Letter to the Editor: A tribute to professor Richard Vinci

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If you were to ask any worthwhile student of science or engineering “Who are the great teachers of these subjects?” you might hear a few familiar names: Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson, among others. For Lehigh students, Professor Richard P. Vinci would very well be at the top of any such list. I am saddened to learn of his recent passing. He was taken far too soon.

Vinci was that rare professor who was gifted not only in academic research, but also in teaching. He was by far one of the best educators that many of us had the privilege to learn from. He cared deeply about teaching, as was evident not only by his many official recognitions and awards in the area but also by the very manner in which he conducted his classes. This passion manifested itself in his uncanny ability to break down a complex subject and present it in a way that every student could comprehend.

Beyond the classroom, he took an active interest in the lives of his students. Whether the aim was to ask about post-college plans, check on academic progress, or just make sure everything was going OK, he was always available to offer guidance or just listen.

To take a page out of Vinci’s book, I will use some real-life examples to demonstrate the above. First, there was the time that one of the students was conspicuously absent on the day of the final exam. Vinci interrupted the test shortly after it began and asked, “Does anybody have this person’s cell phone number?” He then proceeded to take one of our phones, call the student, and offer a gentle reminder that the exam was taking place. Turns out that this student was sick and had overslept but, thanks to the call, made it to the exam. (Hearing the hilariously loud exclamation from the other end of the phone is something my classmates and I still reminisce about to this day!) Although it was humorous at the time, in retrospect I realize he could have ignored the absence and doled out a grade accordingly. However, his concern for his students would not allow that. 

Second, when I was considering applying to engineering graduate school programs, my parents expressed surprise that not only is tuition typically covered by these programs but that students usually receive an additional stipend. They wondered where I’d heard such absurdities, and I let them know I’d been talking to my adviser, Vinci. Assuming I’d been mistaken, they decided to drive to Bethlehem to meet with the man himself and get “the straight dope” (as Vinci would say). For the next two hours, he calmly, graciously, patiently, and clearly explained to my parents how graduate-level engineering programs worked. Let’s just say that, after that meeting, I had no more questions on the matter from my parents.

These examples are just two out of countless others that illustrate the type of person he was. I am a better scientist, engineer and person for having had him as my professor and adviser throughout my time in the Materials Science & Engineering Department. I’m sure many of my classmates who came before and after me would echo that sentiment. We alumni join in mourning the loss of Vinci, the likes of whom come around perhaps once in a lifetime.

-Gabriel Ganot, ’05

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