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The passing of two remarkable faculty members

February 20, 2020 |3:55 min read

In Memoriam

In the past week, our Gillings School community lost two remarkable individuals, Phil Singer, PhD, emeritus professor of environmental sciences and engineering (ESE), and Travis Johnson, MD, MPH, associate professor in the Public Health Leadership Program, and founder and interim director of the Master of Public Health (MPH) Program’s Place-Based Health concentration in Asheville, N.C., our shared program with UNC Asheville and the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC).


Photo of Dr. Travis Johnson, big smile

Dr. Travis Johnson

Travis Johnson was way too young to pass away. Just 43 years old, he had lived with colon cancer for eight years. We came to know him as a colleague when he began collaborating with us to create a new MPH program for health professionals in Western North Carolina. He already had been diagnosed with cancer, and as a physician, he was aware of what that meant. Through hopes and setbacks, he pushed the program forward, worked with us to move it through the UNC System, and enrolled the first cohort in fall 2019. Travis was a wonderful, caring, really smart, well-trained and upbeat colleague who believed deeply in the value of public health training for clinicians. He leaves a legacy of accomplishments as a family physician, teacher, mentor and visionary public health researcher and practitioner. Our deep condolences go to his wife, Amy, their three children and his highly accomplished team. We will miss him.

Photo of Dr. Philip Singer

Dr. Philip Singer

Phil Singer, who retired in 2011 after 38 productive years in ESE, lived a life of profound impact as an accomplished water quality engineer, distinguished teacher and generous mentor and adviser. He was also a devoted husband and father, grandfather, friend to many and active in community organizations. Phil also died too soon.

Both Phil and Travis were optimists who thought much could be done if we worked at it. Each in his own way kept making the world better through his chosen path. They were really good at what they did and never forgot the people.

At the memorial service for Phil Singer yesterday, there was profound love in the room. Everyone there was deeply affected, myself included. Phil was one of the first people who reached out to offer help when I became dean. He gave me articles to read so I could learn more about environmental sciences and engineering. He explained arcane topics like water pipes and got me excited about visiting a Columbus, Georgia, water treatment plant. This generosity of time and spirit was part of Phil’s DNA, as the stories told about him demonstrated. The rabbi spoke of the intentional life Phil lived: He was there for his many students, his wife, Ellen, children and grandchildren, his colleagues and former students. His grandchildren spoke with pain and love of his always being at their sports and other events, no matter how much was going on. He loved sports, especially baseball and UNC basketball, family, colleagues, students, friends, fishing and trips to water works. Hearing those stories, I wondered how he managed to be “there” while also being so accomplished professionally. It’s a question I think about in pondering the meaning of work/life balance. Some people seem to be able to master the equation, but others never do.

We have heard from scores of Phil’s former students, who spoke of him as a transformative mentor with whom they had lifelong collaborations and friendships. Some of these former students go back 40 years. Phil set people up for success, and he enjoyed every minute of their success. He made a profound difference in water quality in the United States and around the world. In retirement, he continued that impact, advising leaders in Flint, Michigan, on their water crisis. I will miss seeing Phil at events where I could count on the twinkle in his eye and impish smile. We share our sadness with his family.

Many members of our community have reached out with heartfelt messages on receiving the sad news of the deaths of Phil and Travis. One colleague, Pete Kolsky, PhD, emeritus professor of the practice of environmental engineering, sent a message expressing sympathy, consolation and encouragement all at once. He said, in part,

Meanwhile, the institutions through which Phil and Travis worked go on, and their professional contributions live on through those institutions, and their students, and their students’ students. 

I try to console myself with that thought, and that they both made the most of the opportunities and gifts they had, inside and outside of work, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s still a very sad week for those of us left behind.

Institutions, with all their messy politics and bureaucracy and administration and at times petty squabbling, are the only way these two individuals and others are able to multiply and pass on the gifts they have, and you need to keep on keeping on so that others can continue to do so.

May our “keeping on” – with intent, passion, hope, heart, intellect and generosity – be a tribute to the lives of these extraordinary individuals, who made a difference by giving us and the world so much.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.