The theater of the Staller Center for the Arts quickly filled with people dressed elegantly in somber colors coming to honor the third president of Stony Brook University, the late John H. Marburger III.
Amidst the happy noises of greetings, snatches of conversations depicted a feeling of affectionate nostalgia; old friends fondly remembered attending some of the dinners hosted by Marburger and his wife. As one voice said: “…they just brought people together who wouldn’t ordinarily meet each other.”
The stage was adorned with large groupings of red and white flowers surrounded by vine-like greenery. There was a large black piano at the center, beneath a projection screen which was used to display pictures of Marburger throughout his life. Next to the piano sat a banjo, which Marburger made himself.
The tribute was held on Friday, September 16th. Marburger passed away in his Port Jefferson home on July 28th, after receiving four years of treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
The first speaker was Samuel L. Stanley, the current President of the University, who introduced the event by noting the “extraordinary sense of loss” felt by all who knew him. He mingled this tone of mourning with quirky anecdotes, such as the fact that Marburger met his wife, Carol Godfrey, on a blind date. He finished by saying, “I miss his wisdom, I miss his counsel, and I miss him.”
The speakers who followed, including Chairman Robert P. Crease of the Department of Philosophy, Distinguished Teaching Professor Harold Metcalf, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse Nora D. Volkow and VIAForward CEO Richard Russell, all painted a dynamic and admirable picture of the former president.
Marburger was a professor of Physics and Engineering in the University of Southern California, where he eventually became the Chairman of the Physics Department and the Dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He hosted a television show on CBS called “The Frontiers of Electronics,” which Chairman Crease said, “taught him how to present science and himself” to a large audience.
In 1980, Marburger became the third president of Stony Brook University during which time he elevated the school to be among the top ranked research universities in the region, as well as launching the university hospital.
By 1998, he became director of Brookhaven National Laboratory immediately following news of a leak of radioactive material. Dr. Mark Sakitt, who worked with Marburger at Brookhaven National Laboratory, said in an interview that the leak created such an outcry that there was a call to shut down the lab.
According to Dr. Sakitt, “He kept everything on track [in the lab], but his biggest impact was restoring trust.” Director Volkow remembered the town hall meetings Marburger called as director, and how, when asked how he did it, Marburger said, “I listened. I tried to understand and give them an answer that is meaningful to them.”
As science advisor to George W. Bush, beginning in 2001, many criticized Marburger for being a registered Democrat working for a Republican administration. The Honorable Richard Russell said of his time working with Marburger that he was “unusual in Washington.” He told them what they needed to know rather than what they wanted to hear.
In 2009, Marburger left his post as scientific advisor and returned to Stony Brook as Vice President of Research, until he retired on July 1st, 2011 because of his health.
Aside from being a scientist and administrator, Marburger was a man of various interests and talents. According to Director Volkow, he invited a group of artists to one of is dinners in the hopes that he could inspire them to portray the beauty of science in their works.
His son Alexander remembered his father on horseback, riding through a pine forest, while discussing particle physics. His other son, John, described the pride his father felt at being able to make things such as model ships and a harpsichord. At the end of his speech, he took up the banjo that Marburger made and dedicated one last song to his father. It was called “Little Birdy.”
By this point the ambience of the room had become profoundly poignant as the audience registered the magnitude of the loss. However, there was also a sense of great satisfaction of a good life and encouragement to emulate at least some parts of it.
The bittersweet tenderness was reflected in the lyrics John sang to the silent room: “I have a short time to be here, and a long time to be gone.”
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