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In Memoriam: Richard Patty

Dick Patty teaching a class in Riddick Hall in 2008

For nearly two decades after his 1996 retirement, former department of physics head Richard Patty continued to teach Physics for Engineering and Scientists to young NC State students, using his wit and wisdom in the introductory courses to make the difficult concepts accessible for multiple generations.

Usually without notes.

“The material may be old stuff for the professor, but we have to remember that it’s new stuff for the students,” Patty said in a 2014 interview. “By not having notes, I can rethink the class each time I teach it.

“That keeps it exciting for them and for me.”

Patty, who joined NC State’s faculty as a physics professor in 1964, died in Raleigh on March 14, 2023. He was 89.

A well-decorated researcher and professor for 32 years, Patty was repeatedly recognized for his classroom work, winning three Outstanding Teaching Awards, an Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching, an Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professorship and a UNC Board of Governors Teaching Award.

“Dick was not a professor who went in and told a lot of jokes,” says Ray Fornes, a longtime friend and fellow faculty member. “He just had a gentleness about him that connected with students. He could be firm, but they could sense that he knew his subject and he loved his subject.

“They just appreciated his demeanor.”

He served as the head of the physics department from 1976 to 1995, elevating the national profile of the department by hiring up-and-coming researchers and bringing decorated Nobel Laureates like Linus Pauling and others to campus.

“There is no question of who served the longest and by far had the biggest impact,” says Fornes, a professor emeritus of physics and a former associate dean of research who co-wrote a history of the physics department. “The people he hired helped elevate the stature of one of NC State’s most important departments.

“He was such a superb teacher and role model.”

Even though Patty officially retired from his full-time faculty position in 1996, he continued to return to campus to teach classes until the spring of 2014.

“I care about doing a good job of teaching, and I continually try to improve,” he once said. “I like the students and consider my time with them to be one of the high points of my day.”

Patty often served on the faculty senate during his career and spent two-and-a-half years as the interim head of the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

Even after he left the classroom, Patty continued to reap honors from colleagues. In 2018, the NC State Association of Retired Faculty honored him with the William C. Friday Award for Distinguished Service in Retirement.

He and his wife, Nell, established a scholarship in his honor for a deserving NC State physics major. In 2011, the College of Sciences renamed the Graduating Senior Award for Outstanding Leadership that was established in 1999 as the Richard R. Patty Award. The conference room in Riddick Hall is named in his honor.

Originally from Stillwater, Oklahoma, Patty received his bachelor’s degree from Furman University, where his father was a physics professor, and his master’s degree from Vanderbilt University. He earned a Ph.D. in optics from The Ohio State University in 1960. After a year in the U.S. Army, he began what he thought would be a career in private industrial research in Southern California with Ford’s Aeronutronic Division.

In 1964, however, his Ohio State advisor, Dudley Williams, called to say he had accepted a job as the head of NC State’s physics department and wanted Patty to take a faculty position.

Eager to return to the East Coast, Patty jumped at the job and really never left.

Patty’s obituary from City of Oaks Cremation and Funeral Home is available here. His family will host a celebration of life at the NC State University Club at 4200 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, on Saturday afternoon.

This post was originally published in NC State News.