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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Faculty & Staff

Physics professor remembered fondly for wits, idealism


Students and faculty gathered Monday to mourn George Reiter, 77, after he passed away March 30. Reiter had been with UH’s department of physics for more than 35 years, and colleagues remembered him as both an advocate and an intellectual. | Corbin Ayres/The Cougar

When Rene Bellweid was considering joining the University of Houston faculty, he was told there was only one person he needed to talk to: George Reiter.

They met and spoke for 10 minutes about science, and they spent the following two hours discussing politics.

“He was a real mensch,” said Bellweid. “Everyone who talked with him learned something.”

Bellweid was among friends and family that came to the AD Bruce Religion Center on Monday to bid farewell to Reiter, 77, who passed away on March 30 after a year-long battle with cancer.

Reiter joined the UH department of physics in 1981 and served as the UH Faculty Senate president in 2000, during which time he was among those who called to abolish intercollegiate athletics at UH and prioritize education. He and his wife, Debbie Shafto, were both active members of the Harris County Green Party.

“He had a deep concern for the downtrodden and how little we cared for them in the U.S.,” said Gemunu Gunaratne, chairman of the UH physics department. “He was a humanist in the best sense of the word.”

Gunaratne wrote the eulogy for Monday’s memorial service, remembering Reiter as “a highly regarded senior member” in the physics faculty.

“He was one of the smartest people in the department,” Gunaratne said.

Reiter’s colleagues not only regarded him as an intelligent man, but said he was outspoken on matters close to his heart and mind, such as politics and education.

“He was very vocal about many things,” said Ernst Leiss, former Faculty Senate president and professor of computer science. “He was something.”

In 1993, the Faculty Senate made a demand — abolish intercollegiate athletics — which led to a vote to recommend forgoing Division 1-A athletics in favor of education, citing concerns that the department could not sustain itself and would eat into other University budgets.

The vote passed 25-15, but the UH System Board of Regents denied the request, and UH remains to this day an athletics-oriented campus.

“I’d be surprised if we still had intercollegiate athletics in five years,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1993 after the Faculty Senate’s vote. “Do we really want to be a part of the entertainment industry?”

This idealism was not limited to campus, as he sought election twice as a Green Party candidate: once in 2002 for Texas’ 25th Congressional District, losing out to Chris Bell, and more recently in November 2018 as Railroad Commissioner, but he did not qualify for the general ballot.

Reiter was an anti-war activist, who insisted that “groups or countries should discuss their differences” Gunaratne said, and he was an active member of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Justice, Not War.

He also hosted the radio talk-show “Thresholds,” where he hosted guests from across various political and ideological aisles to discuss topics ranging from religion to politics and society. The song “Fanfare for the Common Man,” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, began each show and also fittingly accompanied his memorial service.

In the realm of science, he was a condensed matter physicist who tackled a wide variety of problems.

He worked with the late professor Simon Moss on what became known as the Reiter-Moss theory, which Gunaratne said explained how the structure of a liquid is modulated by an underlying substrate.

Those that knew him remembered him as a brilliant and friendly man.

“He was a pleasant man. Occasionally he was a little strident, but never unpleasant,” Leiss said. “He disagreed but he was never disagreeable.”

Joseph McCauley, a professor of physics at UH, recalled that whenever he passed Reiter in the hall, they would share a hug.

“He never met someone he didn’t like,” McCauley said.

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