Eric Conn

Date of Birth

January 6th, 1923

Date of Death

September 2nd, 2017

Memorial Meeting

Davis Friends Meeting

Minute

Eric loved his family, his university community, and his religious community, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Kindness and intellect were the twin hallmarks of his long life. He passed away at home at the age of 94 with both of his sons at his side.

Born in Berthoud, Colo., the youngest of four sons to William Elmer Conn and Mary Anna (Smith) Conn, Eric and his family moved in the early 1930s to Bellaire, Kan., where his father owned a grain elevator. There he learned to play piano and developed a lifelong love of trains that ran past his home. However, he also saw firsthand the destruction by the Dustbowl of the land and of the ability of families to provide a good life for their children.

The family moved again to Fort Morgan, Colo., an oasis where farmers irrigated crops with water pumped from the South Platte River. His father ran a filling station while his mother took in boarders in their home, but Eric’s music helped him to thrive as he played piano at school and learned to play a pipe organ at the local Methodist church.

After graduating from high school as valedictorian, Eric received a four-year tuition scholarship to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he lived and worked in the men’s dorm, rising early to serve breakfast as a “hasher” to other men in the dorm.

At Boulder, Eric impressed his chemistry professor, Dr. Reuben Gustavson, with his ability to balance complex chemical equations. Dr. Gus encouraged Eric to major in chemistry and helped him get a military deferment at the beginning of the Second World War to let Eric finish college, and when Eric graduated in 1944, Dr. Gus arranged for him to work on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee., first as a civilian and then, after being drafted, doing the same work in the army as a private.

After the war, Dr. Gus, who had then become Vice President and Dean of Faculties at the University of Chicago, encouraged Eric to use the GI Bill to pursue a Ph.D. in the biochemistry department at the University of Chicago, which Eric did. He spent four years doing research in Dr. Birgit Vennesland’s plant biochemistry lab, where he experienced firsthand the respectful, supportive mentoring that later would help define his interactions with students during his 40-plus-year career with the University of California. After completing his Ph.D., Eric continued in Dr. Vennesland’s lab and taught an introductory biochemistry class at the university, which gave him valuable experience for the teaching that he would later do at UC.

Also, while in Chicago, Eric rented a room with the Kachel family where he met the landlady’s charming daughter Louise. Louise was primarily working in Paris with the American Friends Service Committee, engaged in humanitarian efforts after World War II, but on occasion she came home to visit her family. Neither of them knew yet that their lives would later join forever. In 1953, Eric accepted a position in the Department of Soils and Plant Nutrition at UC Berkeley. By 1954 he was working in the small but exciting department of agricultural biochemistry as a colleague of H.A. Barker, W.Z. Hassid and Paul Stumpf. In 1958, at the request of Emil Mrak, Eric joined Paul in moving to Davis to establish a general biochemistry department at the newly expanding UC Davis.

Louise Kachel reentered Eric’s life and on October 17, 1959, they married. They had two sons, Michael in 1961 and Kevin in 1962. During this busy and productive stage of their lives, Eric focused on teaching and research. Eric mentored many students from undergraduates to post-docs, treating all of them with care and genuine interest in their success. They loved working in his lab where they could count on the guidance and respect they deserved. Colleagues and students were welcomed with their families into their home for meals, celebration and friendship. Eric and his family kept in touch with many of them up until he died.

Eric had sabbatical leaves in England, New Zealand and Australia. Eric’s research brought him a special interest in acacias, which led to his involvement with the UC Davis arboretum. The Louise and Eric E. Conn Acacia Grove in the arboretum and the newly named species, Acacia conniana, were results of this interest. From 1957 on, Eric received a USPHS research grant that was renewed for a total of 29 years and an NSF grant for 16 years. In 1998 he was very pleased to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Teaching was a strong emphasis in Eric’s work. He and Paul Stumpf developed and taught an introductory biochemistry class to literally thousands of undergraduate students during their many years in Davis, and their book, “Outlines of Biochemistry,” first published in 1963, went through five editions and was translated into seven languages. Eric received the Distinguished Teaching Award of the Academic Senate of UC Davis in 1973, was named the Faculty Research Lecturer by the Academic Senate of UC Davis in 1977 and in 1990 he received the UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Research.

Through his wife Louise’s influence, Eric came to a deep appreciation for the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). He always supported his family’s involvement and they hosted numerous events for the Davis Friends Meeting. Eric often played the piano for the hymns when he was able. He volunteered as treasurer for several years for the Friends Committee on Legislation of California and contributed to it and the Friends Committee on National Legislation and the American Friends Service Committee, whose views on the dignity of all people and the peaceful resolution of conflict among people and nations resonated with him.

Eric lived a long and full life, never losing interest in making the world a better place. His wife Louise passed away in 2002. He leaves behind his two sons, Michael and Kevin; nephews and nieces including Chuck (Karen) Conn, Paula Conn, Sandra (Bob) Larrabee and Kris Wollrich; grand-nephews Price (Del), Daniel (Katie), and Ben; and grand-grand-nephews and niece: Tristen, Leah, Jacob and newborn Noah Eric. Noah Eric was born only a month before Eric passed away, but Eric was pleased to know that he was named after his great-uncle Eric.

Eric treated everyone with kindness. Those of us who have been lucky enough to know Eric will always miss him deeply. We will never forget the gentle goodness of this man of such high achievement.