Friends, family and colleagues of the late John H. Marburger III, known to most as Jack, gathered September 24 in the Staller Center for a memorial service in remembrance of Stony Brook’s third president, a man described as truly selfless with an insatiable curiosity for science.

Those who spoke at the service recalled in admiration Marburger’s adroit ability to remain calm in stressful situations, the ease with which he could explain the most complex workings of science to anyone who asked, and most unusually for a physics theorist, his level of manual dexterity, usually reserved for scientists in the experimental field.

“Jack’s loss is terribly painful, and I don’t know how it could be any other way,” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said from behind the flower adorned podium. “If we are able to emulate what Jack did in eliciting the best from others, then we will be okay as a society.”

President Samuel Stanley spoke of the courage Marburger had in facing his lymphoma. “He was frank, and analytical about his disease, fighting until the very

end, but always unafraid…and perhaps characteristically for someone who had accomplished so much, he still thought that there was so much to do. And yet, he was not sad for himself, but rather apologetic to us that he would not get everything done.”

Marburger died July 28 at the age of 70 in his Port Jefferson home after a battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He served as Stony Brook’s third president from 1980 to 1994 when he stepped down to return to teaching. He became director of Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1998. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed him Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy where he remained for eight years. He became Vice President of Research in 2010.

Professor Robert Crease, chair of the Philosophy Department at Stony Brook who co-taught a class with him, said Marburger “knew what no other science administrator knew—how dramatically science was changing.” The imaginary fourth wall that protected science from public scrutiny and government supervision was disappearing, and Marburger modeled to others how to embrace that change.

“Jack approached each seemingly impossible task the same way; he saw the broadest perspective and invited all the actors to share it, encouraging them to step off stage from the dramas,” Crease explained. “This would usually take down the tone enough to reach compromise. The rest of us find this difficult to understand. We tend not to forgive those who compromise, viewing them as selling out or lacking in principles…Jack was the most principled of all.”

That ability to compromise and to encourage others to do the same was what made him a great university president, Crease said. “He had to manage an institution full of passionate advocates for indispensable departments, schools and offices. In his 14 year tenure he successfully promoted a broad perspective in which the whole flourished, and if each advocate was not entirely satisfied, at least they felt heard.”

But beyond his ability to lead, to advise and to teach was Marburger’s love for science. It was the most satisfying pursuit of all and the main stabilizer of his life, as Crease told the audience at the service.

“This was the vision he wanted us all to share,” he explained. “The world, both physical and human, consists of a myriad of elements which work together in a vast cosmic ecology. [Marburger] found it a pleasure to contemplate how this all worked, and if it didn’t work the way he expected, even better—that gave him the possibility of making a discovery.”

Harold Metcalf, a physics and astronomy professor at Stony Brook, recalled the way Marburger would come into his classroom on short notice, remove his jacket, pick up a piece of chalk and begin writing equations without missing a beat.

“And it didn’t matter what we asked him, his answers were always incredibly clear as if he’d prepared a lecture,” Metcalf said. “And then he’d go back and be the president.”

Aside from his teaching, Marburger is recognized greatly for his contributions to science policy as an advisor to President Bush, and he is known for pioneering a new field of research, of all and the main stabilizer of his life, as Crease told the audience at the service.

“This was the vision he wanted us all to share,” he explained. “The world, both physical and human, consists of a myriad of elements which work together in a vast cosmic ecology. [Marburger] found it a pleasure to contemplate how this all worked, and if it didn’t work the way he expected, even better—that gave him the possibility of making a discovery.”

the science of science policy, that would dramatically improve the quantitative basis for policy.

“What distinguished Jack was a trait less common in the halls of power; he was, by nature, indeed selfless…He simply and consistently wanted to do what was best for his country,” CEO of VIAForward Richard Russel said. “For eight years Jack gave the president the best scientific advice available, and his advice had significant and positive impact.” He added, “I cannot remember a single member of Jack’s professional staff who did not hold him in the highest regard, consider him not only a superb leader, but a friend.”

Marburger’s sons, John and Alexander, were the last of those who spoke at the service. Alexander recalled fond memories, such as riding through a pine-forest in Montana while discussing particle physics.

Before playing a song called “Little Birdie” on the banjo his father made, John described his father’s handiness—a source of great pride for his father, but something he spoke little about. He listed the various things his father made, including a harpsichord, model airplanes, custom latticework and wooden transoms. He recalled a time when he was 5 or 6 and his father helped him solder a toy robot from metal pieces left over from an electronics project.

“I just thought that soldering metal together was the coolest thing that I’ve ever seen,” John said, “…and I was convinced that he could do anything.”

Photo credit: Stony Brook University