Burnaby Munson Memorialized at Mitchell Hall
“Above all, service to students was at the very core of his being,’ John Burmeister, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the university, said of the late chemistry professor Burnaby Munson. “The university and our department is blessed to have shared his wonderful life. Our department will never be the same.”
Friends, loved ones, former students and faculty gathered in Mitchell Hall for a memorial service that venerated Munson’s 50 years of dedication to excellence in education and research. Tears were shed by a room full of Munson’s loved ones.
Though the professor never had children of his own, he had done more than his part to raise generations of students at the university.
“Munson wasn’t afraid to die,” Melissa Bowers, a close family friend who was with him when he passed, said. “His only regret was never having children, but he had thousands of children right here.”
Munson led a life of involvement on campus. He was an old-guard professor who lived nearby, regularly inviting students to his house for parties and cookouts. He even once loaned out his car to students to ensure they could commute to internships and research opportunities across the country.
It was revealed during the memorial service that Munson had even created a fund for undergraduate research, under a different name than his own. He had supported this out of his own pocket for decades.
Munson’s financial stake in supporting education demonstrated his remarkable energy for teaching. Multiple members of the audience and alumni who spoke at the service had unknowingly received direct funding from a mentor that had already contributed his attention, time and energy to ensuring their success.
“He backed that commitment to research with funds, not wanting recognition back due to his modesty,” Katherine Kerrane, a retired honors professor, said. “For years he anonymously funded students to research during winter session.”
Kerrane, a close friend of Munson, chiefly characterized him by his modesty at the memorial. She said that he was like “Mr. Chips,” the titular character from the 1969 film “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” about a beloved and retiring school teacher. Kerrane noted that Munson lacked Mr. Chips’ traditional warm and fuzzy attitude, and likened him to a “lovable curmudgeon.”
Munson wanted students to be challenged in and out of the classroom, intentionally scaring freshmen students while simultaneously ensuring they could always go to him for help.
Alumna Lauren Genova, a current graduate student at Cornell, said she was close friends with Munson, who had encouraged her to conduct research while she was an undergraduate. Genova learned at the ceremony that Munson had also directly funded her work had landed her a Ph.D. program at Cornell.
Genova wrote and sang a song in dedication to Munson’s impact on her life, titled “Unintended.” As she sang, a slideshow of photos from Munson’s cookouts, Halloween parties and smiling students working with Munson captured the portrait of a man who lived through his dedication to inspiring others.
Christopher Hadad, an alumnus and former teaching assistant (TA) of Munson, shared his stories working with the professor. He said Munson would bring in food to encourage his students to keep going during especially long or arduous exam periods.
“After a while, Munson would say he would become a ‘rabid rabbit,’” Hadad said. “He would say, ‘I have no idea how you’re all still alive. The answer was food, he would use it to bring people together.”
Hadad also believed Munson knew he would only go to the front of the classroom to eat after he was finished, so Munson would therefore grab a handful of M&Ms and stand in front of Hadad, taunting him.
Munson had sold a condo to be closer to campus, where Hadad and his fellow TAs were tasked with renovating Munson’s new house. Hadad said the house was completely changed with student engagement and parties in mind. Munson paid Hadad and the others in food.
Hadad was convinced by Munson to take part in a research program that would end up changing his life. When Hadad had given an excuse that the program was too far away, Munson threw Hadad his car keys and told him he was going.
“Even if you had no interest in doing things, Munson would make you do them,” Hadad said. “One of his greatest gifts was looking toward what someone was capable of doing.”
During an interlude, a video compilation of Munson’s famous experiments played, in which the professor continuously blew things to demonstrate chemical reactions for his classes.
“There was a special place in his heart for explosions,” Alumnus and science radio show host Charles Berquist said. “Munson told me he regretted he wouldn’t be around to see the Towers demolition and implosion.”
University President Dennis Assanis, who could see Munson’s outdoor firework shows at times from across The Green in his office, took the podium to offer words of condolence and celebration.
“Fortunately for us, Dr. Munson found his true calling as a teacher and he came to UD in 1967 as a chemistry professor,” Assanis said. “Over the course of the next five decades, more than 46,000 students would benefit from his passion as a teacher. I am leaving you with this: We should work together to build the Munson Honors College.”
Honors Program Director Michael Chajes opened and closed the event.
“This amazing crowd is an estimate to how meaningful Burnaby was to so many people,” Chajes said. “I know everyone in this room has cherished memories of Burnaby and I hope today’s events will bring these events back to you. And not only bring a tear to your eyes, but a giant smile to your face. I know a smile is what Burnaby would have wanted.”
Following the service, the congregation crossed the street for an outdoor cookout reception on the front lawn of the Honors Program building, reminiscent of a Munson event.
Be a generous, hardworking individual who inspires others with your energy, and above all else love what you do. These were among the character traits given to describe the late chemistry professor who inspired countless students and faculty members to find what they love and excel at it.