Professor remembered by students, faculty

Alex Kennon



Kurt Birdwhistell, a much loved Chemistry professor, father and husband, died on Monday morning of adrenal cancer at the age of 57.

Faculty members and students who were close with Birdwhistell, or “Dr. B” as his students fondly call him, say that not only was he an outstanding teacher but that his earnestness, compassion and innovation made him an invaluable mentor and friend to many.

“Being a staff member in the department, you get to hear and overhear many of the unfiltered opinions of the students,” Lyle Henderson, chemistry department office manager, said. “The students loved being around him. They loved doing research with him and once they left, they never forgot him.”

Birdwhistell began teaching at Loyola in 1988 after obtaining his Ph.D. in inorganic and organometallic  chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1985.

The focus of much of his recent research was green chemistry, and he gave many talks on the importance of green chemistry for a sustainable future.

In his free time, Birdwhistell enjoyed bike riding, photography and bird watching. He was also very active in the local chapter of the American Chemical Society in addition to leading the student chapter at Loyola.   

“He was one of the most passionate professors I have ever had,” Hiba Elaasar, chemistry senior, said. “He loved his work. He loved talking about his research. In class, it was pretty obvious that there was nothing else he’d rather be doing than teaching. It made his passion for his field of study contagious.”

Vu Nguyen, chemistry senior, said he became interested in Birdwhistell’s green chemistry research after taking his classes and that accepting his offer to be part of his undergraduate research team was one of the easiest decisions he has made in college.

In a recommendation letter for Birdwhistell to be considered for the 2014 Dux Academicus award, Nguyen wrote that, “As a research advisor, Dr. B always challenges me to think critically. He once told me that working hard is not always good, but working smart is, and I took that lesson to heart.”

Many students, including Nguyen, said that Birdwhistell was more to them than simply a professor and advisor.

“My father passed away from kidney cancer when I was 11, so I grew up without a father figure. When I began spending more time with him in class and research lab, Dr. B gradually became the perfect father figure that I never had,” Nguyen said in his letter. “He is always compassionate and understanding. Whenever I have something on my mind and need someone to talk to, he is always there.”

Henderson, who was hired by Birdwhistell when he was serving as department chair, said that initially he appreciated how upfront and to the point Birdwhistell was, and that in time he developed a close relationship to Birdwhistell and his family.

“Kurt cared.  He cared about me as a person and he cared about me as an employee. He took genuine interest in my personal and professional development.  He wanted me to be happy and he wanted me to always know I was valued and able to be the best in my job responsibilities,” Henderson said.

According to Henderson, there were many instances in which Birdwhistell demonstrated care and thoughtfulness, but one particular series of events stands out in his mind.

“He knew I liked pastries.  He also knew that I was trying to cut back on eating so many sweets.  About once a week, he would go to a doughnut shop and purchase one buttermilk drop.  He would bring that little white bag, oftentimes placing it on my desk, with my name on it before I made it to the office,” Henderson said. “The mystery was that he somehow knew what day I needed this little ‘pick me up.’”

Henderson said that even after Birdwhistell received a camera ticket on his way to the bakery that made the buttermilk drop cost him $120, he never stopped occasionally brightening his day with them.

Chemistry Department Chair Lynn Koplitz said that she, Birdwhistell, and Biology professor Jim Wee all accepted positions at Loyola and moved to New Orleans with their spouses in August of 1988, meaning that their families were close and that the loss was particularly devastating to them.

According to Koplitz and other faculty, Birdwhistell was the first person to recognize the need to renovate Monroe Hall when they began working on plans to update the first-floor chemistry labs in 1992.

“His efforts to renovate and update the chemistry labs taught the rest of us what was possible with effort and determination and helped catalyze renovation of the rest of Monroe Hall,” Frank Jordan, professor of biology, said.

Koplitz said that using funding from outside grants, Birdwhistell personally aquired a number of major teaching and research instruments for these labs, which he maintained himself.

“He was a good listener, supervisor, mentor, friend and human being,” Henderson said.  “He will forever be in my heart and the hearts of so many.”

Birdwhistell is survived by his wife Teresa, his son Ben, ’12, and his daughter Kate, a current Loyola senior.

There will be a memorial in his honor on campus on Dec. 6, with details pending.

“We all miss him,” Koplitz said.