Norm Craig '53, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Dies at 89

Craig taught chemistry to generations of Oberlin students and embodied Oberlin’s ideals.

March 9, 2021

Manish Mehta and Julie Craig Lautens

Students stand around Norm Craig as he demonstrates a spectrometer.
From left, David Evans '63, Chuck Jonah ’65, Gene Switkes '65, and Norm Craig '53.
Photo credit: Courtesy of 1963 graduates David and Sally Evans

Norman Craig ′53 died on Sunday, March 7, 2021 at Kendal at Oberlin, in the presence of family. He was 89. Known as “Mr. Craig” to his students and “Norm” to his friends and colleagues, he was the embodiment of Oberlin’s ideals.

Norman Castleman Craig (OC '53) was born in Washington, D.C. on November 12, 1931 to David Norman Craig (OC M.A. ′23) and Frances Castleman Craig. He arrived at Oberlin College in the fall of 1949. In 1953 he graduated at the top of his class with a major in chemistry. While a student at Oberlin, he met his future wife, Ann Williams (OC ′55). They were married in 1955. Upon completing his Ph.D. in physical chemistry at Harvard with George Kistiakowski in 1957, he returned to Oberlin and served on the faculty for 43 years until his formal retirement in 2000. As professor emeritus, he continued to teach, guide student research, and sustain multiple international collaborations, in a very productive second phase of his career. Norm’s work at Oberlin, spanning 63 years, resulted in over 150 publications, with many featuring Oberlin undergraduates as coauthors.

Norm taught chemistry to generations of Oberlin students. His expansive portfolio included courses in general chemistry, physical chemistry, analytical chemistry, and organic chemistry. He pioneered a course in environmental chemistry, which was adopted nationally and is now a staple of current offerings. His love of thermodynamics led him to write Entropy Analysis, an uncommon and rigorous introductory text to the subject. It is still in use today. In any subject he taught, Norm’s style was grounded in clarity, organization, and rigor. A constant innovator, he experimented with new pedagogies and embraced new instructional technologies. His passion for demonstrations led to him incorporating “Demo-a-Day” in his classes.  He treated his classes and his time with students as sacrosanct. As a teacher and advisor, he was demanding, yet he honored his students at every turn. Over the decades, countless alumni have attributed some of their best learning experiences to his dedicated advising and teaching. When the College established teaching awards in 1998, Norm was the first recipient in the natural sciences division.

Norm established a world-class research program in the synthesis and molecular spectroscopy of small organic molecules, all of it involving Oberlin undergraduates. He and his students invented new methods to synthesize isotopically labeled compounds for analysis. High-resolution vibrational and rotational spectra of these molecules, done locally and via multiple collaborations, combined with high-level numerical computation, led to structures of unprecedented accuracy. The element fluorine figured prominently in his research, and he always made it a point to pronounce “fluorine” with added gusto. In the 1960s, Norm helped establish a tradition of undergraduate research, making the Oberlin Chemistry Department one of the earliest adopters of this practice among liberal arts colleges. Along with his colleagues, Norm spearheaded efforts to bring state-of-the-art instrumentation to Oberlin, giving students hands-on experience. Support from the College and external agencies enabled teaching leaves at Princeton and in China, as well as research leaves at the University of Minnesota, University of California at Berkeley, the NIH, and in Germany. 

Norm Craig.
Courtesy of the Craig family.

Norm’s achievements were recognized with several national awards. In 1987, he received the Chemical Manufacturers Association Catalyst Award for Excellence in Teaching Chemistry. In 1996, he was given the American Chemical Society (ACS) Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution. He is one of only two people to have won both awards. In 2010, he was selected to be in the first group of ACS Fellows, recognized for their outstanding contributions to science, the profession, and the Society. In 2010, he was awarded the Morley Medal by the Cleveland Section of the ACS for his body of research, the only person from a liberal arts college to have achieved this honor.

Norm’s time on the faculty involved extensive service, including multiple stints as department chair and on elected faculty committees, and as associate dean. He was associated with Oberlin Shansi for many years, also as the chair of its board of trustees, himself hosting several visiting scholars from India. Norm was also a keen chronicler of Oberlin history. He documented in detail Charles Martin Hall’s discovery of the electrolytic process of isolating aluminum from ore, recreating Hall’s experiments at the centennial celebration, and he spearheaded efforts to establish Oberlin as an ACS National Historic Chemical Landmark for Hall’s discovery. For his historical research he received the 2010 Heritage Guardian Award from the Oberlin Heritage Center. Norm served on national committees and panels, which had a wide impact on chemistry research and education in the United States. These included the ACS Committee on Professional Training, the Advisory Board of the Petroleum Research Fund of the ACS, Project Kaleidoscope, Mathematical Association of America’s Committee on the Undergraduate Program in Mathematics, NSF Science Education Directorate panel, and many more.

Humble and self-effacing, but never shy to voice his reasoned point of view, Norm sought opportunities to promote the accomplishments of alumni and colleagues. He and Ann were tireless fundraisers for Oberlin College and generous donors themselves. Norm directed prize monies from his awards to strengthen various initiatives in the chemistry department and at the College. He cherished connections with former students, exchanging thousands of letters and emails over the years. Alumni showed appreciation for his devotion through donations that led to the Science Center’s Craig Lecture Hall, and the Ann Williams Craig ′55 and Norman C. Craig ′53 Lobby. The Alumni Association awarded him the Alumni Medal in 2002. Within the science division, Norm was a mentor to younger faculty, generous with his time, gentle feedback, and thoughtful advice. Norm’s was an alert presence in the front row of seminars, and his office door was always open. Both are apt metaphors for the engaged commitment he brought to every endeavor and the kindness with which he gave of himself.

Norm and Ann were active, concerned citizens, thoroughly embedded in their Oberlin community. Both were longtime members of First Church in Oberlin, UCC, where Norm was best known as a member and chair of the Stewardship Committee. Norm’s passion for scientific discovery was a natural outgrowth of his faith. The Craigs were patrons of the arts, with their sustained generosity to programs at the College and in Lorain County. A tireless advocate for free and fair elections, Norm was politically active as a local precinct leader, a participant in candidate town halls and in voter registration drives, often serving as a poll observer on Election Day.

Ann and Norm Craig.
Ann and Norm Craig. Courtesy of the Craig family.

An avid baseball fan, Norm was fiercely competitive on the softball diamond at the annual spring departmental softball games. He was also an avid skipper, who could be found racing his 18-foot Interlake sailboat on Lake Erie in the summers. He often invited students and colleagues to join him sailing, which usually ended in an ice cream treat at the local Baskin-Robbins, with pistachio almond fudge his favorite choice.

Norm is survived by his wife, Ann, his sister, Elizabeth Tabbutt (OC ′55), his three children, Julie Lautens (Ralph Harding), Mary Craig (OC ′86) (Markus Vodosek), David Craig (OC ′87) (Jocelyn Sisson), five grandchildren: Margot Lautens (Kris), Nathan Lautens, Miriam Vodosek, and Claudia and Eliza Craig, as well as members of the extended Williams and Tabbutt families. He is preceded in death by his grandson, Simon Vodosek. The family are deeply grateful to the many staff at Kendal in Oberlin who supported Norm and Ann through their respective health challenges over the last few years. A proud Oberlinian, dedicated husband, caring father, “teacher’s teacher,” world-class scholar, conscientious mentor, citizen activist, trusted colleague, and mensch, Norm leaves behind a towering legacy that will serve to inspire future generations of Oberlinians. 

A memorial service is being planned, which will be announced soon. The Craig family welcomes your remembrances of Professor Craig. Please submit your memories to communications@oberlin.edu and we will share with the Craig family upon receipt.

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