studies and giving back to the Department of Geosciences.

“I hope this scholarship gives other students an opportunity like I had,” Amato said.


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