It’s not surprising when a generation carries on the family business. Perhaps it’s because daughters and sons grow up witnessing their parents’ experiences and naturally pick up on the ins-and-outs of the trade. So it was with Bryan Hobson Wildenthal. His father Bryan Wildenthal was president of Sul Ross State University in the West Texas town of Alpine from 1952 until his death on June 1, 1965. It was during that time that Hobson attended and graduated from Sul Ross with a bachelor’s degree in English and math and left Alpine for the University of Kansas, where he earned his Ph.D in physics in 1964 and “completed a fellowship at Rice University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory before serving on the faculties of Texas A&M University and Michigan State University. Renowned for his work in theoretical nuclear physics, he was named head of the physics and atmospheric science department at Drexel University in Philadelphia in 1983.”
It was obvious that Hobson had inherited the education gene from his dad, as did his kid brother Dr. Kern Wildenthal, who, among other noted things, would serve as president of UT Southwestern Medical Center.
But unlike Kern, who would rise to the heights in medicine and education, Hobson’s talents lay in the fields of physics and the arts and sciences.
It was obvious that he had indeed found his niche when he was named dean of the University of New Mexico’s college of arts and sciences in 1987. He published more than “200 influential research papers, especially focused on what became known as the ‘Wildenthal shell-model Hamiltonian.’ His theoretical work accurately predicted physical phenomena later verified in experimental studies.”
Despite the frontier-breaking shell-model, Hobson couldn’t help but have a good laugh by confounding passersby years later with a personalized license plate that read “D5 S1 D3” which “referred to the ‘D5/2-s1/2-d3/2 shell’ nuclei, those in the periodic table between Oxygen and Calcium. His research in experimental and theoretical nuclear physics involving those nuclei is still used by those working in the field.” Little did the other drivers know, they had just had a physics lesson.
In 1992 Hobson joined the University of Texas at Dallas as its chief academic officer. That was just the start of his spending nearly three decades at the university wearing many titles (Provost, Executive VP, interim President) “affecting all aspects of the institution, from the sciences to the arts to business affairs to campus architecture and landscaping to the recruitment and retention of high-achieving scholars who define the university.”
It was just two years ago that he returned to his role as teacher, serving as professor of physics and distinguished scholar in residence.
It was during his tenure at UTD that he championed the school’s innovative programs, including the adoption of a core curriculum addressing key components of undergraduate education and providing full UTD scholarships for National Merit Scholar semifinalists. That latter program inspired the late Margaret McDermott to “make a historic $32M gift to UTD to establish the prestigious Eugene McDermott Scholars Program,” resulting in nearly 200 National Merit Scholar semifinalists signing up to attend UTD annually.
But that was just one of Hobson’s programs that garnered support for UTD. There was the $50M landscape enhancement program for the campus, the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History funded by a $17M gift from the O’Donnell Foundation, and the art gifted by the Margaret and Trammell Crow and Nona and Richard Barrett families.
Four years ago the Eugene McDermott Foundation honored Hobson by endowing $10M in his name to “support undergraduate research within UTD’s Honor College, which had been established under Hobson’s leadership in 2014.” As a result the UT System Board of Regents renamed the college the Hobson Wildenthal Honors College.
The local, national and internationals awards and accolades presented to Hobson over the years were countless — Fellow of the American Physical Society, Dallas Historical Society’s Award for Excellence in Education in 2018, Senior U.S. Fellowship from Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, a Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and a visiting distinguished scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of Munich, the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics, the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research, the University of Paris in Orsay, Oxford University, Manchester University, and the University of São Paulo, Brazil.
But despite all the leadership roles and accomplishments, Hobson was a soft-spoken man of a few carefully chosen words, with a gentle countenance. While the limelight was fine on occasion, he looked happiest with his wife Adele Wildenthal at his side through all his travels. And if perchance he spied one of his children, grandchildren or great grandchildren, there was a light that especially glowed in his eyes. To them he wasn’t a brilliant physicist or innovative educator. He was simply “Opa.”
An example of that took place two years ago, when the UTD’s Ackerman Center for Holocaust Studies honored him with the inaugural Edward M. Ackerman Leadership Award. It was Hobson who had created and advanced the groundbreaking center and its Holocaust Studies program. Surrounded by outstanding UTD and community leaders like UT System Chancellor James Milliken, UTD President Dr. Richard Benson, UTD Director Ackerman Center for Holocaust Studies Dr. Nils Roemer, Dallas City Council person Carla Mendelsohn, Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum President/CEO Mary Pat Higgins, Hill Feinberg, Phyllis and Ron Steinhart, Patty and James Huffines, Rabbis Nancy Kasten and David Stern and Dr. Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, Hobson seemed to have a special smile when he was asked to be photographed with his family.
During the seated dinner, speakers at the dais spoke at length about Hobson, the center and the program.
But when it was his time to take the podium, his comments were brief, admitting that he was humbled and a little embarrassed by the award. He told the crowd of 300 he was lucky enough to have been a follower of Zsuzsanna — “The education I receive from Zsuzsanna and the great intellectuals who visited UT Dallas for the Burton C. Einspruch Lecture Series have been of immense personal value to me. I feel I should have been paying tuition all these years instead of being honored.”
Looking to the future, Hobson said, “We will never completely understand how this (the Holocaust) happened, but it is essential, crucial today to continue. This is why the Ackerman Center and its programs are fundamentally necessary for a complete education and why such education is so crucial to society today and tomorrow. I am very proud that UT Dallas features the educational programs provided by the Ackerman Center. Moving forward it remains vitally important that these programs continue and are still further enhanced. The support of our enlightened and dedicated community is a key to that continued support and expansion, and there is still much to be done.”
This past Saturday Hobson’s journey from a youngster growing up in a little West Texas town to an internationally renowned physicist and educator came to an end following a brief and sudden illness. While his death is a painful loss to his family and colleagues, his life’s work is a never-ending legacy for future generations.
As UTD President Dr. Richard Benson told the UTD family, “Few scholars have done as much to advance any university, as did UT Dallas’ distinguished scholar in residence, Hobson Wildenthal. His mark of excellence is seen in every corner of this 51-year-old university and will be felt for as long as there is a UT Dallas.
“The excellence of our faculty, staff and students, the beauty of our campus, the joy taken in the visual and performing arts, all follow from this inspiring leader. How fortunate we have been to have had Hobson Wildenthal as our colleague and friend. I will miss him terribly.”
The family has suggested that memorial contributions may be made to the Ackerman Center for Holocaust Studies, to the Hobson Wildenthal Honors College at UTD (https://giving.utdallas.edu/), or to a charity of your choice.