Hamline Physics Professor Richard (Dick) Pontinen (1933-2022) made undergraduate student learning the focus of activities that might otherwise have been confined to graduate research projects.
Pontinen also exemplified the truism: scratch a scientist and find a musician. Beneath the surface of this physicist, in fact, students found an artist, a photographer, and a fun conversationalist. When he wasn’t teaching or conducting his own research in low-temperature physics and optics, Pontinen pursued a range of passions.
Pontinen grew up on Minnesota’s Iron Range among a passel of Finns – ten aunts and ten uncles plus grandparents who spoke Finnish. Like many other immigrant groups in the region, the family contributed workers to the iron mines. His father was one of them until a mine accident sent him on the road selling sewing machines and vacuum cleaners.
Pontinen, his two brothers, and his two children all graduated in physics from Hamline, a legacy that began when a Hamline admissions counselor visited his parents’ home and found him working in the attic, figuring the trajectory of a rocket ship. As a high school student, he had made plans to attend a college that had a renowned choral program. To the Hamline recruiter, however, Pontinen’s interest in solving a physics problem suggested that he might want to study science in addition to pursuing his love of singing. Richard decided on Hamline and, along with his brother Ken, went on to perform at the university’s 100th anniversary events as part of the 1954 Centennial Quartet. He completed his degree in physics in 1955. He met his wife, Arlene, at a nearby Lutheran church, and they married September 22, 1956. She was also a Hamline graduate by that time.
Pontinen earned his Ph.D. in low-temperature physics from the University of Minnesota in 1962. He spent four summers doing research at Hudson Labs of Columbia University in New York City. He began teaching physics at Hamline University during his time in graduate school and remained there until his retirement in 2000, a span of 41 years.
In an interview for an article on his career at Hamline, Pontinen said: “Teaching has been my chief joy,” where the excitement of working with students exceeded even the rewards of research. He eventually counted up the 3,726 Hamline students he taught, plus 813 in summer school during his career at Hamline. In those years, there were 340 physics majors in Hamline’s three-person department. Pontinen compared the number to a large land-grant university in a neighboring state that produced a similar total but with a much larger faculty. He was proud of the quality of students he worked with, beyond the sheer numbers. His success in preparing Hamline physics graduates for their careers was a source of great delight.
As chair of Hamline’s physics department, Pontinen instituted a pioneering computer course, revamped general physics courses, and acquired “fancy gadgets” – the specialized equipment that supplemented student preparation for careers in industry and research, as well as graduate studies. “The beauty of a small school,” Pontinen once said, “is that the physics students can actually use the high-tech equipment.” They also have access to the professors. In the classroom, he used a strong sense of humor to engage students. Some of his “preambles” at the beginning of his exams became legendary. With his engaging humor and ability to describe and inspire, students sought him out beyond the classroom with questions about their assignments and projects, but also to hear more of his stories and get his take on their own experiences. He taught his younger brother in the early days, and both of his children some time later.
“Choir singing has been my life,” he recalled upon retirement from teaching. As a Hamline student, he sang with Robert Holliday’s A Cappella Choir and later, as a faculty member, he sang in the Saint Paul Chamber Choir. Beginning in 1980, he sang under Dr. George Chu in the Oratorio Society of Minnesota.
In November 2002, Pontinen missed the first choir concert of his life; he and wife Arlene flew halfway around the world to view a total eclipse of the sun. Clearly, travel was also a big part of their family life, starting with yearly canoe trips in the Boundary Waters and camping trips out west. Active in physics, and also physically active, Pontinen enjoyed golf, and according to his records, he played over 250 different courses across multiple continents. They discovered cruising and went on 42 cruises with family and friends in Europe, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Alaska, Africa, South America, and Australia/New Zealand. They saw two total solar eclipses from cruise ships on the Black Sea and near Madagascar and enjoyed a safari in Kenya. They liked to spend time at their son Gary’s cabin near Alexandria, Minnesota, which he helped to build and finish. They also visited their daughter Kathy’s home in Sierra Vista, Arizona, for winter vacations. During their travels, he painted oil on canvas of mountain landscapes and enjoyed photographing wild birds.