Deaths in the Notre Dame Family

Author: Notre Dame Magazine

JAMES P. KOHN, a 1951 Notre Dame graduate, believed to have taught chemical engineering at Notre Dame longer than anyone in the department’s history, died in late May at age 78. He was a member of the chemical engineering faculty for 48 years, the last eight in an emeritus capacity. Professor Kohn will long be remembered for his genuine interest in students and his amazing recollection of them. It’s said he could remember names and personal details about students 30 or 40 years after they graduated. The fondness was reciprocated as he was always the first faculty member that chemical engineering alumni sought out when they returned to campus. A devout Catholic whose siblings included three nuns, Kohn loved Notre Dame, especially its athletic traditions, and thought there was no better place to be. One of his closest friends was Leon Hart ‘50, the 1949 Heisman Trophy winner who was a student at Notre Dame the same time as Kohn. Hart was at Kohn’s house the day in September 2002 when the former football star fell ill and later died at a local hospital. Kohn was born in Dubuque, Iowa, and served in the Army in World War II as a medic in the Asia-Pacific theater. He was wounded twice and at one point feigned death to survive on a battlefield taken by the Japanese. In addition to two Purple Hearts, he won a Bronze Star for valor. He joined the Notre Dame faculty in 1955, advanced to full professor in 1964 and became the department’s first assistant chairman in 1982. He continued in that role until his retirement in 1995 and as an emeritus professor continued to conduct research, mentor students and occasionally fill in for colleagues. He received numerous honors for his teaching, research and service. His research specialty was phase equilibrium, which considers the relative distributions of chemicals when two phases of a material – say a liquid and a gas – are present and in contact inside a closed vessel. He is also believed to have amassed the largest set of data in the United States on solar energy. The information was generated from a study he began in the early 1970s and continued until just a few months before his death.

ROBERT F. O’BRIEN, who wrote the “Victory Clog” and established many other continuing traditions of the marching band as its beloved and respected director for more than three decades, died July 1 at age 82. Other enduring innovations from his tenure (he retired in 1986) include the singing of “America the Beautiful” and the reciting of elements of the Preamble of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence during pregame ceremonies. His most significant contribution to the band’s identity, though, may have been his establishment of an administrative structure that delegated authority to student officers. Whereas in other bands such positions are often figureheads, his were made responsible for keeping order. The setup also reinforced the band’s sense of unity. O’Brien came to Notre Dame as director of bands in 1952 after four years of service in the Navy during World War II followed by college and then graduate study in orchestration and conducting. In the condolences that flooded into the band office when word of his death circulated, some band alumni recalled the kindness and patience he’d shown when they were nervous freshmen auditioning. “O’B,” as he was known, had a sly sense of humor but was also extremely organized and demanded procedures be followed to the letter, particularly in regard to punctuality. Once after an overnight stop out of state, the band buses pulled away at the scheduled hour, leaving two late-awakening trumpet players chasing the vehicles while struggling into their pants. The buses did not stop. If you missed the bus you were responsible for finding your own way to catch up or get to the next stop. Another time, in Chicago, after a Saint Patrick’s Day parade, an alumni group held a reception for the band. The students were all aboard the buses by the scheduled departure time, but the director continued talking with alumni for another 15 to 20 minutes. The next day O’B. was furious, recalls a band alumnus from the time. “It was angriest I ever saw him in four years. He gave the band hell for waiting for him.”

(Autumn 2003)