Edward Fletcher was a rocket scientist — until he saw more possibilities in the sun. Now generations of solar scientists are following in the footsteps of the longtime University of Minnesota professor.
"He went from sending rockets into space to developing energy sources that don't use carbon fuel," said Roslyn Fletcher, his wife of 70 years. It was his creativity — the same creativity that he used in his travels and art — that led him to see the possibilities in the sun, she said.
Fletcher, of Minneapolis, died June 12 of complications from a stroke. He was 93.
Most people think of solar energy for heating a home or the water for a shower, said Bob Palumbo, who heads the mechanical and industrial engineering department at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Fletcher's work in solar thermal chemistry focused on harnessing the power of the sun to produce fuel to propel cars and aircraft.
"He wanted to get fossil fuel out of the economy and sunlight into it," said Palumbo, one of Fletcher's former students. "He wanted to make society better and deal with this incredible problem of global warming."
Now Palumbo and other students will carry on for Fletcher, who retired in 1997. "All of my research is extending and working on the ideas that he started," he said.
Some of those teachings went beyond the classroom. Fletcher spent hours talking with students about art, music and science over coffee and sometimes dinner.
"He not only practiced science, but stepped back and recognized it as a gorgeous piece of human creativity," Palumbo said.
He served in World War II as a Navy pilot and then returned to finish college and get his doctorate in chemistry. He began his career at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA, but left in 1959 to teach at the U. He wanted to work with students rather than develop solid fuels for rockets, his wife said. "He was interested in more peaceful pursuits," she added.
He liked challenges, his wife said. In college, he played football. He wasn't especially good at it, but his high grade-point average probably boosted the team's overall GPA average. He was a competitive squash player who took up skiing in his 40s and continued until his 80s.
"He biked the 12 miles to work long before it was a thing," his wife said. "He did all kinds of things that I never could figure out why he did them when he didn't have to."
He learned to play the violin when his daughter began taking lessons. "He would go in the den and scrape away," his wife said. "Turns out he was musical." He also was artistic, painting what he saw from his back porch. In the car, he listened to tapes and learned several languages.
"He liked to do new things," his wife said. "Like his research, it's about jumping out and trying something that occurs to you and see where it leads you."
When he traveled, he spent little time at the sites featured in coffee table travel books. He went to the side streets, preferring grocery stores and bakeries to museums to learn how people live. "I wanted to go to cathedrals and he wanted to go to the neighborhood churches," she said.
He was a bright man who helped his children and students develop a love of learning, his wife said. It's why, she said, it was difficult to see his brilliance overshadowed in his last year by Lewy body dementia. Fletcher was aware something was wrong, saying, "My brain is broken."
The disease, however, didn't overshadow his legacy to live life thinking of the greater good, said his daughter Judith Fletcher of New York City. He taught those around him to live life with integrity, a strong sense of justice and a love of discovery, she said.
Besides his wife and daughter Judith, he is survived two other daughters, Dr. Deborah Fletcher of Minneapolis and Dr. Carolyn Brochman of St. Paul, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Services have been held.