In Memoriam: Van Bluemel, Professor Emeritus of Physics

November 27, 2012

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Van Bluemel, professor emeritus of physics, passed away on Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2012, at the age of 78. He had retired in 1999 after 33 years as a full-time faculty member and remained active at the Institute in a variety of capacities, most recently serving on a committee overseeing the development of a new WPI history.

"Van was a fixture at WPI and played an important role in the life of the Institute as well as the Department of Physics," said Physics Department Head Germano Iannacchione. "His many passions and activities have touched the lives of countless people. No one could ask for a finer example of a professor or a human being."

Born in Freeport, Ill., Bluemel attended California institute of Technology and received a bachelor of science in physics in 1956 from the University of Michigan, where he was enrolled in the U.S. Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) for four years. Graduating as a Second Lieutenant, he attended flight school at Malden Air Base in Malden, Missouri, and was assigned to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) at the Cheyenne Mountain Air Station in Colorado Springs, Colo.

After his military service, Bluemel enrolled at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where he received an MS (1960) and a PhD (1967) in physics. He joined the WPI faculty in 1966, just as the Institute was poised to undergo the most significant transformation in its history.

Like many young faculty members, he took an active role in the discussions and activities surrounding the work of a faculty planning committee that was crafting what came to be called the WPI Plan, a new approach to undergraduate education to replace the rigid, heavily proscribed method of teaching engineering and science at the time.

He took part in a campuswide Planning Day in 1969 that followed publication of the planning committee's first report. The all-day event opened his eyes to the competence and creative capacity of students, as he wrote in an essay in the student newspaper, Tech News, that spring.

In that essay, he urged the faculty to "continue to create opportunities for faculty members and students to talk to each other, instead of at each other"; to yield to student's requests for greater flexibility in charting their course through WPI ("It's the students' education; he should be able to do what he wants with it"); and to tap the creativity and thoughtfulness of students in the classroom. "Tech can respond to its challenges if we all have mutual respect, and act as though we have it," he concluded.

By all reports, Bluemel followed his own advice and became an educator and project advisor much beloved by several generations of students. He received the Board of Trustees' Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1996. His citation opened with this summary of his approach to education:

"Van Bluemel is totally dedicated to his students. In class he is always ready to help anyone struggling with the concepts of physics. In project advising he will undertake topics completely new to him only because a student is eager to work on the topic and can find no local expert. Outside of class, he is a role model. His enthusiasm, openness, and charm have had a lasting impression on generations of students. Finally, Professor Bluemel maintains the highest standards of integrity, doing what he believes is right, not what is expedient, popular, or easy."

In 2011, he received the inaugural George P. Dixon Award for his many years as a dedicated advisor to Skull, WPI's senior honorary society, to which he was elected with the Class of 1982. A longtime member of WPI's runner's club, he is said to have given the group its name, the Footpounders, a whimsical term that alluded to both the activity of running and the term foot-pound, which in physics is a unit of work or energy.

In his free time, Bluemel enjoyed hiking, bee keeping, skiing, reading, and photography. He sang with the Worcester Chorus for more than 30 years and volunteered for the Unitarian Universalist Church and for cancer research. He is survived by his wife, Paulette, two daughters, four grandchildren, and two sisters.

Calling hours will take place from 4 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 1, at Miles Funeral Home at 1158 Main Street in Holden, Mass. The funeral will be held at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec., 2, in the Unitarian Universalist Church at 90 Holden Street in Worcester, Mass. Memorial gifts may be made to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Worcester or to the Appalachian Mountain Club.