(With excerpts from Bob Neilson’s obituary)
Robert Hugh Neilson (Bob) passed away on December 17, 2020 after a seven month battle with glioblastoma. He was born on January 24, 1948 and grew up in Pittsburgh, PA. As he grew older, his early boredom with school turned into a career in education and research. Neilson attended Carnegie Mellon University where he majored in chemistry and was a part of the Army ROTC program. At Carnegie Mellon, he developed an appreciation for both main group chemistry and strong undergraduate teaching. Neilson then attended Duke University where he earned his Ph.D. in chemistry working on boron-nitrogen compounds.
After Duke, he pursued post-doctoral research at the University of Texas at Austin, where he met Patty Wisian. The couple moved to Durham, NC where Bob returned to Duke for a temporary faculty position. Neilson soon began a research program at Duke, and it was here that his first graduate student initiated the groundbreaking work on silicon-nitrogen-phosphorus compounds.
In 1978, he accepted a tenure track position in the TCU Department of Chemistry. His research program in synthetic inorganic chemistry and inorganic polymers thrived with funding from agencies such as the Army Research Office (ARO) and the Office of Naval Research (ONR).
In his more than 42 years at TCU, Neilson combined a successful research program with a passion for teaching. He challenged both students and colleagues to truly think and, with unwavering fairness, he held everyone to his high standards. In total, 22 Ph.D. students, 4 M.S. students, 18 postdocs, and countless undergraduates participated in his research program funded by agencies that included the Robert A. Welch Foundation, ONR, ARO, and the National Science Foundation. His research produced over 100 peer-reviewed publications, and he was honored with the TCU Chancellor’s Award for Distinguished Research and Creative Activity in 1995 and the W. T. Doherty Award from American Chemical Society DFW Section in 2003. As his career progressed, his dedication to undergraduate education led to two nominations for the Dean’s teaching award. “Dr. Bob” taught general chemistry for decades to thousands of students, and he provided them all with a stern challenge and many life lessons.
“Since he passed, I have thought countless times about Bob and what he meant to me as a friend and colleague,” said Jeff Coffer, professor of chemistry. “As a department chair, he wasn’t afraid of tackling tough problems head on, did a lot of heavy lifting himself and he rarely griped about it. He never brought attention to himself. Bob served all of us well, and I never thanked him enough for it.”
“I’m still in a state of denial. Several times lately I’ve heard footsteps in the hall outside my office door that sounded like Bob’s gait, and I fully expected to see him walk by with his Duke coffee cup,” said David Minter, professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “He was just too good and too young to be taken from us.”
Neilson was a man of few words but great impact, and his kindness, intelligence and sense of humor were recognized by family, friends and colleagues. As a part of a dual-career family, he worked tirelessly cooking many meals and shuttling kids to school and activities. He enjoyed building and tinkering with computers and traveling with his family.
“Bob chose his words carefully and did not waste any. He always spoke candidly, purposefully and from the heart,” said Eric Simanek, Robert A. Welch Professor of Chemistry and department chair.
“Bob’s career exemplified the teacher-scholar model at TCU. He was a role model for his colleagues as well as his students,” said Benjamin Janesko, associate professor of chemistry.
Tracy Hanna, former faculty member in the chemistry department, said, “It’s hard to put in words how much Bob helped and supported me during my years at TCU. I always knew I could stop in and talk about anything at all, and that I would leave his office feeling much better than when I arrived. He was a great listener, and would empathize and make wise suggestions whenever I needed help. I enjoyed scientific discussions with him, as well as friendly chats.”
Kayla Green, associate professor of chemistry, shared her admiration of Neilson’s career. “I learned very early on that Bob was going to steadfastly put the students’ best interest front and center, regardless of how much more work it meant for him. The same held true during his time as department chair; challenges were approached from the standpoint of what would give students the most positive long-term outcome. In line with this, there are so many stories that could be told about Bob offering up something from his own resources to help a student, a colleague, or the university. His humble nature has prevented these actions from being advertised, but the list is long. Despite his many accomplishments at TCU, his eyes were never brighter than when he spoke about his wife Patty or his kids. He was so proud of all of them and would talk at length if their name came up, which was uncharacteristic for his typically quiet demeanor. I am grateful for the legacy and lessons Bob leaves behind and will miss his friendship immensely,” she said.