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Donald Holcomb, emeritus physics professor, dies at 92

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Jeff Tyson

Donald F. Holcomb

Emeritus professor of physics Donald F. Holcomb, who served two terms as chair of the department and championed the cause of improving physics education, died Aug. 9 in his residence at Kendal at Ithaca. He was 92.

Holcomb, who also directed the Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics (1964-68), chaired the physics department from 1969 to 1974, and again from 1982 to 1986. In between, he served a five-year term as a faculty-elected university trustee (1976-81). He retired in 1995.

“Don was a wonderful person both to work for and with,” said N. David Mermin, the Horace White Professor of Physics Emeritus. “He had a rare combination of common sense and thoroughgoing decency that served all of us very well.”

Donald Frank Holcomb was born Nov. 8, 1925, in Chesterton, Indiana, and spent most of his childhood in Wood River, Illinois. He graduated as valedictorian from East Alton-Wood River High School in 1943 and enrolled at DePauw University. Two years of service in the U.S. Navy delayed his graduation until 1949.

After earning his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1954, he came to Cornell as an instructor in physics. Two years later, he was made an assistant professor. He was promoted to associate professor in 1958 and to full professor in 1962.

His areas of research interest included spin resonance phenomena; metal-insulator transitions in disordered systems; and non-stoichiometric transition metal oxides. As an advocate for physics education, in retirement he continued to work on various projects directed toward enhancement of the quality of undergraduate physics education in the U.S.

Those efforts included a 2001 guest commentary in the American Journal of Physics, “Should I pay attention to the output from physics education R&D?” which closed with a warning of sorts: “I urge us nonpractitioners in the PER [physics education research] field to beware of holding a thought which is the oldest and, perhaps, most unrecognized barrier to productive change in physics instruction, namely, ‘I learned physics in a certain way and came to satisfactory mastery, so I’ll teach it the way I learned it.’ If today’s students work hard, they can learn it in the same way I did!’”

His passion for pedagogy – and the man himself – will be missed, his colleagues said.

“Don will always be remembered for his dedication to teaching physics, as well as his guidance and mentorship of many graduate students who completed their Ph.D.s with him,” said Jeevak Parpia, professor at Cornell since 1986 and chair of the physics department from 2012 to 2016.

“Don was a wonderful colleague: both cheerful and serious about research and teaching,” said associate professor Carl Franck, who’s been at the university since 1982.

Holcomb was also a voice of clarity, bringing people of differing views together in faculty plenary meetings during “some very trying times in the 1960s and 1970s,” Mermin said.

“Don had a talent for identifying and concisely summarizing the pertinent points in complex issues,” he said, “in a way that brought opposing factions to a common understanding.”

In addition to his teaching and administrative duties at Cornell, Holcomb was a Sloan Research Fellow (1955-57); a NATO Senior Visiting Fellow during a sabbatical at the University of Oslo, Norway (1962); a Guggenheim Fellow at the University of Kent, U.K. (1968-69); and a Science Research Council Visiting Fellow at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland (1978).

Holcomb was a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 1948, after returning to DePauw following military service, he met his future wife, Barbara Page, over a bridge table. They married in 1950 and had three children, who survive him; Barbara died in 1998.

Holcomb developed a great love for the outdoors upon his arrival in upstate New York. He was especially passionate about cross-country skiing, which he discovered in Norway and participated in until shortly before his death. He was also an ordained elder and choir member of the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca.

In addition to his children, Holcomb is survived by six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. A memorial service is scheduled for Aug. 25 at 2 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 315 N. Cayuga St., Ithaca.