Departmental Tribute from Professor David Mowbray

How can you summarise the life of Tim Richardson in such a short allocated time? This is particularly difficult to achieve for someone like Tim who led life to the full and did so many things and meant so much too so many people. I can but try to pay tribute to his many achievements. What follows is a very personal tribute but I hope aspects of it will resonate with many of you.

Tim’s academic life at Sheffield can be briefly summarised as follows. He joined the Department as a lecturer in 1991 after a brief spell as a Research Engineer at Thorn EMI Central Research Laboratories and his DPhil at Oxford. This was followed by promotion to Senior Lecturer in 1997 and Reader in Nanoscience in 2007. There was good reason to expect that promotion to a chair would have followed in due course. At the time of his enforced retirement last summer he was one of the longest serving members of the Department, having worked here for 21 years.

But this timeline only tells part of the story of Tim’s academic life – what was he really like? I’m sure that no one would dispute that Tim was a character, a larger than life figure, someone who would never be lost in the shadows. He was always active, throwing himself into new ventures but caring deeply for all around him.

Tim’s research was based on the production, study and application of Langmuir films, layers as thin as one molecule with many unusual but controllable properties. His lab was one of the leading Langmuir labs in the world, and he helped a number of his PhD students to go on and set up Langmuir labs elsewhere. His work had a very applied nature with applications in toxic gas sensing, solar cells and nano-electronics. He collaborated with a very wide range of people, both within the Department, departments across the university and many external organisations. He was a visiting professor at three Malaysian universities and the University of Sao Paolo, Brazil. Over the course of his research career Tim published 152 papers in scientific journals and supervised 28 PhD students. He was an excellent supervisor, providing full and caring support to all his students. The efforts he took in educating and developing the skills of his students is shown by the affection they showed Tim, and many of his students are able to be with us today.

Tim was an inspirational teacher with fantastic ability to explain difficult concepts simply and clearly. In this he was helped by the knack of being able to relate physics concepts to everyday life, and a delight in developing and using lecture demonstrations in an era where these are not widely used. It was always a treat to visit Tim’s ‘Aladdin’s cave’ of an office where he kept his range of demonstrations, in addition to his latest works of art and his collection of physics antiques.  Tim’s lectures were always extremely well received by students and he was always one of the top scoring lecturers in the student feedback. Typical examples of students’ comments on his lectures include:

  • ‘Dr Richardson is a fantastic lecturer and a credit to the university, seems his office door is always open and he is always willing to help, taking time to ensure you are happy with the work.’
  • ‘Fantastic lecture structure and a very welcoming lecturer, I do genuinely believe that Tim is one of the best lecturers at the university and should not change a thing, perfect lectures that help me understand the content.’
  • ‘Tim makes the lectures fun as well as engaging and interesting.’
  • ’Tim is a legend.  His continuous use of props and jokes (which may be groan-able on occasion, but always memorable) make lectures enjoyable and something not to miss.  His incredible mental arithmetic clearly shows that this is a man who knows his stuff.  When combined with his ‘daredevil’ stunts, anyone can see that Tim really is a jack of all trades.  If anyone told me that physics was boring, I would say that they have clearly never been taught by Tim.’

And finally

  • ‘Brilliant yet again.  Always enthusiastic, has a clear passion of knowledge of the subject, which meant the lectures are always good and often entertaining.  Best lecturer by far, makes physics easier to understand and explains everything very well.  Uses the cupboard door excellently and it will be missed …  Drawing skills are second to none?? Jokes are often terrible but welcomed!’

I have also seen comments on other lecturers along the lines of ‘The best lecturer since Dr Richardson in year 1’ so Tim was the standard against which many of us were judged.

So, perhaps apart from the quality of the jokes, a perfect lecturer.

For many years Tim was the Head of Year 1 Physics. In this role he was the main point of contact for all new students arriving to start their university career. He supported and helped many students make the sometimes difficult transition to university life, enabling them to complete their degree and move on to a successful career. His office door was always open for students to talk to him about any issues or problems they faced, and they always found him a sympathetic ear, calm and able to offer constructive advice. The following is an unsolicited quote, one of a number I received from former students when news of Tim’s illness was made public: ‘Tim had a huge impact on my life, getting me through my degree then leading me into a career that I now love.’

I’m sure that there are many, many more both former and existing students who share these sentiments.

Tim was always happy to help students with problems. A typical example was a student who failed a module due to lack of effort but could not easily resit in August, having previously arranged to be out of the country. Tim arranged for course work to be reactivated and met with the student on a number of occasions to advise them. This involved Tim in significant extra work but allowed the student to complete their summer activities and progress to the following year on schedule. Tim also acted as a year 1 physics tutor for many years, often taking in his tutor groups students with known difficulties so that he could keep an eye on them and provide additional support.

Tim contributed extensively to all the Department’s activities. As a Head of Department I always know that he would perform any job or duty enthusiastically and to a very high standard, if anything I sometimes had to hold him back from volunteering for more. It was only when Tim retired and I had to find replacements for all his duties that I realised just how much he did. It took considerably more than one person to replace him.

As a mark of Tim’s many contributions to teaching, and many other aspects of the University, he received a Senate award for sustained excellence in learning and teaching from the university in January 2013. It was a very fitting tribute.

We will all have our favourite ‘Tim’ story. Mine concerns his taking up of running in his 30s. As always Tim threw himself into his new hobby but probably took on too much too soon. He entered a half-marathon which was run on one of the hottest days of the year. At around the halfway point he collapsed due to heat exhaustion and when found by the St Johns ambulance couldn’t remember either his name or that of his wife Sue. Fortunately he made a quick and full recovery but this characteristic of giving all he could to an activity, and his strong interest in charity events, was something we saw again with his 24 hour lecture marathon in 2011.

I would have to admit that when Tim first told me of his plans to give 24 hours of lectures my first reaction was that he was mad to even contemplate it. When I thought more about it, and possibly how most of us would approach it, I thought in terms of an LP record, for those of us old enough to remember these, the Beatles White Album springs to mind. There would be some real gems, some lower quality but still good stuff and some padding. But of course this is not what Tim had in mind and all 24 lectures were top class, all of a quality that most of us can only dream of giving. The breadth of topics and wide range of the audiences was outstanding. He gave research level talks on, for example, ‘Porphyrins’, general science talks ‘Harry Potter – Science or Fiction’ and even a talk for primary school children ‘What a state we’re in!’ There can’t be many people who can lecture at such a consistent high standard for 24 hours on such a diverse range of topics. My daughter, 8 years old at the time, attended one of Tim’s lectures on the first evening, where he made ice-cream with liquid nitrogen. She enjoyed it so much that she insisted on coming back for the final lecture the following day.   A couple of months ago she told me that she will always remember Tim and his ice-cream, adding to the long list of things he will be remembered for. By the end of the lecturethon Tim was clearly exhausted, both physically and mentally, demonstrating just what effort he had put into the event. The raising of over £8000 for charity was a fitting reward for all his efforts.

Tim will be remembered by many people for many different things. However for me, and I suspect many of us, the strongest memory will be his gentle and caring nature, always putting other people first and doing all he could to help them. I’m not sure whose loss is the greatest, those of us who knew Tim, some of us for many years, or those students who will never have the benefit of his outstanding lectures, his care and compassion. It was a privilege and honour to have worked with Tim for many years, to have known him as a colleague and a friend. He is deeply missed by all who knew him but will never be forgotten.

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