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Prof. Thomas Dunne [chemistry 1963–95]

April 5, 2020, in Tualatin, Oregon, from natural causes.

Prof. Thomas Dunne was a legendary professor who mentored generations of Reed students.

“Tom Dunne was one of my favorite people because of his deep kindness and his unwavering focus on improving and enhancing the lives of his students, friends, and family,” said Kristopher McNeill ’92. “He was an incredibly kind person, always upbeat, generous with his time, and always quick to make a clever joke (at his expense). He was a great Reed College professor, who fully appreciated liberal arts education and the importance of independent research. Tom took the job at Reed sight unseen, and it’s hard to believe how well he and Reed fit together.”

Dunne was born in 1930 and grew up in the Searles Valley, a desolate part of California’s Mojave Desert that is rich in minerals, such as borax, soda ash, potash, and some compounds of lithium. Despite the Great Depression, the valley sustained a number of chemical companies, including the one his father worked for. In later years, Tom speculated that his interest in chemistry was seeded in that valley.

Because Westend, the tiny town he lived in, was too small to support a school, Tom traveled on a steam-driven locomotive to nearby Trona for kindergarten. During the summer, he ran around the desert barefoot and swam in the reservoir that fed the chemical plant.

In the first grade, he was sent off to Saint Catherine’s, a Catholic boarding school in Anaheim. “It was not a good year,” he recalled. “All the things that a kid should learn in first grade, none of those did I learn. If you weren’t learning, then the way to get learning was to beat you more. That may work with some students, but it had the opposite effect with me.”

He convinced his parents to let him begin second grade in Trona, where he continued through high school. He went to UCLA at the suggestion of one of his teachers; as a freshman on campus, he noted that one of his chemistry textbooks had a picture of Searles Lake on it. “There it was,” he said, “my home territory right in the textbook.”

At UCLA, Dunne excelled in Saul Winstein’s physical organic chemistry course. After earning his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1952, he went on to graduate school at the University of Washington, where he got his PhD in physical chemistry doing x-ray crystallography on inorganic salts. In Seattle, he lived at the All People’s Student Center, where he encountered his first Reedie, Charles Leong ’53, who had transferred from Reed to UW. “Everything he told me about Reed seemed pretty impressive, pretty favorable,” Dunne said. “I sort of placed in my mind that maybe somehow I might get back here.”

After earning his PhD, Dunne took a job at IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York. This put him in touch with such renowned geniuses as John Cocke of supercomputing fame and Peter Sorokin, coinventor of the dye laser. Four years later, Dunne moved on to MIT, where he did a postdoc in the laboratory of F. Albert Cotton, the leading inorganic chemist of his generation. “This was a big jump right into a new theoretical, experimental vision of inorganic chemistry, where Cotton was doing the best work,” Dunne said.

He worked with Cotton for two years with the understanding that he would be looking for a permanent job. “My mind was pretty much made up that I would like to go to Reed College,” he said. “Without really knowing at the time that I would be leaving IBM, I actually had sent donations to Reed College. My interest was all based on what I’d heard from Charlie.”

Cotton put in a good word for him at Reed, and—having never visited the campus—Dunne accepted a position in the chemistry department in 1963. In those days, the college could not afford to offer trips to their candidates. It was decided that for his first course, he would teach a course with Prof. Marsh Cronyn ’40 [chemistry 1952–89] that integrated inorganic and organic chemistry.

“I went to Marsh and said, ‘What do you suggest I teach?’” Dunne remembered. Cronyn replied, “Teach what you want to teach.”

Dunne decided he would teach inorganic chemistry. “It was kind of scary,” he said. “I kind of overshot. I prepared with great effort very, very sophisticated lectures, stuff that was so sophisticated that in some cases even I didn’t understand what I was talking about. Some of the students realized I was digging a big hole for myself. They came to me and said, ‘You know, you really don’t have to work this hard. It’s okay. Just relax. You’re fine.’”

Dunne went on to become one of Reed’s most influential professors. He taught a wide variety of courses in chemistry and environmental science, advised dozens of thesis students, and chaired the chemistry department for nine years. He also pursued research in inorganic chemistry, with particular emphasis on the spectroscopic and magnetic properties of the transition metal compounds. One of his former students (an anonymous donor) endowed an annual lecture at Reed in his honor.

“Tom is one of my heroes in life, and I don’t have many,” said Prof. Arthur Glasfeld [chemistry 1989–], who started at Reed with an office adjoining Dunne’s. “We saw a lot of each other. His semiferal dog Mercy actually even began to accept me as part of her pack. During those first couple of years, Tom pretty much set my Reed career in motion. His enthusiasm for all knowledge was contagious, and since roughly half the library’s chemistry collection was on loan in his office, he was a great source of material for any lecture at any time.”

Reed’s General Chemistry course that Glasfeld and Prof. Margret Geselbracht [chemistry 1993–2014] generated still connects to Dunne and his classroom, dabbling in nucleosynthesis, environmental chemistry, and even geology.  

“Tom showed legendary energy in working with students,” Glasfeld said. “He modeled being a Reed professor in a way that was absolutely compelling to me and set my way forward.”

Amit Basu ’92 took his first foray into research in chemistry under Dunne’s aegis. 

“I was so excited when he agreed to advise my independent study in spring ’91,” said Basu, now an associate professor in chemistry at Brown University. “I’d never done research before and wasn’t quite sure what I was in for, but had always admired and looked up to students ahead of me who did this magic thing they called ‘research.’ Tom gave me lots of independence and room to explore, but he was always available to guide, answer questions, boost my confidence, and reaffirm my curiosity. I got my start in this business because Tom opened the door and welcomed me in.”

Prof. Jay Dickson [English 1996–] taught Senior Symposium with Dunne and was impressed with his colleague’s easygoing manner, generosity, and friendliness towards students, and his respect for the materials they were teaching together.

“One thing that stood out about Tom Dunne was how greatly he cherished the Reed ideal of the life of the mind,” Dickson said. “Even though we did not read any books that semester in his subject of specialty (chemistry), you could easily see his appetite for learning, and his great enjoyment in working through ideas from texts with colleagues and Reed students. It was a joy to teach alongside him.”

“Tom was one of my senior humanities professors at Reed,” said Amanda Waldroupe ’07. “I will always remember him as kind, erudite, deeply thoughtful. We were walking in the east parking lot together and he said, ‘Human beings are problem solvers. If we didn’t have a problem to solve, there would be no reason for our existence.’ It stopped me in my tracks, considering the evolutionary function of our species.”

Dickson recalled the figure that Dunne cut on campus: “At 6'5", with his full shock of gray-and-white hair, and usually accompanied by his dog at the time, Henny, whom he put in hilariously oversized floppy plastic sunglasses attached to his face (which Henny always sported proudly), Tom would be a hard figure to miss.” 

“Tom was so special,” says Kevan Shokat ’86, professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology at UC San Francisco. “It was his class in my fall semester at Reed that set me on my path of majoring in chemistry. He was such a genuine person who was both immersed in orbitals and in the people around him.”

Dunne was an active member of the American Chemical Society and former chair of its Portland section, where he served on the committee to select the Linus Pauling Medal Award and was a member of its Northwest Regional Board of Directors. A number of Reedies have had part of their college education funded by local ACS members, thanks to Dunne’s dedication and advocacy. He was a longtime member of the Sierra Club; was active in environmental issues, the City Club of Portland, and the Searles Valley Historical Society; and was an enthusiastic participant in the Reed Emeritus Book Club.

Prof. Dunne is survived by his brother, C. Patrick Dunne; his sister-in-law Maureen; his nieces Kerry, Eileen, and Erin, and his dear friend, Tricia Azzone.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2020

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