Messenger - Vol. 3, No. 1, Page 20
Fall 1993
Burmeister named second alumni professor

     John L. Burmeister, associate chairperson and professor of chemistry
and biochemistry, has been chosen the University's second Alumni
Distinguished Professor.
     This named professorship recognizes excellence in teaching and
extraordinary commitment to students-qualities evident in conversation with
this man who has been on the Delaware faculty for 30 years.
     What's not evident are the personal honors and accolades that he has
accumulated over time. His complete curriculum vitae is a full 54 pages,
listing awards, grants, publications and assorted other honors.
     In conversation, Burmeister tells stories, wonderful little vignettes
about his life.
     His traditional discovery of the world of chemistry came after his
parents saved up to buy him a Gilbert Chemistry Lab when he was young.
     "My friend and I did absolutely crazy things as a result of that. We
took over a corncrib on his father's property and did things that today
would make OSHA go insane. Our neighborhood druggist gave us his unwanted
chemicals, and we liberally borrowed from our high school stockroom. Our
major goal during my senior year in high school was to build better and
better explosives! We killed several frogs that way.
     "It was the fun of chemistry that first attracted me to it. I loved
playing around with it and discovering its inherent logic, its fundamental
basis of reason."
     Burmeister received straight A's for 12 years of public school and is
one of only two Ph.D.s to come out of Butler Township (Pa.) High School. He
received a fully funded scholarship to Franklin and Marshall College in
Lancaster that came complete with summer jobs at Union Carbide Plastics Co.
in New Jersey.  He earned his bachelor's degree in chemistry from F&M in
l959 and his doctorate in inorganic chemistry at Northwestern University in
     Burmeister toyed with the idea of going into the ministry, but two
five-minute sermonettes he delivered before his hometown congregation as a
teen were so agonizing for him that he ruled out that possibility. The only
classes he dreaded in college were swimming and public speaking. Not
surprisingly, the idea of teaching never occurred to him. Throughout his
undergraduate days, he fully expected to pursue a career in industry.
     It was still research that interested him in graduate school when,
homesick and pining for his girlfriend, Aileen (to whom he has now been
married for 33 years), he saw his three teaching labs as the bright spots
in his week.
     "Those were the wonderful days of the '60s. Research money was easy to
come by and, by graduation, I had nine trips for job interviews with
various companies scheduled.
     "The night before my first trip I couldn't sleep. Suddenly, it hit me.
I didn't want to spend eight hours a day, five days a week in a lab. I
wanted to teach, but I knew that wasn't all I wanted to do. Suddenly, I
knew that the life of my mentor Fred Basolo, professor of chemistry at
Northwestern, was the precise image of what I wanted to do: He taught
freshman chemistry every year (and continued to do so until he retired at
age 70); he traveled and I love to travel; he had enough time to do
research; and financially, he was not a suffering servant.
     "My parents were dumbfounded, and this change in plans did mean a 50
percent pay cut from what I had anticipated in industry to $7,000 as an
instructor in inorganic chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana.
The much-maligned, old-boy network saved me. Basolo's mentor, John C.
Bailar Jr., needed someone at Urbana. He took me on Basolo's say without so
much as an interview.
     "I walked into my first lecture to face some 400-plus students. I had
a microphone strapped around my neck and, for an instant, I felt the same
panic I had back as a teenager at the pulpit. Then I looked in their eyes
and remembered how I had felt as a freshman." His teaching career began.
     Although some would attribute Burmeister's career to hard work, he
says simply that he has "always been in the right place at the right time.
     There is a lot of happy coincidence here," he says, reflecting on his
     For instance, by chance, he met William A. Mosher, then chairperson of
the University of Delaware's chemistry department, at a cocktail party at
an American Chemical Society meeting in Los Angeles, during his last year
in graduate school. He asked about an opening. Mosher told him to call him
the next year.
     With teaching interviews scheduled at West Virginia and Penn,
Burmeister squeezed in a trip to Delaware and "as is the case with so many
of our students, walked onto the Mall and was totally captivated by its
grace, beauty and timelessness." In 1964, he became the l3th member of the
chemistry department and the first inorganic chemist hired by the
     "It was a great time to be starting up," Burmeister recalls. "Sputnik
had just gone up and America was in a panic. Support for the sciences was
enormous. It was a different time. My first 13 proposals were funded. I had
12 graduate students by the time I had been here four years. In 1968, I
received my first excellence-in-teaching award and, l0 years later,
received a second one. In 1981, I received a national
excellence-in-teaching award from the Chemical Manufacturers Association. I
was a full professor in nine years, and I never really had to worry about
     "Teaching is the much more human side of academia. You affect not just
the first generation, but ones that come later," Burmeister says.
     His decision to give up chemical research also was motivated by
changing funding patterns.  Although known as the father of ambidentate
ligand chemistry, when research in that area was difficult to fund,
Burmeister needed to shift the focus of his career. In 1974, he was
appointed the department's first and only associate chair. Because he had
always been interested in applying new teaching methods to his classroom, a
shift to pedagogical research seemed natural.
     Some of the innovative techniques he has used successfully in the past
have been self-paced education options and videotapes of lectures that
students can use for review.
     Since l970, he has given all freshman examinations at night to avoid
the pressure of the timed "hour" examination. Since l973, his general
chemistry students have been provided with a complete set of detailed class
notes at the beginning of the term because he has always believed it is
more important for a student to comprehend what is being discussed than to
frantically take notes without understanding what they are writing.
     "It also makes me feel freer," he says. "I don't have a lot of
pressure if I have forgotten to mention something. It will be mentioned in
the notes."
     Additionally, he has always provided classes with a file of past
examinations, with completely worked-out answers.
     "It forces me to be creative by coming up with new exams each year,"
he says.
     Ten years ago, Burmeister says he re-experienced some of those old
feelings of apprehension when he began to teach non-majors for the first
time. Initially, he planned to teach Chemistry l05, designed for nursing
majors, for a few short years. Ten years later, he is still teaching it and
enjoying every minute.
     Projects for the future include investigation into cooperative
learning work groups and actively publishing the results of his self-paced
teaching methods.
     Meantime, he continues in his role as associate chair with no plans to
climb the administrative ladder.
     "I have no illusions about being chair or dean. I've found the higher
you go, the more you shift your focus from people to budgets. Essentially,
I don't like fighting for funding. I don't like dispersing funds, although
I admire those who do it well."
     In his spare time, Burmeister is a biker- commuting to his office on a
bicycle-and a hiker. His daughter, Lisa, has taught chemistry at St. Marks
High School in Wilmington, Del., and his son, Jeff, a Ph.D. candidate in
biomedical engineering at Duke, is also considering a career in academia.
     Active on numerous University committees, Burmeister particularly
enjoys chairing the Athletic Governing Board, which makes him the
University's voting member of the NCAA. He also serves on the trustee
committee on athletics.
     Of the alumni professorship, Burmeister says: "The award means a great
deal to me first and foremost because it honors exactly what I have sought
to achieve. It responds to something I have always tried to do. They say it
takes two people to start a fraternity or sorority and Jim Soles (last
year's Alumni Distinguished Professor) and I now form the world's smallest
fraternity. It is a real honor to be in the same club with him.
     "When the chips are down, Jim and I are both lecturers first and
foremost, and I have to admit I really love being given a platform. I think
there are teachers who are more charismatic than I am and ones who have
more gimmicks, but there is no one who is ever more honored to be in front
of students than I."
                                                  -Beth Thomas