Rudolph D. Deanin, 79, said his students are what keep him young and still at work teaching polymers at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. "People ask why I don't retire, and I tell them, I feel the age of the people I'm with," he said. "When I'm with retired people, I have nothing but aches and pains. When I'm with kids in their 20s, I feel as if I'm in my 20s. So even though they're aggravating, it's worth it."
Deanin became a Lowell professor in 1967 and soon got to work on a graduate-level program. He's still teaching full-time, serving as graduate coordinator and supervising student research.
Known around the Lowell campus for his gentle, dry wit, Deanin has taught several thousand students. Decades of teaching can harden some professors into monotony as they scrabble through the same well-worn notes year after year. Deanin is the exact opposite, say his colleagues and students.
"He always tries to stay current. He's always going to conferences, asking questions and trying to keep up. He stays young," said Stephen McCarthy, a UMass-Lowell professor. A recent graduate, Chris Guimond, called Deanin "unbelievable, very inspiring."
Guimond still regularly uses Deanin's 1972 book, Polymer Structure, Properties and Applications, on his job as engineer at Allegiance Healthcare Corp. in Riverside, Calif. At Lowell, they call the 600-page tome the "Little Book."
His trademark has become the daily quiz. He grades the quizzes each night. Deanin said he started the practice in his early days of teaching, 30-plus years ago, out of fear.
"Most professors give an exam once a month. The rest of the month you look in the classroom, there's hardly anybody there. I couldn't face lecturing to an empty room, and so I decided a quiz a day would bring everybody in. And it does."
Deanin assures students the quizzes help them as well. "If they study an hour a night for a quiz, that they can digest. If they study all night once a month, it's indigestible."
He worked in industry for 20 years before moving to academia. A chemist, he graduated from Cornell University in June of 1941. In September he enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. On Dec. 7, Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor.
Deanin, like many early polymer chemists, got involved in the massive program to find a synthetic replacement for natural rubber. Running the Illinois branch of the program was Carl "Speed" Marvel, who is now in the Plastics Hall of Fame.
In 1947, Deanin went to work at Allied Chemical Corp. in Morristown, N.J. One highlight: making flexible vinyl without a plasticizer, by copolymerizing vinyl chloride with octyl acrylate. But it never became commercial, because Allied (which became AlliedSignal, now Honeywell) decided not to get into vinyl, he said.
He also worked with arcylic and polycarbonate at Allied, where most of his 36 patents were hatched.
He left Allied in 1960 and became director of chemical research and development at DeBell & Richardson Corp., a major contract R&D house in Hazardville, Conn. There, he said, he made an early form of linear low density polyethylene. "But nobody knew what to do with it," he said.
In the end, Deanin left the private sector for Lowell because his heart wasn't in it. He hated to fire people.
"Other people are judging you, and they're not judging you the way you would like them to. It's the business cycle rather than your technical work. ... When I was at DeBell & Richardson, we depended entirely on the business cycle. We'd watch the stock market and as it went, we went. Their clients would come when they had the money. They didn't come when they didn't have the money. It tracked the business cycle. My group went from eight to 16 to three to 20, back to eight. And I couldn't take that," the soft-spoken professor said in a recent interview.
The last straw came one day when a new boss told Deanin to fire two men. Deanin explained they were on vacation.
"He said, `Fire them immediately.' I had to look for these two guys, [find out] where are they on vacation, and call them. That's when I decided I was leaving industry."
Deanin was hired at Lowell by Russell W. Ehlers, another hall of famer. The popular bachelor's degree program needed more teachers.
"After I'd been there two years, he asked me to start a graduate program. That really took off. Apparently the market was just waiting for it. Everybody came pouring in, and as soon as I started it, it grew at a tremendous rate."
Deanin remains director of the graduate program. Today more than 250 students are pursuing master's degrees and doctorates in plastics engineering and polymer science. Many of them get jobs in industry and take years to finish their degrees, but the university produces more than 40 master's degree graduates and 10 doctoral students a year, he said.
Despite running the graduate program for 30 years, Deanin has no interest in becoming chairman of the Department of Plastics Engineering. Remember that he was the boss once.
"I really didn't enjoy pushing people around that much," he said. "I'd rather do my own thing."
In their spare time, Deanin and his wife, Joan, like to travel to Switzerland. He went there the first time in 1972, speaking at a World Health Organization meeting in Geneva.
"After the conference was over I went out to look around the country, and I fell in love with it."
Students and fellow professors know that, when they return to Lowell, professor Deanin will post a one-page report from the trip, outside his office. Ask him about his trip, he points to the door.
"I tell how many great mountain views, and how many medieval towns. How many castles," he said.
It's all very precise and professorial, even after 35 trips to Switzerland.