Obituary: Bryce Crawford Jr., 96, prominent U prof

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 26, 2011 - 8:31 PM

He received kudos for achievements in chemistry. His fascination with Sherlock Holmes? Elementary.

Bryce Crawford Jr. looked like a very smart man. And he confirmed it every time he opened his mouth, whether in or out of the University of Minnesota's chemistry classrooms and laboratories.

So it might have surprised some students that the intimidating professor didn't require a lot of arm twisting to belt out his school song, "Old El Paso High." Or that he was partial to smooth single-malt scotch, or loved Sherlock Holmes and model trains.

"He was just so intelligent and always driven to learn more, but he was also a lot of fun," said his daughter, Sherry Crawford, of Vinton, Iowa. "He had a great sense of humor and was kind and generous. He was more than just a great scientist."

Crawford, of St. Paul, died of congestive heart failure Sept. 16 at Presbyterian Homes in Arden Hills. He was 96.

When he retired from the U in 1985 after more than 40 years of teaching, Crawford was one of the nation's preeminent chemists. In 1982 he was awarded the Priestley Medal by the American Chemical Society for outstanding lifetime contributions to the science -- two years before Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling, whom he knew.

He held Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, advanced the field of molecular spectroscopy (the study of visible light) and was active in three prestigious science academies.

But he was also known as one of the U's foremost Sherlockians -- one of five professors, including librarian E.W. McDiarmid and historian Theodore Blegen, who formed a local society in 1947 to discuss Sherlock Holmes.

The Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota still meets regularly, and Crawford was its last surviving founder. The key to keeping it going, he told members at a dinner a few years ago, was to find "people as ornery and committed as you are."

"For all of his learning and accomplishments, he wore it lightly," said John Bergquist, a retired editor who first met Crawford when he joined the Norwegian Explorers in the 1970s. "We'll miss him for the person he was and the work he did for the organization."

A New Orleans native, Crawford was raised in California and Texas. He was such a bright student that he graduated from high school at 15 and had to lie about his age to get into Stanford University.

He won a national chemistry essay contest in 1930 and received his award in Menlo Park, N.J., where he met Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

Crawford earned three degrees at Stanford, including his Ph.D in 1937. After working briefly at Harvard and Yale, he joined the U of M faculty in 1940. His new bride, Ruth, arrived in St. Paul in the middle of the Armistice Day blizzard.

During World War II, Crawford researched rocket propellants, work that helped develop solid propellants for larger rockets after the war. He rose swiftly at the U, chairing the chemistry department from 1955 to 1960 and serving as dean of the graduate school from 1960 to 1972.

Ruth Crawford died in 1998. In addition to his daughter, Crawford is survived by sons Bryce III of Davenport, Iowa, and Craig of Richmond, Va., and eight grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 1 at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, 2136 Carter Av., St. Paul.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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