Ronald F. Fleming (1937–2021): In Memoriam

The NERS alum and faculty member will be remembered for his unconventional spirit, devotion to his students, and posing the question “What does it all mean?”

Ronald F. Fleming (NERS MS ‘61, PhD ‘75), alumnus, friend, and former faculty member of the department passed away on June 2, 2021, at the age of 84.

Professor Fleming received his B.S. degree from the University of Washington in 1959 and his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Michigan in 1961 and 1975. Between 1978 and 1989, he worked at the National Bureau of Standards, as a staff physicist in the Center for Analytical Chemistry and later as a group leader in the Nuclear Methods Group. 

During his graduate studies, Fleming became aware of the excitement around a new technique being developed called neutron depth profiling (NDP). Realizing that both the Bureau’s reactor and its charge to support American industry were ideally matched to the unique capability of NDP, he proposed that a state-of-the-art NDP facility be built at the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology). The facility came online in 1982. For this work, Fleming and R. Gregory Downing were awarded the Bureau’s Applied Research Award in 1986.

Fleming joined the NERS faculty and took over as director of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project in 1989. As director, he was responsible for both the scientific research supported by the MMPP and the safe operation of the Ford Nuclear Reactor. After stepping down as the MMPP director in 2000, Professor Fleming spent a sabbatical term at the 2 MW research reactor at the Technical University of Delft, the Netherlands, working in the nuclear analysis group. This contributed to the ongoing NIST-Delft-Ann Arbor collaboration in neutron science. Fleming became a professor emeritus of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences in December 2011 and remained a very active presence in the office until his death.

Fleming leaves his daughter, Anne (Adam); three grandchildren; his former wife, Katherine; his sister, Diane; dear cousins and family in Kansas, and his dear friend, Susan Wayrynen, and her family.

Friends and Colleagues Remember Fleming

Prof. John Foster:

“I too am in shock about the loss of Ron. He was a good friend and colleague to me as well. I recall fondly the long hallway conversations that we would have on subjects ranging from nuclear physics to politics. I especially liked his stories in that he gave a lot of historical context. His political conversations were even more lively—I will miss those a lot! He had priceless opinions on where we were headed. We are often so busy… I now wish I had a chance to have spoken to him more this past year—COVID robbed us all of an in-person year with Ron. Email is just not the same. It is a reminder that one should enjoy the company of friends and colleagues in the moment. We are never really too busy for that…most of our busyness won’t even show up as a footnote in the annuals of history—“all sound and fury signifying nothing.” Life is unpredictable, and in an instant things are changed forever. I would sit in on some of his classes as well…particularly his seminar course! In particular, I remember the seminar regarding isotopic evidence for a large meteor strike coinciding with a mass extinction event. The class was enamoring. Such a fascinating subject. The students loved Ron as well. I also sat in on his class when he taught 211. He gave a special lecture on the Fukushima nuclear disaster—his chronology and detailed descriptions were excellent. I learned a lot from Ron. When I first came to U-M, I too had to teach 211. He helped me immensely with reference material for that class greatly improving the quality. Yes, he will be sorely missed. It is sad and hard to believe….I am left without many words as I come to terms with the loss. He was a good man—essentially an icon of our department, with a wealth of nuclear experience and knowledge.  My last in-person memories of Ron are quite amusing. While we did talk many times in the hallway before things shut down, a couple of events are worth noting. On Christmas Eve before the Pandemic I ran into him at the Evergreen restaurant. He was having dinner there with 3-4 international students! He told me that they were all about to embark upon a cross-country trek to the west coast. That’s who Ron was! Finally just last year at the peak of the Pandemic I ran into him in ERB. He silently smiled as we walked the hallway all masked up! He became quite the expert on the pandemic and vaccinations. He will be sorely missed. An icon of our department is gone.” 

Prof. Kim Kearfott:

“At the very end of Ron Fleming’s life, he became a formidable expert on the Covid-19 Pandemic. He covered all angles: statistics, scientific process, politics,  biology, and everything else. Even with my private connections in epidemiology, microbiology, pathology, infectious disease, pulmonology, and risk analysis, I could never find any flaws in anything he thoughtfully put forward. It was also impossible to find fault with his selection of sources, an impressive collection of links. I now wish that I had saved them all, as a compendium would make a very nice retrospective on this most significant event. Ron did the same thing for NERS for Fukushima, September 11, and nearly any other major event since I first met him. While I cannot locate that specific missive, in one email following the completion of his vaccinations, Ron opined that he was extremely relieved. He was no longer afraid of dying. I now posit that what he meant was that he was no longer afraid of death resulting from the stupidity of others, or concerned about a horrible isolated death without dignity. It is clear that he was spared that. Ron Fleming left us surrounded by a community that is far worse off without him. I hold him close to my heart with a deep sense of awe of his talents and intelligence. I admire his unfaltering elevation of the values of continuous learning, facts, creativity, and critical thinking. Ron Fleming, as both a human and a local legend, died truly beloved because he was different in many ways and never failed to honor that difference in others.”

Prof. John Lee:

“I will miss Ron for his great sense of humor and insightful knowledge in broad areas of science and engineering, and in particular, experimental nuclear reactor physics and radiation chemistry.  Of course, the Ford Nuclear Reactor was the love of his life and the success of the NERS experimental program owes a large measure of gratitude to Professor Fleming for his dedicated effort over the past half-century.”

Prof. David Wehe:

“I first met Ron in ~1972 when he was a senior graduate student here.  He was an intellectual leader even then and wrote many of the reactor laboratory manuals that generations of students and instructors relied upon.  He even convinced the department to buy the first HP electronic calculator, the HP35, and it instantly improved our students’ lives.  When he graduated from NERS, he went to NIST and quickly became the world’s leading expert in neutron interactions and activation analysis.  While at the top of his field, he returned to NERS  as Director of our Ford Nuclear Reactor.  He spawned new scientific areas, such as real-time neutron radiography, that kept the reactor activity flourishing.   When the cold fusion premise was first revealed, Ron immediately devised and ran an experiment that proved a nuclear process wasn’t involved.  He was so very clever and so intimately involved in addressing technological issues. Ron’s scientific contributions are legendary, and just dropping his name opened collaborations around the globe.  But he most enjoyed interacting with students and was a widely treasured member of many doctoral committees — he always brought good ideas to any technical discussion.  Outside of the laboratory or classroom, he thoroughly enjoyed playing the role of the contrarian to stimulate intellectual debates on every conceivable topic.   His warm smile, friendly welcome,  and love of nuclear technology will be dearly missed. 

Prof. Alec Thomas:

“I am shocked and saddened by the loss of Ron Fleming. The news was very unexpected for me. I interacted a lot with Ron when I first came to Michigan. I would chat with him in his office; I recall piles of papers higher than I stood, making his office somewhat of a maze. He kept me rapt for hours with fascinating anecdotes putting the historical development of the department and nuclear engineering into context. I recall him talking about when they first measured the beta radiation spectrum and how it made the prediction of the neutrino. I knew about it in a textbook sense, but he had first-hand knowledge. He was also a font of knowledge about a local company, KMS fusion, and gave me piles of original documents that I still have. He always filled the anecdotes with colorful details that made him a joy to listen to. He was always full of ideas and encouraged me to host an undergraduate project on atmospheric neutron measurements using a weather balloon. His was boundless enthusiasm in physics and nuclear engineering. I would see him whenever I went to Ayse’s restaurant. He was worldly and wise. He will be sadly missed.” 

Andrew Ward:

“I remember how kind he was to everyone. He must have answered the same very simple question from various freshmen over and over. He never seemed to be annoyed by this, but instead invested in the question and the person. These are the memories I will keep.”

Prof. Xiaodong Sun:

“I am deeply saddened by Professor Ron Fleming’s sudden passing.  I did not know Ron for long (4.5 years) but was immediately impressed by his knowledge and kindness when we first met.  When I joined the department in early January 2017, my office was not ready, and Ron was very kind to allow me to use his desk for a few weeks.  We later had several conversations on a wide range of subjects, including thermal energy storage for advanced nuclear reactors.  He suggested several potential research topics for the subject.  We often saw him at the department colloquia, and sometimes we talked about the colloquium topics when we sat next to each other.  It was always encouraging to talk to Ron and see his smiling face!  Ron was a special and well-respected colleague, and I will dearly miss him.”

Prof. Brendan Kochunas:

“I did not interact too much with Ron when I first came to NERS in 2009, I recall he had just transitioned to emeritus (or was about to). However, I did begin to engage with him after becoming a professor in 2019. He was absolutely essential to helping me get started with the virtual Ford Nuclear Reactor. What has been developed for this would not have been possible without Ron’s help. He literally provided me with all the information I presently have. I’m very saddened to hear of his passing and also lament that he did not have a chance to see the virtual reactor for himself know he was very excited about it. His presence in this effort will be sorely missed as he still had so much knowledge to share. Every meeting about it was enlightening and entertaining for the anecdotes he shared, and it helped me feel more connected to the history of NERS. Finally, I’ll always remember Ron for two things, the critical role he played in bringing the virtual FNR to life, and the picture of him at a department picnic captioned, ‘What does it all mean?’ Indeed, Ron. We’re always full of questions and the one we may think about the most and never answer is: What does it all mean?”

Prof. William Martin:

“Ron was a strong presence in our department ever since he was brought back to Michigan following his appointment at NIST. He was a true scholar in his approach to diverse academic topics, from nuclear phenomena to covid, with an encyclopedic knowledge of anything to do with atomic and nuclear physics. While I was Chair of NERS, he would frequently volunteer to teach an extra 799 seminar course in topics ranging from the wooly mammoths to natural reactors. Even though these special seminar courses were often outside the purview of nuclear engineering, his courses were well-attended. The students even coined the name “Fleminars” for his courses. Ron went out of his way to be a resource to students and faculty and I recall with a smile the number of times he could bound into my office with an old paper or report and ask if I had ever considered whatever topic he was excited about. Ron was a special colleague and a good friend and I will miss him.”

Frederick J. Mayer:

I was saddened by hearing of Ron Fleming’s passing. He was a unique individual and I was pleased to be a friend for almost all my time in Ann Arbor from the ‘70s. I was an associate research scientist in the nuclear Engineering department for some number of years and was fortunate to interact with Ron on various issues including laser fusion (at KMS Fusion), particle detectors, and many others. I will miss Ron’s ability to quickly get to the essence of the relevant physics involved in an issue. Ron’s passing is a big loss for the larger technical community in Ann Arbor.

Prof. Lumin Wang:

“I am deeply saddened by the news that Ron Fleming suddenly passed away. Ron has been a friend to me for nearly 24 years since I came to UM in the summer of 1997. Our offices are next door to each other so we met and talked very often. He was a very knowledgeable and kind person. I have learned a lot from him. I would go to him whenever I had a question on the decay chain of any radionuclide. He seemed to have all that memorized in his mind. Since 2011, he has helped me organize and teach the summer school on clean energy at Xiamen University of China for U-M COE and students from UK and China for eight summers and helped me host students from Xiamen University at U-M as well. He is very popular among our Chinese students. I posted the news of his passing on Chinese social media yesterday (Jun 7, 2021) and by today, more than 80 former Chinese students (both studied at NERS or Xiamen University) expressed their condolence. The following are some of the words from the students:

“Professor Fleming helped me a lot. I took his NE course. He took me to several restaurants and taught me the American culture. His passageway is so sudden. Wish him Rest In Peace.” 

“Every time he was in Xiamen he would always ask me if there was anything he could help. His loving care for and respect to students are hard to describe with language. I will be forever grateful to his kindness and remember the summers in Xiamen with us.” 

“I will forever cherish the memory of beloved Professor Fleming.” 

“Professor Fleming is a very nice man. I clearly remember that he took me and Yidan to the Farmers Market over a weekend soon after we arrived in Ann Arbor to experience the life of the locals. I am so sad he is gone.” 

“I have known Professor Fleming since 2014. He has made a big influence on my life. He let me know his family and also visited my family in Sichuan. He witnessed my graduation of both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and proofread my thesis word by word, and told me how to become a qualified scientist. We kept communicating for so many years, even talk over the phone for 2 hours last month and exchanged e-mails last week. He is my honorary grandpa. He lived a full and free life. I will be grateful to and remember him forever.” 

”Professor Fleming’s lectures are full of enthusiasm and magnetism. He let us realized the gap between a world-class teacher and ourselves. I will always remember his passionate lectures.”

Read Fleming’s obituary posted in the Ann Arbor News here.

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