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The Last Lecture: A Standing Ovation for a 50-year Career

Longevity, academic rigor, faculty mentoring and respect from others are personified by one organic chemistry professor whose teaching career was applauded at his last class.  

Not everyone taking in Professor Ron Hess’s last class fully understood the material, but there was no denying the love and respect that filled the room.

On Apri.29, after 50 years, Hess taught his last organic chemistry class before he retired from Ursinus College. As Ursinus nears its 150-year anniversary, Hess has spoken about carbon-containing molecules for a full third of Ursinus’s history. He was the inaugural holder of the Brownback-Wagner Chair in the Health Sciences and is currently the David Laucks Hain Professor of Chemistry. 

For the occasion, the class was moved from a Pfahler Hall classroom to Olin Auditorium. With his typically unpretentious teaching style, he ambled from the podium to the blackboard, gesturing to emphasize a point. The students in the class sat in front, while alumni, colleagues and other students filled the rest of the seats. All gave him a standing ovation.

Hess is among four retiring professors:  Professor of Health and Exercise Physiology; Laura Borsdorf; Professor of Biology Peter Small and Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Regina (Gina) Oboler.

Hess, with the most longevity, started teaching at Ursinus in 1966. In 2008 he received the American Chemical Society Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in the Chemical Sciences (Philadelphia section). Upon receiving that award, he told Ursinus Magazine that his “greatest joy is seeing the success of my students.”

Many alumni n the medical and health sciences professions consider Hess a mentor, as well as those whose careers took different paths, like Janel Reppert Rice ’00.

“I met Dr. Hess during my first semester of organic chemistry, back when I thought I was heading to graduate school in chemistry, possibly to teach or work in the industry,” said Rev. Rice, who attended the lecture. “Thanks to a combination of a good liberal arts education and the spirit of God working in my midst, my plans changed from a focus in chemistry to considering divinity schools at the end of my junior year.   Yet even as I changed my course in future careers, Dr. Hess never changed his dedication to my education, my chemistry major and my future. He remains one of the most empowering, profoundly kind and dedicated teachers and individuals I have ever met. I know that I, and countless other Ursinus students, are not only better chemists, but also better people because of Dr. Hess.”   

As the “last lecture” came to a close, Hess quoted country star Clint Black: “What should you say when it’s over; I don’t know if I should say anything at all.”

But he thought back to Monday, Sept. 21, 1970, and the inaugural Monday Night Football game on television. Former Dallas quarterback Don Meredith broke into song over a fumble,” Turn out the lights, the party is over.”

“There is, however, a big difference,” said Hess. “I am leaving a winner! Thanks to all of you.”  – W.G.