AUSTIN, Texas — Gerhard Fonken, former executive vice president and provost at The University of Texas at Austin, died this month at the age of 88. Fonken served the university for more than 35 years in various research, teaching and administrative roles, including professor in the Department of Chemistry and vice president of academic affairs and research.
Fonken arrived in Austin to work for the university as an instructor and research scientist in 1959. Twenty years later, then-UT Austin President Peter Flawn asked him to oversee the offices of academic affairs and research, which historically had separate leaders. Until his retirement in 1994, Fonken continued to serve in UT’s administration, appointed in 1985 to the provost position by the man who had been a finalist with him for the position of university president, William Cunningham.
University leaders who worked with Fonken uniformly remember him as an outstanding academic leader, noting his skills in decision-making and acumen at navigating the complexities of a top-tier research university.
“He was an outstanding administrator who knew the university workings in detail,” recalls William Fisher, the first dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences and the Leonidas T. Barrow Centennial Chair in Mineral Resources. “On any request or issue I brought to him, he always responded decisively. The answer was usually ‘yes,’ but if it had to be ‘no,’ he told you so immediately. He got things done.”
“He was absolutely first-class at the job,” said Flawn. “He was quick. I think I would not have had as good a time as president if he had not been my vice president.”
Born in Germany, Fonken immigrated to the U.S. through Ellis Island as a baby and became a naturalized citizen. He served in the U.S. Army in Europe shortly after World War II and in combat during the Korean War. Fonken received his undergraduate degree and doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley on the G.I. Bill, and he went on to work as a research chemist for Procter & Gamble and the Stanford Research Institute before making the move to Texas.
Fonken’s lasting legacy in the chemistry department includes numerous recognitions for his research and awards for teaching. Many former students who went into medicine and other professions recall Fonken as the masterful professor who taught effectively for one of their toughest subjects, organic chemistry.
“I was inspired by his use of humor to add levity to a difficult subject,” remembers Stephen Martin, a chemistry professor and the department’s M. June and J. Virgil Waggoner Regents Chair. “He was deeply passionate about teaching, and his students held him in high regard.”
Gerard Fonken is survived by his five children with the late Carolyn Fonken, 12 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.