In memoriam: Raymond Dessy, emeritus professor in the Department of Chemistry
April 9, 2020
In 2015, he received a Senior Scientist Mentor Award from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. The award provided funding for three years, allowing Dessy to hire and train undergraduate students in a research project dealing with plasmons in plants. Dessy won a similar award from the foundation in 2002, after developing a passion for working with undergraduates the decade prior.
In 2015, Dessy said, “The undergraduates today, when they are good, they are better than my generation. They’ve had exposures that I never had or didn’t have until I was 35. I envy that. It means you can explore things with them that wasn’t possible before. … Together, we can explore modest projects that may or may not prove the starting hypothesis. I don’t need another publication. I don’t need tenure because I’ve had it. If the starting hypothesis isn’t proven, but the student matures in the process, then that’s a very welcome outcome for us both.”
Among the undergraduate students Dessy mentored was Stevie Bathiche, who in 1997 was a senior in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Bathiche is now a technical fellow at Microsoft, and one of the minds behind some of the computer giant’s most celebrated technologies, such as the ubiquitous Surface lineup, a suite of computers with touch-screen interfaces.
“Dr. Dessy fundamentally changed the way I think about the world,” Bathiche said in an email. “I will always remember our long afternoon chats in his office, bookended by the sweetest greeting and farewell from his wife, Lee. Those two were always together. Dr. Dessy would often keep his eyes closed when speaking to you: not because he was shy, but because he was intensely thinking and focusing. He remembered everything. He read everything -- fast! -- and he would draw and integrate knowledge from a wide variety of subjects to teach you. He was a wizard. To this day, decades later, I am still applying those lessons Dr. Dessy taught me.”
Dessy earned a bachelor’s degree in public health in pharmacology in 1953 and a doctoral degree in chemistry in 1956, both from the University of Pittsburgh.
He joined Virginia Tech in 1966, having previously worked at the University of Cincinnati. His research focused on planar surfaces or localized surface plasmon resonance for nanometer-sized metallic structures. He held a patent in fiber optic interferometers. Among his numerous career honors, he was awarded the first Computers in Chemistry National Award from the American Chemical Society, sponsored by Digital Equipment Corporation, in 1986.
Department of Chemistry faculty also fondly recalled working with Dessy for many years.
“My thoughts of Ray go back nearly 46 years,” said Harry Dorn, a professor of chemistry who joined the department in 1974. “After my arrival in Blacksburg, Ray and [his wife] Lee kindly invited my young family out to his horse farm for lunch. Of course, the conversation turned to horses. Ray told the story of his visit and dinner with an aristocratic Virginia gentleman who wanted to know if Ray was born in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Ray said, ‘No, I was not born in Virginia, but my horse was.’ Ray, was always able to think ‘outside the box’ in all areas of human endeavor and he will be sorely missed.”
Added Associate Professor Gary Long: “Ray deeply cared for his students. It was Ray’s opinion that a student’s professional character could be best molded through scientific conversations. [He] loved to ask them ‘why’ when the students talked about their research projects. Ray and Lee were the ‘academic parents’ of many, many graduate students. If I encountered a Virginia Tech chemistry alumnus at a national conference, the immediate question directed to me was, ‘How is Ray?’ Students cared for Ray. Ray was a kind and gentle soul.”
Dessy was a long-time supporter of the department. In 2015, he endowed the Highlands in Chemistry Excellence Fund, in memory of his wife, Lee Dessy, to support the Department of Chemistry’s long-standing seminar series. He established this seminar series when he arrived at Virginia Tech to invite the very best scientists to campus.
Per Dessy’s wishes, there will be no memorial service.