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Fry honored for outstanding career with emeritus status

Physics professor emeritus John Fry, right, with UT Arlington President James D. Spaniolo at the Fall Meeting of the Faculty and Associates on September 20 at the University Center.
Physics professor emeritus John Fry, right, with UT Arlington President James D. Spaniolo at the Fall Meeting of the Faculty and Associates on September 20 at the University Center.

Retired physics professor John Fry's long, distinguished career of teaching, research and service at UT Arlington was acknowledged September 20 when he was one of four faculty members to receive emeritus status. The UT Board of Regents voted to honor Fry and three others with the professor emeritus honor over the summer, and UT Arlington recognized the four during the Fall Meeting of the University Faculty and Associates in the Bluebonnet Ballroom of the University Center. UT Arlington President James D. Spaniolo presented each honoree with a framed certificate commemorating the event.

"I always thought this reward should be reserved for the exceptional faculty for teaching, research and service," said Fry, who retired in May 2009 after 39 years at UT Arlington. "I don't feel exceptional; I feel like I have done what all faculty should do as a minimum contribution, if possible. But it is difficult to judge yourself accurately, and I am honored that the faculty has bestowed this title upon me."

Many others take exception with any description of Fry that doesn't include the word "exceptional." Fry was department chair in 1984 when he approved the hiring of professor Alex Weiss, the current chair.

"John set a very high standard for the department," Weiss said. "More than anybody else, he managed to transfer the department to a full university department that did important research and great teaching. He pioneered a lot of things here and had a huge impact on the department. He was an excellent mentor for young faculty, myself included. He was good at giving advice if you asked for it, and he was very tolerant of diverging views."

Said College of Science Dean Pamela Jansma, "Dr. Fry provided outstanding leadership for the Department of Physics during his almost four decades of service at UT Arlington. His commitment to excellence was critical for the growth and development that led to the strong department we have today. Many of the things happening in the department now in which we take such pride are a result of Dr. Fry's hard work, vision, and stewardship. He is highly deserving of this honor."

Fry's list of accomplishments and contributions to UT Arlington and the Department of Physics is lengthy. One of the things he is most proud of is helping create the department's first graduate programs. He wrote the proposals to create Mathematical Sciences and Applied Physics Ph.D. programs at the University, the first of which was quickly approved by the state board, at a time when few new programs were being given approval. The Physics Ph.D. program proposal had to be resubmitted several times over a 15-year period, but Fry's persistence paid off.

"I am proud of helping the College of Science and UTA make the transition from a teaching college to a University with a full range of graduate programs at the Ph.D. level," he said. "I'm also proud to have collaborated on research and published papers with many students and physics faculty."

Fry took a leadership role in helping raise standards for hiring new faculty and for promotion of existing faculty in the Physics Department. He wrote over 100 published papers and mentored 12 master's, 11 doctoral and 26 post-doctoral students and visiting fellows. He was also the department's first faculty member to direct a Ph.D. dissertation.

"My students, both undergraduate and graduate, are a great source of pride. Many of them have been very successful in their careers," Fry said.

Research was a major part of Fry's career, and he was instrumental in raising the department's research profile. He brought the first federal grant funds to the department, and was externally funded for most of his career, setting a precedent which has since been followed by many successful faculty. His own research group was active for over 30 years. He was recruited to start the Solid State Theory group at UT Arlington, and also formed the first high energy physics group on campus, which is now internationally respected.

He served the department as acting chair (1983-87), interim chair (1998-99) and chair (1999-2004), and helped recruit two other chairs (Roy West and Jim Horwitz), as well as many new faculty members during his time in the department. When Fry arrived at UT Arlington in 1971, the physics faculty consisted of 18 members, only four of whom were active in research. Today, there are 23 tenure-track faculty members alone, in addition to the department's other teaching and research faculty.

Fry, 72, was born in Lone Oak and grew up in Waco. He earned B.S. (cum laude) and M.S. degrees in Physics from Baylor University, where he was also a teaching assistant, and a Ph.D. from the University of California at Riverside in 1966, where he also was a research assistant. He was an assistant professor at Louisiana State University from 1966-71 before accepting an associate professor position at UT Arlington in 1971. He was promoted to full professor in 1979.

"When I arrived in 1971, there was little or no money for research, but now external grants total millions of dollars in the department," he said. "In 1971, we had two big magnets and an X-ray machine, but today we have many millions of dollars' worth of high-tech scientific equipment in two buildings. We have a large digital planetarium which I promoted as part of the new Chemistry and Physics Building. The number of graduate students in physics has grown greatly, and now there are many post doctoral fellows, compared to none in 1971."

Fry said he is pleased to see the progress made at UT Arlington and in the Department of Physics in his 39-year tenure, and feels "we are achieving our goal of becoming a major department at a major university." He noted there is much work still to be done, such as increasing the University's endowment. He applauds Spaniolo and the University for advances made in this area and for making it a top priority.

Fry still maintains his University office ("It's one of the nicest ones on campus," he notes) and continues to collaborate with faculty and students, publishing several papers since his "retirement" last year. His research is now focused on studying the origins of the laws of physics, and searching for new laws of physics and new forms of matter, such as dark energy and dark matter. He is also writing a history of the Department of Physics at UT Arlington.

Fry says the few things he won't miss include "paperwork and committees, and spending lots of time and energy writing proposals," and says one of the best perks of his emeritus status is having a free lifetime parking pass on campus ("If I can find a spot," he quipped). He says he misses the eager faces of new students.

As for what he'll miss most about the University and the department, Fry notes, "As professor emeritus, I still have full access to UTA and the Department of Physics, so I do not miss them at all - I still have them!"