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Professor emeritus Sam Davis remembered

Photo courtesy Priscilla Huston

By Brandon Chen     2/28/23 11:29pm

Sam H. Davis Jr. (‘52), a professor emeritus of chemical engineering and former director of the Office of Continuing Studies, died on Dec. 25 at 92. 

Davis became a professor at Rice in 1957 after receiving a doctoral degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and working briefly for General Electric. He taught for more than four decades and was active in Rice student life, serving as an interim magister for Jones College and as an associate for both Jones and Sid Richardson College.

In 1980, Davis hired Kyriacos Zygourakis, the A.J. Hartsook Professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, who said his relationship with Davis spanned more than four decades.

“You have the feeling from the first moment, really, that he cared. He cared about people, he cared about his faculty, particularly the younger ones, like me,” Zygourakis said. “You know, the first time you’re [on faculty], and you look up to somebody for help … He was one of the kindest people and most willing to help with the little details adjusting to the new environment.”

George Hirasaki, a professor emeritus, student and colleague of Davis’ in chemical and biomolecular engineering, said Davis played a huge role in the beginning of his own academic career.

“In 1963, Professor Sam Davis taught the first year graduate students,” Hirasaki said. “I got [the textbook] before he even started classes and just read it … I couldn’t understand [it]. But when he started lecturing, I could follow what he was saying and it made perfect sense to me. So that’s why it was a big transformation for me and that was a big impression that he left … I still frequently use what I learned from Professor Davis that first semester at Rice.”

Paul Cloutier, a professor emeritus of physics and astronomy, knew Davis as someone who always had a vision for Rice’s future.

“My memories of him are very positive. He was a very nice and interesting person who always interacted with me in a very friendly and engaging way. I believe he believed in working to make Rice as good as it could be and helping all those who shared that vision,” Cloutier wrote in an email to the Thresher.

Davis was dedicated to teaching and continual learning, directing the Office of Continuing Studies, which has since grown to become the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, from 1969-1973. Robert Bruce, dean of the Glasscock School, said that Davis’ vision was instrumental to the development and expansion of Continuing Studies at Rice.

“[In] the first couple of years … there was a question about whether to continue [Continuing Studies] or not,” said Bruce. “He was a huge proponent that we just started and [that] we need to invest in this and continue doing it. And I think that was really telling about what he saw in the future because he was serving let’s say 200-300 people a year. Now conservatively, we serve about 18,000 students.”

Zygourakis said that Davis significantly impacted his approach to teaching.

“The thing that really remains to me after all these years is the impact he had on education here at Rice. He was a good scientist, don’t get me wrong, but his commitment to education was unmatched,” Zygourakis said. “Sam actually was the first person in engineering, at least that I knew, who was using undergraduate [teaching assistants]. So that’s the thing that [I] actually remember most vividly about Sam and our undergraduate TAs, you know, sitting in the conference rooms and basically solving all the problems [and] running the course … Sam was really ahead of his time. He basically taught me how to actually teach.” 

Hajera Naveed contributed additional reporting for this story.

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