The Right Chemistry: CU Denver Legend Bob Damrauer Retires After 54 Years of Service

The Right Chemistry: CU Denver Legend Bob Damrauer Retires After 54 Years of Service

January 25, 2022

In the Office of Research Services, the hallway leading to Robert “Bob” Damrauer’s former office is lined with three framed images. There’s one of the sinking Titanic, Don Quixote, and finally, a peanut pushing an oversized orange uphill: the Sisyphean momentum of a researcher. Damrauer knew well the struggle to find grants, write proposals, build labs, teach classes, support colleagues, and untangle bureaucratic red tape. He spent his 54-year career at CU Denver mentoring and supporting others through the process and tried, whenever he could, to make it less painful.  

Damrauer first joined CU Denver in 1968, making the chemistry department a three-faculty group located in the Tramway Building. He rose in the ranks as a professor, chair, dean, special assistant to the provost and associate vice chancellor of research. 

He officially retired in December 2021. 

“You can’t talk about the history of CU Denver without acknowledging the profound impact Bob has had on this campus since the beginning,” said Chancellor Michelle Marks. “From teaching students, mentoring faculty members, conducting research, and taking on administrative roles, Bob is a CU Denver legend.” 

The consensus of what Damrauer gave to the university, more than anything, was himself.   

Tom Altman, a computer science and engineering professor and colleague for the past three decades, said the university is saying goodbye to one of the last “Founding Members” of this campus. 

“If not for Bob, I daresay that CU Denver would not be the campus it is today and, perhaps, it would not even be a university,” Altman wrote in an email. “For close to 55 years, Bob has dedicated his career to making us what we are today: an R1 public urban research university. Most of the CU Denver faculty (past and present) were touched by Bob’s help, advice, financial support, and encouragement.” 

A Chemist from the Start 

Damrauer grew up in Toledo, Ohio, where his uncle recruited him as a teenager to build his new factory, Ottawa Chemical, and mix chemicals for the business. While chemistry at that point was “just following the recipe,” Damrauer’s education had more to do with the coalition of people that surrounded him, from chemists to hired hands.  

“I got to meet, work, and deal with people in a way a 17-year-old doesn’t often get to do,” said Damrauer. In that way, he learned to be a people person.  

He attended the University of Michigan where a chemistry professor who shared his love for literature took him under his wing. While there, Damrauer also discovered the love of his life, Lennie, in one of U of M’s chemistry labs. They married in 1964. 

The pair headed east after graduation: Lennie to Boston University (after a year at Ohio State) and Bob to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study under professor Dietmar Seyferth, an inorganic chemist and bedrock of the organometallic community. Seyferth gave free reign to his research students, but that came with a caveat. 

“He would come around once a day and ask everybody, ‘What’s new?’” said Damrauer. “Many people were quite frightened of him, especially when you didn’t have anything new since yesterday. My response was ‘nothing.’ I didn’t know it yet, but it was a brilliant move. He stopped coming to me and told me years later, ‘I gave up on you right away.’ But when I had something new, I went to see him. We had a wonderful relationship. The biggest lesson I learned from Dietmar was that you have to let people do what they’re inclined to do and let them find their own way to do it.” 

After receiving his PhD from MIT in 1967, he worked under the renowned chemist Paul D. Bartlett at Harvard University. Damrauer was one of only four or five students who had earned a highly competitive National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship, and they’d all chosen to study with Bartlett. But he doesn’t remember his time at Harvard fondly. As the Vietnam War gained momentum and protests choked the streets, Damrauer and others working with him—particularly the undergrads—were rattled over what was going on in the world. 

“Bartlett was one of these ivory tower people and I’m not sure he even knew a war was going on,” said Damrauer.  

Damrauer and one of his colleagues took it upon themselves to try to mentor and look out for the younger researchers while they did their own work.  

“That was satisfying, but it didn’t make for being a great place to work or a great experience for me.” When an offer came in from University of Colorado Boulder to help build a chemistry department at a new college in downtown Denver, Damrauer and Lennie moved west. 

Creating CU Denver 

“In higher education, there are very few people like Bob,” said Doris Kimbrough, professor of chemistry. “He mentors students and faculty; he can work across departments, colleges, administrative disciplines, and even universities and national agencies; and he has an institutional and historical knowledge useful for shaping policy.” 

When he began at CU Denver, Damrauer worked in tandem with CU Boulder and Denis Williams to build labs and grow the faculty. Lennie worked as an adjunct for the department, and she helped facilitate a culture at the young university that was welcoming and supportive of female faculty members. The pair also grew their own family during their first two years in Denver with sons Niels (named after Danish physicist Niels Bohr) and Craig King (named after Martin Luther King, Jr.).  

By the 1970s, the chemistry department had established a master’s program and was on its way. Damrauer was an integral part of that, starting as an assistant professor in 1968, becoming a professor in 1977 and serving as department chair from 1974–79 and 2001–03. He was the acting dean of the Graduate School in 1989, and a program officer for the NSF in 1987. He was also a prolific researcher, authoring more than 60 papers—virtually all for the American Chemical Society journals. He collaborated with CU Boulder’s Chuck DePuy for more than decade and penned the 121-page Lamm-Wirth Task Force Report on the Rocky Flats Nuclear Installation. 

He was honored throughout his career with several awards including the CLAS Outstanding Faculty Achievement Award in 2010, Fellow in The Royal Society of Chemistry, CLAS Award for Service in 2005, and the University of Colorado System Award for Excellence in Scholarship, Teaching, and Citizenship in 1999. 

Helping Others Reach Their Potential 

“Bob concentrated his efforts on building CU Denver ‘from scratch’ when very few believed that this dream could be accomplished,” said Altman, a colleague since 1990. “Once established, he worked tirelessly to make sure that this university would grow and prosper.” 

True to form, a big part of that was in supporting the people around him. From the beginning, Damrauer started a protocol of internal and external mentors for junior chemistry faculty. He used funds to start Young Upwardly Mobile Professor Grants (YUMPs) to support tenure-track assistant professors. As an administrator, he established the ORS large and small grants and funded the interdisciplinary Creative Research Collaboration (CRC) run by Michael Jenson, assistant vice chancellor for Research and Creative Activities.  

“Long before I worked for him, I knew Bob as a champion of early career faculty,” said Lynette Michael, former director of the Office of Research Development and Education within ORS. “My first interaction with him 23 years ago was asking if I could have the YUMPS e-mail list. I think he said yes after I passed the Bob test (Why do you want it? What are you going to do with it? Who are you?).”  

Sharing his love of learning and science was equally important. In the early ’70s, he and Clyde Zaidins from the physics department began “Topics in Science,” a series of five-week courses of single topics that ran for a decade. The sole goal was to foster love of the science for people who were not going to be scientists. In the same vein, he began the Nobel at Noon series to have various faculty explain in layman’s terms the reasoning and science behind each Nobel Prize award. 

Since 1979, Bob and Lennie Damrauer have been dedicated CU Denver donors. They established the Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture Series, contribute to the Robert Damrauer Scholarship Fund and and also recently endowed a distinguished lectureship in chemistry in honor of their parents.  

What many people remember is the one-on-one time with Damrauer. He made time, even if it was to go over a poorly reviewed journal submission or take you out to lunch. He stopped by offices just to check on ongoing research and ask his colleagues about their families. For several people, he instilled a confidence in them.  

“Bob has impossibly high expectations and allows you the space to meet them,” said Stefan Reiss, senior research development analyst in ORS. “He invests in your development and celebrates your success. And if you earned your stripes, his belief in you transcends even your own self-doubt.” 

Countless current and former colleagues and students credit his help at the start of their careers for their eventual success. He fostered a collegiality that lives on in the people and departments who knew him best. 

“It’s rare because we all have our egos and fires to put out,” said Kimbrough. “Bob has this reputation for being curmudgeonly, but he is extraordinarily kind. He’s always on your side even when you’re arguing about something. Even when he was disagreeing with me, he was pulling for me.”