When I think of Bob Curl I remember two things. The first is silly–it was pretty easy to make him laugh, which I found quite rewarding. The second, though, still moves me when I think of it. He spoke to me once about his parents, and the tenderness and pride as he described his raising and the accomplishments of his father, a Methodist minister, explain much about Bob. He was rightfully proud of his own accomplishments also but he took it all completely in stride and with great good humor. Bob was a gentle and kind soul, as unselfconscious as anyone I’ve ever met, and remarkably free from rancor. He graduated from Rice in 1954 and in some ways he was the quintessential Rice student of that era: a Texan, from a family of modest means, but with a level of intellectual talent that was far above the ordinary. Many times he expressed his gratitude for what Rice had made possible for him and this gratitude played out in a lifetime of service to his colleagues, his students, and the Rice community in general. I got to know him well while we were working on the presidential search committee that brought David Leebron to Rice, something that he believed to be one more aspect of such service. Throughout this endeavor he simply and unfailingly displayed his deep commitment not only to Rice but also to the values of the university as an institution: to free inquiry, the search for truth, and intellectual humility.
There are a lot of pictures of Bob in the Woodson, a large percentage of them showing him in formal wear as he accepted the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996. They’re all wonderful and it’s somehow almost staggering to look at them, to think about the life he led and what he accomplished. But my favorite image of him, the one that captures the man I knew, is found only on a scratched up contact sheet, taken not too long after he returned to Rice as a faculty member. He’s in his lab, and he looks happy:
I am grateful for having had the chance to know him.
Bob Curl, rest in peace.