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Robert T. Beyer Ph.D.

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PhotoBEYER, ROBERT T. Ph.d., was an internationally respected scientist whose passion for such things as history, language and literature prompted a colleague to call him a 'man for all seasons'. The Hazard Professor of Physics Emeritus at Brown University, he was also an author, translator, CIA operative, raconteur, world traveler, and medical miracle, whose wide range of interests, talents and activities defy easy description. Professor Beyer died on Wednesday at age 88.

A gentle person of great learning and great humor, he was equally at home making light conversation with the King of Spain (who he met and joked with at a scientific conference in Madrid) or the attendant at the nearby drycleaner, and treated both in the same manner. 'My father taught me to respect everyone and fear no one,' said his son Rick.

Much of his life was set against a backdrop of serious illness. After he contracted rheumatic fever at age 16, the doctor told his family he had less than a year to live. Beyer survived another seven decades, outliving the doctor (and quite possibly the doctor's children) by many years. His illness left him with a much-weakened heart. When he became engaged to Hofstra classmate Ellen Fletcher in 1943, her father bluntly informed her 'He'll die on you, El.' 'I dont care, Daddy,' she responded, 'I love him.' The pair married on Valentines Day 1944. His files contain numerous love poems he wrote her, and they remained devoted to each other for more than 60 years until Mrs. Beyers death in 2005.

In 1948 Dr. Beyer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That led to a spate of other serious medical problems that he approached with an unfailingly positive attitude. When Mrs. Beyer would say that her husband 'enjoyed bad health' she meant it literally. He treated his potentially life-threatening medical emergencies as a source of amusing anecdotes. During a 1958 trip to Glens Falls, New York, he was hospitalized because of a kidney stone. He drew a picture of the stone on a postcard and mailed it back to his colleagues at Brown with this brief message: 'Have stone, can't travel.'

Robert Beyer was born in Harrisburg, PA, in 1920, the son of James Matthew Beyer and Mary A. Gibney. His mother died a few weeks after his birth, and Dr. Beyer was raised in Baldwin, New York, by his aunt, Kate Beyer. After her sister Anna died in 1922, Kate married Anna's husband, Charles Zubrod. The result was a set of family connections so complex that those involved long since gave up trying to explain them. Mr. Zubrod made and lost a fortune on Wall Street, so after a brief period of great wealth, Robert spent most of his childhood in a family of very modest means.

His illness prevented him from attending classes during most of his high school years, but he excelled nonetheless. He went on to graduate first in his class from Hofstra College with an A.B. mathematics in 1942, and earned a Ph.d in physics from Cornell in 1944. His thesis was so top secret that one of his advisers Dutch Nobel Prize winner Peter Debye didn't have the security clearance required to review it. 'Approved but not read,' was his terse comment.

As a desperately poor graduate student at Cornell, Beyer lost more than 25 pounds because he didn't have the money for food. He was enticed to come to one lecture by Swiss born physicist Henri Sack because the notice said there would be doughnuts served. The subject was acoustics, the study of sound, and so it was donuts that drew him into what would become his chosen field. His specialty was ultrasonics. 'If you can't hear it, I study it,' he liked to say.

Professor Beyer was hired by Brown in 1944 and taught there until his retirement in 1985. He was chairman of the Physics Department from 1968-1974. Dr. Beyer was an inspiration to generations of Brown students, where he taught everything from freshman physics to advanced graduate courses. Stories abound about his using his foot as a blackboard pointer, riding a tricycle down an incline plane into class, or starting his lecture in a helium-fueled chipmunk voice. 'Don't just stand there, write your thesis!' he would sometimes quip to struggling graduate students. But he also treated those same students with great humanity. 'He was very much a father figure to me,' says former graduate student Murray Korman, now a physics professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. 'He gave me the same compassion and time as he would his great graduate students, who had much more talent than I ever had.'

Dr. Beyer was deeply proud of his long association with the Acoustical Society of America. President of the Society from 1968-1969, he later served more than 20 years as treasurer. He claimed that during his tenure he was able to generate a higher rate of return on the Society's investments than his counterpart at the American Economic Association. He was awarded the Society's Gold Medal in 1984. (He received an honorary degree from Hofstra the same year.) His daughter Margaret recalls that people flocked around him when she accompanied him to the Society's 75th anniversary meeting in 2004. 'The old man's still got it,' he quipped to her. Beyer also served as chairman of the International Congress on Acoustics from 1978 to 1984.

In 1948 he started what his friend and colleague at Brown, Arthur Williams, called 'a parallel career,' translating scientific texts into English. He began with German, translating two books, including the seminal 'Quantum Mechanics' by the famed physicist John von Neumann. 'Possibly feeling that German was too easy,' said Williams, 'he studied Russian.' In 1956 he started a pilot program to translate Russian physics journals into English. It turned into a major initiative of the American Institute of Physics that he was involved with for fifty years. His children recall that he never went anywhere without a sheaf of Russian translation papers under his arm, or on the seat of the car, so that he could work on them any time he had a few moments to spare. He also managed to learn a little Chinese, and spent two years as editor of the English translation of the Chinese Journal of Physics.

It wasn't until more than 45 years later that he revealed the flip side of his translation work. The CIA took notice of his connections with Russian scientists, and recruited him to help keep an eye on them. From 1956 to 1962 he did just that, reporting to a CIA officer named Harold Burris-Meyer, a fellow acoustician who was deeply involved in military deception efforts during World War II. Professor Beyer was given a code name: Louis Walchirk, and the CIA financed at least one of his trips to Russia. 'It was the height of the Cold War,' he said in 2005. 'I thought that anything you were doing to combat the influences of the Soviet system was high patriotism.'

Beyer wrote or translated more than a dozen books, and more than 75 scientific papers. His last book, Sounds of Our Times, published in 1999, was a history of acoustics for the last 200 years. One reviewer wrote: 'To produce a coherent and enlightened summary of two centuries of work in any science requires a very special person: One who not only understands it all, but who has taught it all, and has personally contributed to its development over many years... such a person is Robert T. Beyer.' He also served at various times as consultant for Raytheon, Exxon, and the United States Navy.

A scientist by trade, he had an endless appetite for literature and history, and an intellectual curiosity that knew no bounds.' He's the only person I know who read Dr. Zhivago in Russian and Remembrance of Things Past in French,' says his daughter Catherine. He could discuss with equal enthusiasm every battle of the Civil War, the poetry of A.E. Housman or the true inventor of the telephone. (No, it wasnt Alexander Graham Bell!) In recent years he lectured extensively on Russian history, the American presidency, and the Civil War to fellow residents at the Laurelmead retirement community. He devoured the novels of Dick Francis, was a devotee of Sherlock Holmes, and, much to the great dismay of his son, a lifelong New York Yankees fan. His supply of historical anecdotes was endless. At times he seemed a walking encyclopedia, and in fact he helped write the 1960s edition of the World Book Encyclopedia, contributing the article on sound.

His memory was astonishing. He seemed able to recall every book ever read, every city he ever visited and every person he ever met. He could quote Plato, Shakespeare, FDR, and a dozen others with ease. He could tell you the name of all his classmates in kindergarten (not to mention where they sat) and every hotel the family stayed in on a trip to California in 1953.

Dr. Beyer loved travel. One of the perks of college life was the opportunity to take several yearlong sabbatical leaves. The Beyers spent sabbaticals in Los Angeles, CA; Stuttgart, Germany; Birmingham, England; Austin, TX; and State College, PA. Dr. Beyer traveled extensively to scientific meetings around the world. Nothing gave him more pleasure than spending a few hours on foot exploring a new city.

A man of deep religious faith, he was a lector for many years at St. Martha's parish in East Providence, and later at St. Sebastians in Providence. Despite his many activities, he never lacked time for his family. When he wasn't traveling, he was rarely home for dinner later than 5 PM. He made a habit of washing the kitchen floor so his wife wouldn't have to, and always took enormous pride in the accomplishments of his children and grandchildren. When he perceived the need, he wrote long and literate letters to each of his children, dispensinging advice and affection always flavored with a dash of wit.

He, in turn, was deeply beloved by his children and grand children, who regarded his life as a never-ending source of amazements. Not long ago, his daughter Cathy unearthed a letter he wrote in 1964 describing a visit to all-black Tougaloo College in Mississippi. At a time when Mississippi was aflame with racial tension, and civil rights workers were being murdered, Dr. Beyer took it upon himself to visit Tougaloo to lecture and lend his support. In Jackson, Mississippi, he met with local civil rights leaders who kept their baby in a bulletproof cradle because of the threat of snipers. 'One had the impression of an isolated fortress, but one without guns or material weapons,' he wrote. 'The courage of all these people is fantastic.' He later considered becoming an administrator at Tugaloo, but declined because of fears about his own family's safety. To his youngest daughter, Mary, the story of the Tougaloo trip simply deepened the sense of wonder with which she viewed her father.

'I am beginning to feel like Daddy is akin to Forest Gump,' she wrote in a 2006 letter. 'CIA agent during cold war? He was there. Civil rights activist? He was there. What else is there for me to learn about my almost 87 year old father????? Was he floating around in space with Neil Armstrong? Drafting the New Deal, perhaps? Let me know, Ill believe almost anything.'

Dr. Beyer is survived by four children: Catherine Beyer Hurst of Santa Fe, NM; Margaret Beyer of Rockville, MD; Rick Beyer of Lexington, MA; and Mary Beyer Trotter of Olympia, WA; and seven grandchildren: Brian & Timothy Hurst; Roberta & Andrew Beyer; and Julie, Rachel, & Faith Trotter.

His funeral will be held on Saturday at 9 A.M. from the PERRY-McSTAY FUNERAL HOME 2555 Pawtucket Ave. East Providence with a mass of Christian burial at 10 A.M. in St. Sebastian Church, 67 Cole St. Providence. Burial will be in Gate of Heaven Cemetery. Calling hours Friday 5-8. In lieu of flowers donations may be made to: St. Sebastian Church; International House, 8 Stimson Ave. Providence, R.I. 02906 or the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, RI Chapter, 205 Hallene Rd. Suite 209 Warwick, R.I. 02886.
Published in The Providence Journal on Aug. 22, 2008
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