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Sunday, September 24, 2023


Students, faculty remember UH prof

With such a tight-knit physics research group at New Mexico State University, Seamus Curran liked to tease all of his doctoral students – especially James Dewald.

Thinking he was alone in the laboratory, Dewald went to the stereo to blast his Metallica CD. Dewald was shocked when the "most disgusting music" came out of the speakers instead. Dewald shook his head and laughed at Curran who had switched the CDs without Dewald knowing.

This is one of the many memories that associate professor Curran has of his UH colleague who died on Sept. 7 at age 33.

The pair had a close relationship that started at NMSU, where Curran was Dewald’s graduate and doctoral research advisor. The two men both joined the UH faculty this fall, and they hoped to continue collaborating on nanophysics research.

Curran held Dewald in high esteem, as did UH students and former NMSU colleagues who have spoken out about Dewald’s character.

They disregarded how the Houston police department has charged his wife with murder. Instead, they remember the UH visiting assistant professor, and the impact he had on others.

As a person

Dewald grew up in the small town of Alamogordo, 80 miles north of Las Cruces, N.M.

After receiving a Bachelor’s of Science from the New Mexico Institute of Mining Technology in 1996, Dewald took a break from school to explore his options.

"He learned a lot about the outside world during that time," Curran said. "I don’t think he forgot his roots. That experience humbled him."

At one point, Dewald was managing a Pizza Hut but eventually came back to school to pursue his dream of studying nanophysics. Working so closely with people outside of the academic realm reminded him everyday why he went back to school, Curran said.

"We have a responsibility as educators, and he knew that," Curran said.

What everyone seems to remember about Dewald was his dignified demeanor.

"We did a lot of late hours together," NMSU associate professor Michael DeAntonio said. "He was a teaching assistant of mine. He was easy going. Nice doesn’t cover it. He was one of those guys that dealt with people well. I always admired him."

Curran said that Dewald’s "sense of calm" balanced out their relationship well.

"For James, he didn’t speak badly of anyone," Curran said. "My Irish fury would always get in the way in the lab, but he had this nice, calming effect on everything."

When Curran was out of town, Dewald would always check on his wife and children.

"He would always call and make sure she was OK," Curran said. "He was hugely reliable. For a guy with long blond hair, he did everything right. He was a gentleman. He was respectful of everyone."

Dewald’s colleagues said he was quiet by nature, and he would open up to those he got close to.

"If you got to know James, he could talk to you for hours, but he was a private person," Curran said.

NMSU physics professor Robert Armstrong, who was on Dewald’s doctoral committee, summed him up with superlatives.

"Bright. Creative. Enthusiastic," he said. "I foresaw a great future. He was intelligent and had a good, solid attitude toward research, science and life."

Dewald was interested in the arts, was a concert guitarist, a painter and "loved his American football," Curran said.

As an academic

Dewald’s specialty was in nanophysics, and he came to UH after accepting Curran’s offer to work on two research projects that involved solar cells and near-field optics.

"He understood materials," Curran said. "We were going to have the lab up and running in a month or two. He was a central part of my plans."

After receiving his master’s in physics at NMSU in 2006, Dewald continued his doctorate and finished in July 2007.

"I’m sure he wanted to spend a significant amount of time on research," Armstrong said. "You want to exploit that field, and that was one of his goals. He worked well on his thesis."

DeAntonio said he and Dewald would have many conversations during their smoke breaks.

"We just gabbed," DeAntonio said. "Most of his life revolved around his research. He really cared about his work, he was thorough in everything he did."

While at NMSU, Dewald was a research and teaching assistant and had already published more than 10 articles. Dewald also developed a denser type of data-bit writing that uses light to store more information onto one compact disc. Dewald had applied for four patents, which are still pending.

As a teacher

Dewald began teaching the second half of introductory physics, Physics 1302, this fall at UH.

"When I first told him about the physics department, he was really excited," Curran said. "We knew what Houston had to offer."

With his excitement of teaching his first class, came nerves, Curran said.

"He was nervous at first," Curran said. "He wanted to get it right. He didn’t want students wasting their money, and he was cognizant of that."

Electrical engineering sophomore David Aguilar said that Dewald’s enthusiasm inspired him and other students.

"He was a good professor," Aguilar said. "He was cool and really helpful. And he was very passionate about what he was teaching."

Pre-pharmacy junior Dhaval Patel didn’t find out about Dewald’s death until UH officials told him.

"He was just a really good guy," Patel said. "It’s going to be difficult having a different professor."

Professor Gemunu Gunaratne volunteered to take over the class, and he began teaching it on Tuesday.

DeAntonio said Dewald was "perfectly suited to be a good teacher."

"He was just good at explaining things," Curran said. "And he was very approachable."

Aguilar said simply, "He was just a nice guy who wanted to help his students."

Funeral services were still pending Sunday night.

Second court date set for woman charged with UH prof’s murder

After her first court hearing, prosecutors and defense lawyers are preparing for Kristen Dewald’s arraignment on Oct. 5.

Houston Police have charged Kristen Dewald, 38, with the murder of James Dewald. At about 1 a.m. on Sept. 7, Houston police found James Dewald, 33, in the couple’s apartment with multiple stab wounds to the chest, according to court documents.

Kelly Johnson, the chief prosecutor of the 174th district, said that the Sept. 10 hearing was preliminary.

"We’re a really conservative court, so all we did was determine if she has a lawyer or needed one," she said.

Kristen Dewald is still in custody with a bond set at $50,000.

"We’re not able to comment on motive at this time," Johnson said. "But I can tell you that it was not provoked by him."

Johnson also said that she spoke to James Dewald’s parents and Kristen Dewald’s father. The couple had no children, Johnson said.

"At this point, I’m still waiting to see if more investigation is needed," she said.

Johnson said she did not know exactly when the Dewalds married, but "it hasn’t been more than a few years."

Kristen Dewald attended New Mexico State University like James Dewald. She was working toward a bachelor’s in nursing. She had been in school since 2004, and was last enrolled in fall 2006, NMSU spokesperson Karl Hill said.

Records do not indicate whether she transferred to another school, Hill said.

NMSU associate professor Michael DeAntonio was a colleague of James Dewald and went to the couple’s wedding.

"You would consider them newly weds," he said. "They seeme
d to really care about each other. They never seemed to have any problems."

NMSU physics professor Robert Armstrong resonated the same message about the couple’s difficulties.

"Everything in his life seemed to go extremely well," Armstrong said. "He was married by the time he was in graduate school, and she seemed like a normal person."

Johnson said Kristen Dewald’s lawyer Steve Morris will determine whether mental competency will be filed.

Morris did not respond to e-mails and phone calls to comment on the case.


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