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Fred Leitz ’40

July 4, 2014, in Tacoma, Washington.

Fred’s father, a German-born florist living in New York City, had always wanted to see the legendary Columbia River. Eventually he brought his family west and opened a greenhouse in Clackamas, Oregon, where a high school teacher sparked Fred’s interest in chemistry, and Fred was given a scholarship to Reed when he was 15 years old.

“At the time, I didn’t recognize quite how good the professors were,” Fred said. “In retrospect, they were spectacular. When you study mathematics under Frank Loxley Griffin [mathematics 1911–56], you recognize you’re dealing with an outstanding teacher.  Same with Arthur Scott [chemistry 1923–79], Walter Carmody [chemistry 1926–41] and Lawrence Griffin [biology 1920–45]. It was nice to be working with what I subsequently recognized were really giants in their fields.”

Mathematics was his favorite subject, but he explained, “I was naïve. I didn’t see who would employ mathematicians. It seemed to be you had two job prospects if you majored in mathematics—to become a teacher or an actuary—and I had no desire to work for an insurance company.”

He went with his second choice—chemistry—and wrote his thesis, “A Study of the Nephelometric Atomic Weight Endpoint,” with Prof. Scott. Fred understood that the thesis was a way for the faculty to get to know students better and perhaps give them a leg up in their future careers.

A great mentor at Reed was Charles Botsford [director of physical education 1912–52], who introduced Fred to squash. Fred also participated on the track team as a javelin thrower and held the record for the longest distance throw.

“Reed didn’t really have a track team,” he explained. “I think Botsford would call a friend—perhaps at one of the small schools in the Willamette Valley—and say, ‘It’s a nice day; let’s have a meet.’ That’s the way sports were at Reed—kind of pure.”  

Younger and smaller than most of his classmates, Fred also played eight-man football in games that pitted Reed players against local high schools.

“I’m sure it wasn’t the high school varsity team,” he mused. “It must have been some jerry-rigged, eight-man team. The high school kids would come over and beat up on us.”

When it came time to consider a graduate school, Prof. Scott, who was head of the chemistry department, recommended a number of schools, including UC Berkeley, which offered Fred a teaching assistantship.

“A lot of success at getting the appointments to graduate school was the result of school reputation,” Fred said. “At Reed, we didn’t have GPAs. We had a 1 to 10 grading system on a Gaussian curve, with 1 being the highest, 10 the lowest. Nobody got ones, two was an extremely high grade. And you didn’t talk about grade point averages. But it didn’t take long to note who the smarter students were.”

At UC, Fred majored in physical chemistry and while at the university was assigned to work on the Manhattan Project. One of the youngest students to earn a PhD in chemistry from that university at the age of 22, he went on to a successful career, working to produce safe nuclear power.

In his community, Fred served as president of the PTA, commissioner and coach of the Little League, troop leader of the Boy Scouts, and chairman of the United Way. He spent his long retirement surrounded by his family and his garden. Every year, he and his wife, Katie, funded a full scholarship for a student to attend he culinary arts program at South Seattle College. He fitted children with bicycle helmets and long after his 80th birthday tutored math in the Puyallup schools. By any measure, his was a long and happy life. His wife,  Katie, died in 2018. Fred is survived by his three sons, Fred, Robert, and Steven.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2019

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