In Memoriam

David F. Griffing
Professor Emeritus of Physics

David F. Griffing, Emeritus Professor of Physics, passed away on 12 June 2011 after a battle with cancer.

Born 23 February 1926 to Burgoyne and Dora Blackmore Griffing, American missionaries in China, he escaped with his family on an American gunboat during the 1927 Nanking Incident. The family settled in California until 1942, when they moved to Dayton, Ohio. After completing high school there in 1943, Dave attended one year at the University of Dayton. He served in the U.S. army from 1944-1946, becoming a tank gunner in Patton’s Third Army.

After military service Dave earned BA and MA degrees in physics from Miami University. On 26 June 1949 Dave married Louise Eisner of Sidney, Ohio, then he taught physics as an instructor at Miami during the 1950-51 academic year. The Griffings started a family and Dave began studies for the Ph.D. in physics at the University of Illinois. Their son Bruce, who later himself became a Ph.D. physicist, recalls with wonder how much time his Dad shared, while simultaneously becoming both a low-temperature physicist and a nuclear physicist. Dave wrote his dissertation under the mentorship of J. C. Wheatley, investigating nuclear alignment of cobalt-58 in paramagnetic Tutton salt crystals down to 0.012 K.

In September 1956, Dave joined the faculty of Miami University, where he became full professor in 1965 and taught until retirement in 1990. He conducted NSF-sponsored research on the Auger effect in mesonic atoms. Over the years he supervised master’s thesis research of many students, including Jim Poth, who later returned to Miami for a career as a physics faculty member. At a time when the Department needed a specialist in solid state physics, Dave “repotted” himself in 1965 with an assigned research leave at Argonne National Laboratory, where he began a series of studies of metallic single crystals using ultrasonics as a probe. This led to collaboration with industry in non-destructive evaluation (NDE), including summer employment and consultancy with Monsanto Mound Laboratory, General Motors Laboratory, and Systems Research Laboratory.

Dave placed high importance on teaching of physics. He collaborated with colleagues George Arfken, Don Kelly, and Joe Priest in authoring the innovative textbook University Physics for the introductory sequence. In 1971 Dave urged the introduction of a series of topical physics courses serving nonphysics majors; these courses became part of the “Miami Plan”, and Provost David G. Brown publicly raved over them when Miami was nationally recognized as a “Public Ivy”. A great sports enthusiast, Dave pioneered “Physics of Sports” and authored for it the textbook The Dynamics of Sports. Among his innovations was encouraging students to make tutorial films focused on their own sports specialty. Dave also proposed a course in “Physics for Music”; as he was too busy with the sports course, Glenn Julian picked up that idea and taught the course for the next thirty years. (Dave did eventually find time to teach workshops on physics of music for conventions of Barbershop singers.) From his undergraduate days at Miami, Doug Marcum – later himself a Miami physics faculty member – recalls:

Dave was a master teacher in the truest sense of those words. He had a gift for motivating students and a well developed ability to tempt students into participating in a wide variety of activities intended to deepen their appreciation for physics as a lens on the universe – all for no academic credit. Notable examples of David’s efforts to foster a learning community among physics students are the Physics Glee Club and his Toys Seminar.

During the height of student rebellion in the early 1970’s he cajoled a group of physics majors into showing up on Saturday mornings to practice group sing-alongs of a number of songs that he had collected over the years that celebrated various aspects of the study of physics. This culminated in a performance, at a year-end celebration that marked the last weekly Departmental Colloquium that year, where the Glee Club sang such catchy tunes as “A Pint’s a Pound the World Around” and “h-nu”.

The “Toys Seminar” that Dave originated around that same time was an early effort at hands-on learning directed toward first-year physics students. Again he was quite successful at attracting students to participate in hands-on activities designed to give them direct experience with physical phenomena ranging from minimum energy surfaces (i.e. soap films of varying geometries) to normal vibrational modes of metal plates (Chladni patterns made of sand that collected at the nodal lines). Dave would proudly gauge the success of such activities by how big a mess was made in the process, and then immediately involve everyone in cleaning it up.

Dave’s “Toys Seminar” was a seminal precursor to Miami’s “Teaching Science with Toys” program and Project Discovery, the state-wide initiative to develop hands-on learning for all levels from elementary school through college. For several years Dave taught in National Science Foundation summer programs for high school physics teachers, which derived from these efforts to improve science education.

Dave was a “people person”. Anyone was welcome to drop in to his office for a funny story or for sage advice.

Doug Marcum again:

Dave possessed an infectious sense of humor that he communicated to all within earshot of his distinctive voice and hearty laugh. He could also take a joke just as well as he could deliver one. Sitting with a group of students at a Departmental Colloquium where the speaker was holding forth on the subjects of energy resources and population control, a witty comment by Dave ended up earning him the nickname “El Griffo”. The female speaker had observed that population control was everyone’s problem and that “you men are going to have to get down off your high-horses and help solve the problem…,” at which point Dave quietly observed that “I think I’ll just stay right here on my high horse.” The next day he was presented with a hand drawn cartoon [by Glenn Julian] showing a preposterously longlegged steed casting a long shadow over a stark landscape, with the caption “… look, eet is El Griffo on hees high horse”. Dave proudly displayed that cartoon in his basement office in Culler Hall from that point onward, and, of course, became known as El Griffo.

George Arfken tells this tale:

David Griffing had been doing a truly excellent job of counseling and working with students. In recognition of Dave’s great contribution, the Department Chairman created the position of Physics Department Chaplain and named Dave the Physics Department Chaplain. (The Department Chairman had the unquestioned authority to do things like that half a century ago.) By general consensus of the Department, the Chaplain was authorized to rule on all questions of faith and morals. Neither faith nor morals was ever defined.

Audio-Visual made two signs for Dave: a white “Chaplain” on a field of Heavenly Blue. Dave put one sign above his door outside his office. Within 24 hours this sign had been stolen! Dave put the second sign above his door, inside his office.

A copy of the minutes of the weekly Department Meeting went, of course, to the Dean. These minutes mentioned the Chaplain frequently but never identified him. Apparently the Dean was reluctant to infringe upon Departmental Autonomy and never made a direct inquiry about the Chaplain. Finally the Dean made an official, formal visit to the Department. This included Dave’s office. The Dean spotted Dave’s sign and exclaimed “So you’re the Chaplain!” Beyond that there was no reaction. Apparently the Dean condoned and maybe even blessed Dave’s title and position. Dave served as Chaplain, with distinction, for many years.

Doug Hall, now a member of the faculty of Electrical Engineering at the University of Notre Dame, fondly recalls Dave as an important mentor in his life and offers this reflection:

When I began my studies of Physics at Miami in the Fall of 1981, it was perhaps easier for me to overcome the imaginary barriers between students and faculty to develop a relationship with Dave because he had been a classmate in physics at Miami with my father, Mac. Even more than that, my dad was the best man at his wedding when he married Louise. But for me it began well before I had my first class from Dave in Quantum Mechanics during my senior year.

I recall visiting Dave in his office early in my academic career and discovering he was also a ham radio enthusiast (I had earned my General Class license in high school). And I recall asking him what the heck was the “SPEBSQSA” sticker on his door, which led to an invitation to the local barbershop chapter, the Chorus of the Talawanda. For me, this was the start of a 3 year extracurricular adventure that soon pulled in fellow Physics student and roommate Gordon Gammie. It was very neat to sing barbershop with one of my professors, and I especially recall sharing the work and fun of being a member of the 1983 Johnny Appleseed District Small Chorus Champions. This adventure culminated in my senior year, with Gordon and me singing in a quartet with Dave at Phil Macklin’s retirement banquet. I distinctly recall the feature song being “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?”

Dave Griffing profoundly influenced my life and career. His door was always open, and many times I sought career and life advice. Moreover, his example (along with that of the other Physics faculty) planted the seed in me to become a university educator myself. I clearly remember discussing it with him, and his comment that it was wonderful always to be around students because “they keep you young.” I also had no clue that the University of Illinois was a decent school to consider for graduate studies until he pointed me that way, which also impacted Gordon (the ‘outstanding senior’ in our Physics class of 1985). We both began graduate studies in Electrical Engineering at UIUC in the fall of 1985 (Dr. Gammie is now a successful engineer at Texas Instruments in Dallas). Dave’s quantum mechanics class taught me what a quantum well was, and led to my discovery of quantum well heterostructure lasers and my eventual landing in the research group of Nick Holonyak, Jr., the inventor of this very device. I remain ever grateful to Dave for his strong letter of recommendation, and his continued support and interest in my career path over the years.

Mick Pechan fondly recalls Dave’s role as a mentor. When Mick, Kathy, and their one-year-old Sarah arrived at Miami in 1981, Dave and Louise graciously invited the Pechans to stay in their home until the Pechans’ home was available. This kindness extended to the workplace, where Dave, knowing that Mick was switching research from neutron scattering to magnetic resonance, created and taught a special topics course in magnetic resonance to facilitate the transition. He was also a source of sage advice when opportunities and the inevitable roadblocks presented themselves. He made a tremendous impression on Mick regarding teaching and parenting, as Dave patiently, yet with obvious passion and knowledge, introduced the local flora to Mick’s daughters on the Department’s biannual campout hikes.

Dave had many interests. He was a believer in physical exercise and loved sports. He was a member of the Miami faculty 1809 Club and a lifetime member of the NAACP. Many people remember him for his great storytelling, captivating audiences wherever he was. Dave took the family on camping trips during school and summer vacations. Later, when empty nesters and after retirement, he and Louise traveled to all 50 states, 49 in their motor home. Dave was an active singer: he won a gold and silver medal in barbershop singing with the Southern Gateway Chorus, and he was a member of the Presbyterian Church choir for over 50 years. Also in the Presbyterian Church, he was an elder for 18 years and co-led the youth group with Louise for 3 years.

Dave is survived by his wife of nearly 62 years, Louise, his sister, Ann Griffing, and his children and their spouses, Bruce Griffing (Debra) and Christine Mullen (Ken). He is also survived by his grandchildren, Benjamin Griffing, Abagail Griffing, Eric Mullen, and Todd Mullen. They, and his host of friends and colleagues, will miss him very much.

Respectfully submitted by Rosalyn Erat Benson, Gion DeFrancesco, Geoffrey D. Fishburn, and Michael J. Griffith