September 9, 2020 | By Jake Weber
Dave Seely, professor of physics, passed away in his Albion home September 3, two weeks shy of his 62nd birthday.
An active member of the Albion College faculty from 1992 until the fall of 2019, Seely's tenure was distinguished for his remarkable devotion to his students, colleagues, department and college. He served more than 10 years as department chair and worked with all of the College's major committees, including service as faculty head of the 2010 accreditation team, a two-year project involving every aspect of College operations.
"We went to football games, basketball games, softball, soccer, whatever we could find to do," says mathematics professor Paul Anderson, recalling his 30-year friendship with Seely. "We'd have coffee in the morning, meet for lunch, work out together and maybe meet for coffee again in the afternoon," says Anderson. "Sometimes, if I went somewhere by myself, people would ask me where Dave was. We were like brothers because it was just so fun to be together."
Anderson stresses, however, that Seely was similarly available to everyone around him. "He'd say he was going home for dinner and then he'd be holding a 10 p.m. study session. For Elkin Isaac [Symposium] and other events in the Science Complex, he'd be there moving furniture and helping with setup," says Anderson. "He just wanted to help people. He did so much when nobody even knew he was there."
Seely spent a sabbatical year at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a visiting scientist, and an additional semester directing the Oak Ridge undergraduate research program. Beyond his own research as an atomic physicist in low-energy astrophysics, Seely directed dozens of Albion College student research projects, along with involving students in his own research, publishing and conference presentations.
"For a while, Physics was Dave and three junior faculty he was shepherding," says Nicolle Zellner, Herbert H. & Grace A. Dow Trustees’ Professor in the Sciences and Physics Department chair. She was referring to herself, associate professor Charles Moreau and former associate professor Aaron Miller, '95, noting that Seely worked "tirelessly" to see his young colleagues through the tenure process, and to retain the department's integrity through challenging institutional times.
Zellner also noted that Seely spent much of the past decade on the faculty's Student Life Advisory Committee, charged with the thankless task of addressing conflicts. "He saw every kind of problem that had to be resolved and he did it because that was the job," says Zellner. "He loved doing it. He loved being part of the College, and going to games and performances, and being part of the Albion community."
"I had the rare privilege of thriving as Dave's student in his first years teaching at Albion and then, 14 years later, by growing as he mentored me in my new role as a young, panicked faculty member," adds Miller, who now runs a quantum technologies company he founded with classmate Josh Cassada, '95. "Dave played a pivotal role in forming young scientists, entrepreneurs, doctors, humanitarians and even an astronaut. Even more, everyone who sat at the feet of this master, or sat on the atrium couches with a cup of coffee, became a better person. Dave leaves a legacy of literally thousands of improved lives—a legacy that will have lasting effects for generations."
"I can actually draw a boundary in my life between the time before taking Dave's course and the time after, in terms of who I've become and who I want to be in this world," says Kevin Chalut, '99, a 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient. Chalut explained that he took his first physics class simply to fulfill his science requirement, but Seely's enthusiasm for his subject—and his students—opened a career path that led Chalut to his current appointment as a British Royal Society research fellow at Cambridge University.
"Anyone who has ever had an essential mentor can know exactly what Dave has meant to me in my career and in my life," says Chalut. "He has been lifting me up for years, and my memory of Dave will continue to do so. I hope I can be what he always believed I could be."
Among his career accolades, Seely received Albion's Mark Sheldon Putnam, '41 and Mildred Plate Putnam, '41 Endowed Faculty Award, a Campus Programs “Bridge” Award and the Arthur Anderson New Teacher of the Year award. He is survived by his wife, Debbie Seely, son Matthew, two siblings, and his mother, Lavonne.
"Some of my favorite memories are little, everyday things," says Leanne Wegley, '18, who did two FURSCA projects and wrote a departmental thesis with Seely's guidance. "Like the puppy-love smile that came over him every time he said Debbie's name; his amused chuckle whenever he caught someone admiring his witty coffee mugs; the pride in his voice whenever he talked about Matthew; the glint of mischief in his eyes when he went looking for Dr. Anderson; his excitement at the prospect of new knowledge; and the ease at which he could move between teaching strategies until he found one that worked for the student in front of him."
Wegley notes that during her senior year, Seely "made" her attend a specific conference with copies of her résumé, an effort that led to her current position as remote engineer with Agilent Technologies. "He was a man who brought others together, a teacher who nurtured learners with compassion for their mistakes and excitement for their triumphs, and a leader who could guide a room with his calm and quiet influence," she says.
"Dr. Seely often would explain complicated questions in the form of drawings. His ability to connect with me in that way encouraged me to draw physics problems to better understand them," says Eric Kaltz, '11, a physics and art double major who is now in medical school. "The Physics Department is small and I took a lot of classes with Dr. Seely. I was the student with the crazy idea to study on 'opposite' sides of the campus, and Albion and Dr. Seely made that possible."
"When I took over as department chair, I made that transition by saying, 'What would David do?'" says Moreau. " He was the vision and driving force of the department. Any time I had to do something as a faculty member or chair, I would just think about what he would do and measure myself against that."
Moreau concludes, "We all tried to emulate him and looked to him for guidance. David was the best of us."
A memorial visitation will be held Saturday, September 12, 2020 from 3 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at J. Kevin Tidd Funeral Home in Albion. Donations are welcomed to Albion College's Dave Seely Memorial Fund, which will support initiatives most meaningful to Dave. Gifts may be sent via albion.edu/seely or to the Dave Seely Memorial Fund, 611 E. Porter St., Albion, MI, 49224.