Roanoke College Mourns Loyal Chemistry Professor Who Retired at 100

Courtesy of Roanoke College

Charles H. Fisher
June 05, 2011

Even after he officially retired—for the second time—at age 100, Charles H. (Hap) Fisher remained a regular at Roanoke College, where he had volunteered as an adjunct research professor of chemistry for nearly 40 years.

Mr. Fisher, who rejoined his alma mater in 1972 after retiring from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, published scholarly articles well into his 90s.

When his poor hearing made telephone communication difficult, he would take a taxi or accept a ride from a colleague to bring in manuscripts he had written by hand in his assisted-living facility. Department secretaries transcribed them while he pored over chemical journals and planned his next article.

As his hips weakened and his 100th birthday approached, Mr. Fisher continued to come into his office, first with a cane, then a walker, and finally a wheelchair.

He died May 13 in Roanoke at age 104, just weeks after attending a chemistry lecture named in his honor.

Colleagues remembered him as a modest, gentle man who eschewed computers and did complex computations on his hand-held calculator.

With 72 patents for breakthroughs on products like wrinkle-resistant cotton and frozen orange juice, Mr. Fisher could afford to work free of charge for Roanoke, where he maintained an office and laboratory. Though primarily a researcher who collaborated with colleagues in the department, he educated generations of students through generous contributions to the chemistry program. He endowed summer stipends for undergraduate research and a variety of scholarships, but always in someone else's name.

For instance, he named one for a former Roanoke faculty member who inspired him to pursue graduate studies at the University of Illinois.

"He came across as being a low-key, self-effacing person in spite of being a giant in his field," says Michael Maxey, Roanoke's president.

"Whenever we tried to recognize donors, he moved to the side or the back of the room. He never wanted to be the center of attention, although he deserved to be."

Roanoke's oldest alumnus when he died, Mr. Fisher was born in 1906 in Hiawatha, W. Va. He graduated from Roanoke with a degree in chemistry in 1928.

He went on to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Illinois and taught organic chemistry at Harvard for three years. He then worked for many years as a research chemist for the federal government.

Much of his work focused on finding practical solutions to problems facing Southern farmers, like developing wrinkle-resistant and flame-resistant cotton fabrics and orange juice that remained tasty when it was frozen.

Mr. Fisher, who in his free time played the banjo in a dance band, retired from his government job and joined the chemistry department at Roanoke in 1972.

He was as prolific a scholar as he was an inventor, contributing articles to more than 200 publications, including the Chemical Engineering Journal and the Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society.

An expert in polymers, Mr. Fisher also developed algebraic formulas that describe the relationship between chemicals' physical properties and their molecular structures.

He also developed a mathematical way to check if there are errors in a series of data.

Jack Steehler, director of institutional research at Roanoke, taught in the chemistry department for 22 years while Mr. Fisher was there.

"He was always interested in science that had a clear link to practical outcomes that improved lives," Mr. Steehler says.

Even while he was traveling around the world with his third wife on the Queen Elizabeth 2 (he had outlived his first two wives), Mr. Fisher's mind was on chemistry, Mr. Steehler adds. "While some people would play cards or walk the deck, he'd go to the ship's library and work on science."

Two years ago, at age 102, Mr. Fisher told The Roanoke Times that "people who don't work 10 hours a day are sissies."

Benjamin P. Huddle, a professor of chemistry at Roanoke, knew Mr. Fisher for nearly 40 years and published papers with him, "I tried to get him to use computers, but he said, 'My calculator's good enough,'" Mr. Huddle says.

Mr. Fisher's second retirement came in November 2006, when he celebrated his 100th birthday with students, colleagues, and administrators at Roanoke College.

His last outing before his death was to the Fisher lecture, which he attended in a wheelchair.

"When I introduced him at the end," Mr. Huddle says, "the students stood up and applauded."