By Rachel Gobep
Ray Beiersdorfer, also known as “Dr. Ray,” was a well-known and distinguished professor of geological and environmental sciences at Youngstown State University for 25 years. From his curly hair and Hawaiian T-shirts to his mismatched Converse and socks, he stood out and was original.
He suffered a major heart attack on Sept. 13 and died on Oct. 11, the day before his 62nd birthday.
“Even though he only lived 62 years, it was a life well-lived … He was just a bright, shining star,” Susie Beiersdorfer, his wife, said.
She said Ray Beiersdorfer was not just a geology professor, but “an advocate for justice and a clown.”
Colleen McLean and Felicia Armstrong, associate professors of geological and environmental sciences, described Ray Beiersdorfer as passionate, engaged, focused, tireless and family-driven, and emphasized that he left a legacy.
They agreed that he was like an older brother to them.
“He really did touch the people around him in different ways. It wasn’t a single act. Students remember him,” Armstrong said.
Ray Beiersdorfer grew up in a working-class environment in Queens, New York City, and lived in California, Australia and Canada before moving to Youngstown.
Susie Beiersdorfer said some of her greatest memories with her husband occurred when they lived in Australia together — riding bikes, going to film festivals and enjoying life.
Ray Beiersdorfer obtained his Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis, where he continued the work he was doing with pillow basalts. This is where his twin daughters, Crystal and Rochelle Beiersdorfer were born.
Susie Beiersdorfer said when he came to interview at YSU, he connected with the campus because he was a first-generation college student and YSU has an abundant first-generation student population.
“He felt like this was a place that he could inspire students for lifelong learning, and to love what you do and love what you learn,” Susie Beiersdorfer said.
McLean said that she was Ray Beiersdorfer’s student in the ’90s. She earned her Ph.D. in environmental geochemistry after being inspired by her first environmental geochemistry class with him.
“He was just a presence, even then … He was a force,” she said.
She said she thought highly of Ray Beiersdorfer, and when she became a professor at YSU, she wanted to impress him.
McLean said when she received tenure and promotion she wanted to create a field course in the Isle of Man, which was inspired by Ray Beiersdorfer’s field courses and the experiences he offered students.
A man of many travels, Ray Beiersdorfer took students and Youngstown community members to places ranging from China, Tibet, Taiwan and New Mexico to the Isle of Man.
Armstrong and McLean have been on multiple trips with Ray Beiersdorfer and both said they have unforgettable memories with him.
He also would take students on a hike in Mill Creek Park every semester.
In his introductory geology classes, Ray Beiersdorfer would teach upwards of 100 students, and would have them perform songs about rocks and write a children’s book about the agents of weathering.
Susie Beiersdorfer said some students felt like Ray Beiersdorfer gave them his quality time and care.
“He wasn’t just a professor that gave work and the grade, but really wanted [students] to be engaged … He said, ‘I want them to love geology,’” Susie Beiersdorfer said.
Armstrong said when she first met Ray Beiersdorfer she noticed that he would light up when he talked about his classes and different ways he would try to get students to learn. She said he made her feel like YSU was the place to be.
“He had fun with life, at the same time he’s learning and educating … He found joy in everything,” Armstrong continued.
She said one of the things she will remember the most about Ray Beiersdorfer is his laugh.
Ray Beiersdorfer organized and directed the Penguin Bowl, a high school regional competition for the National Ocean Sciences Bowl for 16 years, and organized Dr. Ray’s Energy and Environment Lecture Series for the past five years.
As an advocate for climate, social justice, community rights and the rights of nature, his passion is living through those in the Youngstown community, and Susie Beiersdorfer said the lecture series will continue.
McLean said Ray Beiersdorfer “endlessly” inspired her.
“He has been fighting for social and environmental justice for so long … He [never] quit,” she said.
He also shared his enthusiasm for science through “Dr. Ray’s Amazing Sideshow of Science,” which was a journey through the spheres: the hydrosphere, atmosphere, lithosphere and biosphere.
Susie Beiersdorfer said she is “astounded” at the number of lives her husband touched.
“His legacy just ripples like when you drop a stone in the water. He really gave his all,” she said.
A tree planting ceremony will also take place near Moser Hall on the YSU campus on Nov. 9 at 3 p.m.
There will be multiple celebrations of Ray Beiersdorfer’s life in the future, including a celebration at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Youngstown on Nov. 10 at 1 p.m.
Ray Beiersdorfer’s family has requested that memorial tributes are donated to the Youngstown State University Foundation for a memorial tree to be planted on campus. To donate, indicate by writing “Dr. Ray Tree Fund” in the memo portion of the check.