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‘He wasn’t one for slowing down’: Ron Sass remembered

Courtesy Rice University

By Prasi Desai     2/27/24 11:02pm

Ron Sass, a Rice professor for over 60 years, passed away Jan. 9. Sass was a renowned educator, winning the George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching, among many others. He retired in 2005 as Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and as a global climate change fellow at the Baker Institute. 

Notably, Sass was recognized internationally for his research on methane emissions from rice fields in Texas and China, an endeavor spanning 25 years. 

Sass frequently changed research focuses, moving to new areas every decade or so. Starting as a physical chemist, he eventually pivoted towards biology before becoming a climate scientist. Kathleen Matthews, a Stewart memorial professor emeritus in BioSciences, described Sass as adventurous. 

“He was interested in almost everything,” Matthews said. 

Evan Siemann, Harry C. & Olga K. Wiess Professor of BioSciences, knew Sass since joining the faculty in 1998. Outside Sass’ academic pursuits, Seimann said he was an avid tennis player and played the guitar. Siemann said he often looked to Sass for advice as a newer faculty member, describing him as a kind person with an “impish smile.”

“He played a really important role in my life as a young father, husband and professor,” Siemann said. 

According to Siemann, who now holds the same position that Sass once did, said he hopes to emulate the approachability that Sass showed him. 

“He was an almost daily presence in my life from when I arrived at Rice, always calm and reassuring,” Siemann said. “I walked into his office without a meeting probably four or five times a week just to go and talk to him about whatever was on my mind … He always put down what he was doing.”

Thomas Killian, the dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, said Sass embodies Rice’s commitments to education and excellence. 

“His fingerprint is very much on the departments he was in, the natural sciences and Rice University as a whole,” Killian said. 

In a 2012 issue of the Rice Magazine, Sass emphasized his long-standing relationship with the university. 

“Rice and I have been traveling together for more than half a century now … The relationship has been great, and I am thankful for it. I hope Rice is too,” Sass wrote.

In the same issue, Sass stated his best time at Rice was as magister of Hanszen College. In a May 1967 issue of the Thresher, then-Hanszen sophomore Warren Skaaren described Sass as “someone eager to uncover the newness of ideas.” As magister, Sass encouraged students developing Hanszen’s coffee house and radio station at the time.

Years later, after Skaaren’s graduation in 1969, he wrote a letter advocating for Sass’s nomination for the E. Harris Harbison Award for excellence in teaching. In the letter published in the Rice History Corner, Skaaren emphasized Sass’s talents in diplomacy. 

“When someone was needed to ‘bridge’ gaps, whether they were political, professional or generational, Dr. Sass was the first to be chosen by students and faculty,” Skaaren wrote. “Dr. Ronald Sass merits more than any I have met or read of.”

Melissa Kean, the former centennial historian of Rice University, came to Rice in 1991 as a Ph.D. student in the history department. Kean relied on Sass’s experience for her dissertation, and the two became friends.

“He was a massive source for me as a historian for context,” Kean said. “He told me to ignore what I was being told to do, and to do what he already knew I was good at.”

Sass was an advocate for desegregation and integration while a faculty member at Rice in the 1960s, according to Kean. In his 2012 Rice Magazine article, Sass recounted how he was once told by the Ku-Klux Klan to “get out of town or die” after a speech supporting integration.

“He, like many of the faculty at Rice, was eager to see that change come,” Kean said.

Summer Nijjer ’01 took classes from Sass while obtaining her doctorate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Rice, recounting how she’ll never forget him teaching the water cycle. 

“He just brought stuff from the pages to life, making it both relevant and engaging,” Nijjer said. “[He had] that capability of … conveying concepts to different types of audiences and making them clear.”

Nijjer said Sass engaged often with undergraduate and graduate students alike. 

“He was such a personable human being,” Nijjer said. “You wanted to know him, to get to know him, and you enjoyed that you got to know him.”

According to Kean, when interacting with Sass, she knew he felt at home when at Rice. 

“You walked across campus with Ron Sass, and it was like he was in his own yard,” Kean said. “He loved life and all the stuff that you could get out of it.”

According to Killian, Sass continued teaching after retirement at the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.

“He wasn’t one for slowing down,” Killian said. 

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