Physics Department chair David Gerdes and LSA Dean Anne Curzan unveil a new portrait of Homer A. Neal.
The University of Michigan’s mission is to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving, and applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.
Completely embodying that mission is a tall order, but the late professor emeritus Homer A. Neal, a groundbreaker in the field of physics and champion of the undergraduate experience, was able to do it despite the unique obstacles he faced. In honor of Neal’s contributions to science, education, and leadership at U-M, the new portion of Randall Laboratory, a portion he oversaw the planning and construction of in 1995 as U-M’s vice president for research, has been named the Homer A. Neal Laboratory.
The naming was celebrated April 14 at a dedication event where tours of the laboratory were given and students, faculty, staff, and family members paid tribute to the higher education leader.
“As Physics Department chair, Homer led an intellectual revitalization of our department that added to our historical strength in high-energy physics, and featured expansions in atomic, molecular, and optical physics, condensed matter physics, and our first hires in astrophysics and cosmology,” said David Gerdes, current chair of the Department of Physics.
A pioneer in diversity, equity, and inclusion in academia, Neal hired the department’s first three female faculty members and led the first comprehensive national report of undergraduate STEM education as a member of the National Science Board, resulting in the creation of the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program. The program continues to provide summer research opportunities to hundreds of students each year.
“The word ‘underrepresented’ is typically associated with gender and race. It isn’t always associated with intelligent people who just have a lack of confidence in achieving their dreams,” said his son, Homer Neal Jr. “My dad was brilliant in science and technology, but also very human. He took time with people. If he was not who he was, my sister and I would have suffered with a lot of self-doubt growing up.”
He shared that behind his father was Donna Jean Neal, who supported her husband for more than 58 years. Had she not been the kind of extraordinary woman she was, the younger Neal said, Homer Neal Sr. would not have been able to achieve all that he did.
The time and energy Neal expended to see others succeed, emotionally and professionally, showed how caring of a person he was. Those who knew him could tell he was that kind of person immediately upon meeting him.
“I met Homer when he came to the university as our new chairperson in the 1990s and invited the department to his house for a welcoming event,” said Shawn McKee, a senior research scientist in the Physics Department. “I was impressed with how nice he was. Very down-to-earth. One thing that struck me about him was his quiet, unassuming presence. He was not shy, but he was very modest and polite in all his interactions, even though he was in multiple distinguished roles.”
Gerdes shared a similar sentiment about Neal as he recalled his first interaction with him in 1998.
“I was a new assistant professor. Homer’s office was around the corner from mine on the third floor of West Hall … I did not know Homer well then, but I knew he was very senior and very important.”
After encountering Neal coming down the hallway, Gerdes averted his gaze to the carpet spread out in front of the double doors he was approaching. Neal looked down and asked, “I have noticed that this carpet is always wrinkled up. Why do you think that is?”
Gerdes panicked, thinking he was being given an oral preliminary exam.
“I stammered something about people slowing down to open the doors and dumping their linear momentum into the carpet. Homer reflected on this for a moment, brightened, and to my everlasting relief said, ‘I think that is exactly right!’” Gerdes shared.
“In the 25 years I worked with Homer, he was always looking out for those who worked with him. He would always stop by and ask how things were going, what challenges people were facing, and what they wanted for their future,” said McKee. “It did not matter if you were an undergraduate student, staff member, technician, graduate student, or janitor. Homer was genuinely interested in others’ wellbeing.”
Leaving His Mark
The revered experimental particle physicist inspired faculty, staff, and students he never even met, like Gabriela Fernandes Martins, a graduate student assistant in the Physics Department who is working on the department’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
“Although I never met Dr. Neal, I have heard fantastic stories about him and all the work he has done to create a healthy climate in the department. He prioritized being an amazing mentor and creating a loving, inclusive environment,” said Fernandes Martins. “It was clear he wanted students to be able to explore their personalities and themselves as people, not just as physicists.”
Fernandes Martins recalled him being a leader in seeking out and accepting students from underprivileged backgrounds, as well as inspiring the creation of groups like the Society for Women in Physics and COPHIE: a Community of Physicists for Inclusion and Equity.
“You cannot just fix a workplace. You need to have peoples’ most human needs met, like feeling safe going to work and building genuine relationships with others. This is increasingly important in a changing world, and this holistic approach to creating a positive work culture is the way I like to approach my work today.”
Family members remember Neal in ways that his colleagues may not have witnessed.
“There are many moments I treasure. When he built my first remote control car when I was five. Loving photography and spending time developing pictures together. Going on bike rides together. He would tell me, ‘the Neal boys can do anything together,’” said Homer Neal Jr.
It is exactly right that the new portion of the Randall Laboratory is dedicated to Neal, said Gerdes, who added that the most meaningful way we can honor his legacy is not by changing the name on the outside of the building but doing our very best, every day, to live up to his ideals through our actions inside the building.
“By pursuing excellence in research and in teaching. By giving undergraduate students transformative research opportunities. By being generous, patient, and humane. By stepping up to serve our institution and our profession. By challenging ourselves to change the fact that, 57 years after Homer earned his Ph.D., fewer than one percent of doctoral degrees in physics go to African Americans,” said Gerdes. “That change can begin by recognizing that everyone who walks through our doors, even a skinny 19-year-old kid from Franklin, Kentucky, has unique and precious gifts, and can leave a legacy that will last forever.”
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