Robert J. Kearney

Robert Kearney PhotoBob Kearney died on Sunday, March 18, at the age of 82. A professor of physics at the University of Idaho from 1964 to 1999, Bob was a passionate lifelong teacher, a great outdoorsman, a loving husband, father and friend, and a very funny guy.

Bob was born Robert James Kearney in1935, in Manchester, New Hampshire, the second of two boys. His father William was a police officer, his mother Teresa (nee O’Connor) a nurse. Bob attended Bishop Bradley High School, where he played on the school basketball team and became known in his second year—at his own insistence, perhaps—as the Sophomore Sensation. He attended the University of New Hampshire, briefly studying civil engineering until he realized that his surveying class was going to spend the entire semester studying triangles. He quickly switched to physics, and began his lifelong study of what stuff is like and how it works.

Bob enrolled in the doctoral program in physics at Iowa State University, where, after a series of improbable coincidences involving a now-legendary shaggy jacket, he met and fell in love with the future Kathleen Kearney (nee Muscetti), a graduate student in home economics and a California girl. The jacket did not long survive the encounter, but Bob and Kathy married soon afterward. Their sons, Tom and Pat, were born in Iowa; in 1964 Bob received his PhD and took a job at the University of Idaho in Moscow, where they had two more children, Anne and Jim. During a 1971-72 sabbatical year, Bob and Kathy moved their family to northern Italy, where Bob did research at the Università degli Studi di Milano and Kathy home-schooled the children. They lived with relatives in a centuries-old farmhouse, and spent their holidays and vacations roaming Europe in a tiny Fiat before returning to America. Bob and Kathy remained close to the Italian branch of Kathy’s family, and traveled to Italy many more times.

Bob was an avid outdoorsman, and he and Kathy loved living in northern Idaho. They raised their four kids camping, hiking, fishing and skiing, and in the early 80s, the family built a cabin in McCall, Idaho, which became their beloved home-away-from-home. As a runner and charter member of Team DeMoura, Bob was celebrated for his unique fashion sense, until a combination of long miles and reckless abandon on the racquetball court put an eventual end to his competitive sports career. Bob and Kathy continued to travel in retirement: among their many foreign destinations were Ireland, Iceland, France, Mexico, Costa Rica, and New Zealand.

Bob was always glad to learn, and glad to teach. A list of his enthusiasms and projects over the years would fill pages: his academic career included research in astronomy, plasma, nano-particles, and science education; he was an accomplished photographer, and had recently become a writer and poet; all his life, if something sounded interesting or fun, it was worth doing, and Bob was willing: to lead a parade, follow a trail, run a marathon, act in a play, write an editorial, publish a book, start a blog. As professor emeritus, he directed the Lewis & Clark Rediscovery Project, using innovative technology (remember when the Internet was new?) to let public schools across the country collaborate in doing science; in 2002, the University of Idaho Chapter of Phi Delta Kappa gave Bob an award for Excellence in Contributions to Education.

Bob passed away peacefully at home, attended by his and Kathy’s children Tom, Pat, Anne, and Jim. He is survived by the children, their spouses, and eight grandchildren; his brother Bill and family; Kathy’s sister Diana and family; and the many dear friends whom he cherished, loved, and relied on. A celebration of Bob’s life will be held on Saturday, March 24, from 11 – 3 at the Moscow Best Western Inn, in the “Silver” and “Gold” rooms (atomic numbers 47 and 79, respectively). In lieu of flowers, the family suggests you write an impassioned, well-reasoned letter to the editor on a topic you care deeply about. Then, after a decent interval, write another one. And keep on journeying.

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