Norton Hintz used to show up at his University of Minnesota office with two briefcases.

"One had to do with the physics world, and one had to do with the music world," said his former student and longtime friend Charles Kavalovski.

A nuclear physicist, opera lover, eager dancer, photographer and amateur mushroom expert, Hintz "was the last of the Renaissance men," said Kavalovski.

Hintz, who died Feb. 11 at 93, taught and mentored aspiring nuclear physicists from 1952 until he retired in 1991. He also was a co-founder of the Minnesota Opera, helping to launch it in the early 1960s with small events at the Guthrie Theater. That first season included an early work by Dominick Argento, who later earned a Pulitzer Prize for his compositions.

Hintz was born in Milwaukee and grew up in Los Angeles. He earned a degree in physics from UCLA in 1944, then enlisted in the Navy, which sent him to radar school and the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. He returned to his physics studies after World War II, getting a Ph.D. from Harvard and a fellowship at England's Cavendish Laboratory before taking a post at the University of Minnesota in 1952.

He was at the forefront of a burgeoning academic field as wartime research moved into academia and displaced scientists began to call scholarly centers home. Early in his tenure, Hintz worked on the school's Linac proton accelerator, which was then the largest device of its type.

He and his colleagues laid the foundation for today's nuclear — now called "elementary particle" ­­­­— physics, said fellow professor Marvin Marshak.

Hintz's physics work didn't go unnoticed, and neither did his dance moves, Marshak said. While Hintz published about 90 papers on nucleon interaction and nuclear structure, and took sabbaticals in several countries, it was Hintz "dancing up a storm" at the university's Weisman Art Museum that Marshak said he remembers best.

In 1996 Hintz and his wife, Mary Abbe, the Star Tribune's visual art critic, donated a dance floor to the Weisman. It's still in use today.

Just dancing wasn't enough physical activity for Hintz. He bodysurfed on the California coast and swam in the often frigid waters of the St. Croix River into his late 80s. During his many travels, he always took pictures — developing and printing his own black-and-white film,

As his body failed him, his mind carried on. Days before his passing, he continued to read three newspapers a day while working his way through a half-dozen books.

Kavalovski said that during a recent conversation, Hintz told him he was not interested in talking physics. "The things that interest me now are love, war and the interactions between people," he said.

And Hintz will be remembered for his interactions. "He was always with a smile," Marshak said. "Just a happy, happy guy."

Hintz is survived by his wife; their son, Mark; his first wife, Bri Knorr, and their daughter, Megan, and grandchildren Alec and Isabel. He was preceded in death by his son Matthew. A memorial gathering will be held later.

Barry Lytton is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.