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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Robert Lee Kernell, Longtime Physics Professor, Dies at 91

By Joe Garvey

Robert Lee Kernell, a physics professor in the College of Sciences for 26 years and the first Old Dominion University faculty member to be named Virginia Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), died on Jan. 22. He was 91.

Kernell came to the University in 1968 and retired in 1994 but stayed on as director of ODU's Young Scholar Program funded by the National Science Foundation until 1997. In addition to the state Professor of the Year honor, which he received in 1989, he won numerous other awards, including:

  • CASE National Professor of the Year, Bronze Medalist, 1989.
  • Alan Rufus Tonelson Distinguished Faculty Award for Teaching, the highest honor ODU bestows on a faculty member, 1989.
  • Honored Faculty Member, Outstanding Teaching Recognition Program, American Association of Higher Education, 1989.
  • Gene W. Hirschfeld Award for Faculty Excellence in Teaching at ODU, 1988.

Kernell also was nominated three times for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award (1989, 1992, 1994).

For 12 years Kernell collaborated on research funded by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to investigate space radiation effects; this involved use of accelerator facilities at Brookhaven and Los Alamos National Laboratories. He also served as acting chair of the physics department in 1970.

"Although his contributions have filled all categories of the professor's canonical regimen of Teaching, Research and Service, Professor Kernell has throughout been an excellent teacher," wrote then-department chair James L. Cox Jr. in recommending him for emeritus status in 1994. "The awards listed above attest to this, but the more important testimonial is provided by his students, one of whom captured the essence of his influence by saying "... he made physics, with all its complexity and difficulty in conceptualizing, an enjoyable subject matter."

Cox also credited Kernell with being an important departmental liaison with high school physics teachers in the region.

College of Sciences Dean Gail Dodge recalled how helpful and welcoming Kernell was when she joined the faculty.

"Lee was very kind to me when I was a new professor," said Dodge, who came to the University in 1995. "I took over his conceptual physics course, and he gave me a lot of pointers on teaching and managing the class. He taught me to do some interesting demonstrations, such as riding a crude cart - just a platform on wheels - propelled by a fire extinguisher."

Interestingly, Kernell's bachelor's degree from Wofford College was in English (with honors). After serving three years as an Army infantry lieutenant in the Korean War, he earned his master's in physics from the University of South Carolina. For five years, he was an assistant professor at the College of William & Mary (where he met his wife, Judy), then got his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Tennessee.

Kernell and Judy traveled extensively after he retired, visiting all seven continents and every state in the U.S.

Services may be announced at a later date. H.D. Oliver Funeral Apartments in Norfolk is handling arrangements. To plant memorial trees in his memory, visit the Sympathy Store.

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