Renaissance man, professor dies at 76

More than 250 people went to the memorial, some from as far away as South Korea.

Nina Petersen-Perlman

World-class chemical engineer and University professor Rutherford “Gus” Aris died Nov. 2 after a battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 76.

Part of what made Aris so special was that he was not just an expert in the science field, friends said. He was also a distinguished classics scholar and taught in the University’s classical and Near Eastern studies department for several years.

“He was a Renaissance man,” said University professor H. Ted Davis, who knew Aris since the early 1960s. “He wanted to bring (scholars) together to appreciate the common threads of scholarship in various fields.”

For this reason, Davis said Aris started a lecture series that would meet every three years to discuss a common theme from many disciplines’ points of view.

Chemical engineering and materials science department head Frank Bates said that although Aris’ health was poor during last spring’s lecture, he still hosted several of the lecturers at his house and held court.

“He was engaged as recently as a few months ago,” Bates said. “He had Parkinson’s, but he had all his mental faculties until the end.”

Aris, an Englishman, was “discovered” by then-department head Neal Amundson in 1958, when Aris was working at a chemical company in England. Though he didn’t have an advanced degree, Amundson hired him to be an assistant professor.

Bates said a decision like that was unusual then and would be unheard of now. Aris later received an external Ph.D. and a Doctor of Science degree from the University of London.

Worldwide, Aris had an impact on the chemical engineering field like few others have, Bates said.

“He left a profound mark on the department, the people and on the profession,” he said. “He taught chemical engineers to see mathematical structure in complex processes.”

Fellow professor Ken Keller, who knew Aris for 40 years, said Aris was more than an extraordinary scholar; he was a deeply spiritual and generous man.

“He was deeply religious, not in an oppressive way, but it was the focus of life,” he said. “For him it meant treating people with great love and respect. He did everything with great grace.”

Keller retold what has been a hallmark example of Aris’ humor and wit. Years ago, a “Who’s Who” reference book editor kept sending him a questionnaire for “Aris Rutherford.”

When he was unsuccessful at correcting the editor, Aris created a fictional history for this doppelger, saying he was a professor of distillation and had published books including “American Football ” a Guide for Interested Scots.”

“It was his way of dealing with pompous people,” Keller said.

Davis estimated 250 people attended Aris’ memorial Saturday, some from as far away as South Korea.

“When I think of what I’d like this University to be like, if faculty members were like him, it would be wonderful,” Keller said. “His influence was felt across the campus. It’s exactly the model one would want of a faculty member.”