Students Organize Surprise Birthday Party for Professor Emeritus Russell Roberson

Wednesday, October 20, 2010
On October 2, 2010, Professor Emeritus Russell Roberson was treated to a surprise 80th birthday party given by his former graduate students at the Millenium Hotel in Durham. Thirteen of the 23 doctoral students Roberson advised over his 35-year-career at Duke came to the party, from such far-flung places as Vermont, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and California. Those who weren’t able to come sent photographs and good wishes.
Four of Roberson’s classmates from his days as an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill were at the party, as well as two of his classmates from Johns Hopkins, where he earned his PhD. Other attendees included former post-doctoral students; current and retired faculty from Duke, UNC, and NC State; and family members. Colleen Fitzpatrick, who earned her PhD in 1983, came up with the idea for the party and planned it with the help of Roberson’s wife, Ruth, and his first graduate student, Henry Weller, who has recently retired from the Duke faculty. After a sit-down dinner, each graduate student spoke a few words, beginning with Henry Weller, PhD 1967, and continuing chronologically to Bret Crawford, PhD 1997. The students earned their PhDs working with Roberson in the Triangle University Nuclear Laboratory (TUNL) run jointly by Duke, UNC, and NC State and located at Duke. Many of them mentioned two particularly valuable aspects of their education with Roberson at TUNL: the breadth of experience and education they gained in the lab, and the opportunity to work side-by-side with Roberson to design, build and operate lab equipment. They described how their experiences helped prepare them for careers as professors, researchers, designers of medical imaging equipment, air force officers, and entrepreneurs in technical fields.

Calvin Howell and Russell Roberson, current and former directors of TUNL


Prof. Calvin Howell, the current director of TUNL, also spoke a few words, saying what a pleasure it was to hear how experiences at TUNL had affected the lives of the students.

Roberson, clearly moved, thanked everyone for coming and took a moment to remember Professor Henry Newson, the driving force behind the establishment of TUNL in the 1960s. Many of the attendees seemed to enjoy the reunion as much as Roberson did, whether reconnecting with former classmates or meeting new people who shared similar experiences and interests. Stories abounded—of antics in the lab and life-changing advice given or received at crucial moments. While in Durham, out-of-towners enjoyed visiting the Duke campus, Duke Gardens, and the Nasher Museum, and a group toured TUNL on Saturday afternoon. The Sunday morning after the party, the Roberson family hosted a brunch at the hotel. Afterwards, Roberson said the party was a “joy.” Colleen Fitzpatrick said, “When I first had the idea for the party, I don’t think I realized how meaningful the get-together would be for so many of us. This was meant as a birthday party, but it was much, much more than that.” Doug Wagenaar, PhD 85, had to rent a flat-bed truck to get his rental car through flooded roads on Emerald Isle in order to make it to Durham in time for the party. Yet it was worth it. He said the event was a “magical experience. It was a lifetime of memories compacted into a few hours of perfect nostalgia.”