James Burns Patrick, professor emeritus of chemistry and former holder of the Caroline Rose Hunt Distinguished Chair in the Natural Sciences, passed away February 26 at his home in Staunton. He was 93.
Patrick taught chemistry at Mary Baldwin from 1967 to 1992, helping shape the science department and establishing the philosophy of “learning by doing” that continues today through the close interaction of faculty and students.
“He was a truly gifted teacher who could make any topic interesting and engaging,” said Patrick’s daughter, Ret. Col. Melissa Patrick, former deputy commandant of the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership. “He loved teaching at Mary Baldwin and was very proud of bringing the lab research methodologies that he learned as a PhD candidate at Harvard University to undergraduate teaching. He was also a good listener who touched the lives of many Mary Baldwin students.”
Patrick’s three daughters — Pam Patrick ’71, Penny Patrick Biskey ’72, and Melissa Patrick ’78 — all graduated from Mary Baldwin, and he continued to contribute generously to the university. Former colleagues Elizabeth and Hampton Hairfield established an endowment in honor of Patrick upon his retirement, and a leadership award in his name was given for many years.
Although he was a scholarly and rigorous professor, Patrick didn’t forget to see the lighter side of situations, and is fondly remembered by former students for imparting humor while instilling essential problem-solving and critical-thinking skills in the most challenging science courses.
One of those former students, Claudia Brind Woody ’77, considers Patrick one of her “all-time favorite professors.”
“He was truly a Renaissance man,” said Woody, now a senior executive at IBM. “In honors colloquium, he was not only able to bring the scientific perspective to the topic, but could also debate the historical, literary, political, and philosophical perspectives as well.
“I also remember his impish sense of humor in chemistry class when one of our lab assignments ended up with us making peanut brittle. He challenged us and cared about teaching us how to think, to question, and to learn. I’m a better person because our paths crossed at an important time in my life.”
Former colleagues remember Patrick’s guidance, friendship, and penchant for discussing politics — Patrick joked that he was somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun, according to Professor Emeritus of Education Jim Harrington.
“Behind the somewhat gruff, conservative exterior lived a man who was motivated by a warm regard for others, who loved learning for its own sake, and who devoted his life to guiding others through the journey toward understanding and mastery,” Harrington said. “After his retirement, Jim and I made a practice of meeting regularly for lunch and to discuss the issues of the day.
“Often, we would be joined in these discussions by Rick Gunter, then editor of the Staunton News-Leader. The topics were far-reaching, the clash of perspectives was invigorating, and the memories of those times remain a durable pleasure. I am proud to have known — and counted as a friend — someone of Jim Patrick’s intelligence, substance, and generosity.”
“Jim loved to debate — often over lunch at Hunt Dining Hall — and he often questioned the progressive assumptions of his younger or more liberally minded colleagues,” said Professor of Philosophy Roderic Owen. “But his unwavering commitment to teaching the sciences to young women was matched by his dedication to gender equality — both within his own personal family life and through his advising and mentorship of so many Mary Baldwin students.
Daniel Metraux, professor emeritus of Asian studies remembers fondly those cheerful political debates, and even won Patrick over in 1997 when he ran for the Virginia House of Delegates as a member of the Green Party.
“I disagreed with many of his views, but we had great fun talking while mutually respecting each other,” Metraux said. “Dr. Patrick was a strong and demanding teacher who always expected the best from his students. He gave up a lucrative career in industry so that he could teach. He was very dedicated to his students and would spend many hours each week assisting them with their work. Jim was a kind and gentle man always deeply concerned with the welfare of others. Jim was always very kind to me and helped advance my career when I really needed a helping hand.”
A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, he served as a combat engineer in the US Army during World War II. A noted research chemist, he worked for the National Institutes of Health and Lederle Laboratories as an antibiotic research scientist prior to becoming head of the chemistry department at Mary Baldwin College. He authored 28 technical papers and held seven U.S. patents. In 1983, he was chair of the Virginia Section of the American Chemical Society (ACS) and was recipient of the ACS Distinguished Service Award.
He was founding president of the Historic Staunton Foundation, a past president of the Augusta County Historical Society, and a member of the Forum Club and Staunton Kiwanis Club. He was also founder of the Virginia Gun Owners and Sportsmen’s Alliance and a founding member of the Conservative Party of New York. He also was an elder emeritus at Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church, where he taught Sunday school for more than 40 years.
In addition to teaching and discussing politics, he had a wide range of interests including chess, languages (German, Latin, Greek, Russian, and Chinese), woodworking, playing the violin, hunting, military history, and biblical scholarship.
For 70 years, he was the devoted husband of Eleanor Patrick, who passed away in May 2015. Daughter Penny and sister Katherine Ann Patrick also preceded him in death.
In addition to his daughters Pamela and Melissa, he is also survived by a son, James; eight grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
Family visitation will be from 6 to 8 p.m. March 3 at Henry Funeral Home in Staunton. A funeral service is scheduled for 1 p.m. March 4 at Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church in Fishersville.
Memorial contributions may be made to Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church, Mary Baldwin University, or Hospice of the Shenandoah.