Christmas Eve

I just drove down Franklin Street to my office, and it was almost eerily quiet. Most of our students are gone and many faculty and staff as well. There was a sight that has become less and less frequent – a rainy sky, a welcome event in a region battered by drought. I hope everyone is having a great holiday, wherever you are. Whatever your beliefs, I hope the season brings joy and time for reflection and being with those you love.

Last Friday, I joined hundreds of people from North Carolina and beyond to celebrate the life of Dan Okun, PhD, former Kenan distinguished professor and former chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering. Dan was a truly amazing person, and the memorial service showcased the many sides of Dan Okun. Faculty members are so much more than the person standing in front of a class, yet so often, we know only the academic side of a person. In Dan’s case, he also was a devoted husband, father and grandfather; a man with a great sense of humor; a huge Brooklyn Dodgers fan; and a zealous Tar Heel fan. He was global before the word was on everyone’s lips. He traveled to 89 countries in his 90 years, surely some sort of record, working on water systems all over the world.

Professor Okun also was positively, passionately local. Were it not for the work of Dan and his ESE colleagues, there might be no OWASA. Were there no OWASA, Chapel Hill might have 30 some days of water left instead of 215. Neither is great, but I prefer 215!

I knew about Dan’s work in creating safe water systems for Chapel Hill and the development of OWASA, but I did not know the important role Dan played in progressive social causes, notably, his role in integrating Chapel Hill’s movie theaters and restaurants in the 1960s. It is hard to believe that so few years ago, African Americans could not walk up to the box office and buy a ticket to a movie or walk into any restaurant in town. Faculty members, including Dan, protested, “sat in,” and fought for change – first for integration, and then against the Vietnam War. Dan was honored by UNC with the Thomas Jefferson Award, one of the University’s greatest accolades. I’m really proud of the role Dan and others in the SPH and UNC played in these events. Today’s Chapel Hillians reap the legacy of their courage.

So many people have told me how much Dan meant to them and the pivotal role he played in their lives. Although I knew Dan in only the last three years of his life, I could count on him to educate me about water (e.g., dual water systems) and to give me refreshingly honest feedback when he did not agree with something I’d done. He loved the department and school and supported both with amazing generosity. Dan, we will miss you. Our thoughts are with his wife Beth, his son Mike and Penny White, his daughter Tema and Tom Stern, and his grandsons Will (who spoke at the school fall semester) and Joedan.

Melissa Watt (HBHE) gave her doctoral presentation to the school last Thursday morning and is now Dr. Watt. Melissa sent an e-mail from an Internet cafĂ© in Tanzania last February when we announced the gift from Dennis and Joan Gillings. It was our first congratulatory message about the gift from across the world, and I always will remember Melissa fondly for sending her support from so far away. Her dissertation is the kind that makes a difference. It is: practical, yet probing and focusing on a significant issue – adherence to AIDS medications in Africa.

One of my students, Jennifer Gierisch, passed her doctoral orals Friday (!). JoAnne Earp is her chair, and has done a great job mentoring Jennifer. At the end of the session, professor Zimmer from Sociology, one of the committee members, told me that she really likes working with our students, because they are really bright and well prepared, and they come to her wanting to solve problems and make a difference. Those words were one of the best holiday gifts anyone could have given me. Solving problems and making a difference. That’s what we are about. That’s why I am proud to be dean of this wonderful school.

Enjoy the holidays!

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