Emil Hofman, professor emeritus of chemistry and former dean, dies at 94

Emil Hofman
Emil Hofman

Emil T. Hofman, professor emeritus of chemistry and former dean of the First Year of Studies at the University of Notre Dame, died Saturday morning (July 11). He was 94 years old.

“Emil Hofman, a legendary professor who influenced the lives of generations of students at Notre Dame, was a demanding but caring professor, a dedicated administrator and a man of faith. In many ways, he embodied the spirit of Notre Dame," said Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s president. “My prayers are with his family as we both mourn his passing and celebrate his life and legacy.”

Hofman taught chemistry to more than half of each freshman class from 1950 to 1990, counting more than 32,000 graduates as former students. He embodied the Notre Dame spirit of tough love, demanding excellence in the classroom and working just as hard outside of it to make his students love the University as he did. Yet he considered his biggest contribution to be two efforts he led as the first dean of what was then called the Freshman Year of Studies in the 1970s: integrating women into an all-male campus and instituting a broad first-year curriculum to give students a chance to explore before picking a major.

Hofman was born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1921. His mother died and his father lost his baking business during the Great Depression. He studied chemistry at Seton Hall University mainly because the two men who ordered his father’s most expensive pies were both chemists. During World War II, he entered the Army Air Force and flew combat missions over Europe, earning the air medal and presidential unit citation. He used the GI bill to study at Catholic University and the University of Miami.

Hofman arrived at Notre Dame in 1950 and never left, earning master’s and doctoral degrees in science in 1953 and 1963, respectively. He exemplified a rare combination found in all the great teachers: He was a lion on the stage who commanded a crowded auditorium without a microphone, yet he somehow conveyed a hint of his sly sense of humor and joy in teaching. He both exerted total authority over as many as 600 squirming near-adults, and made it clear that he cared about each individual and wanted above all for each to succeed in his class. His rigorous seven-question Friday quizzes became legendary, forcing half the freshman class to stay in and study every Thursday night for decades.

His teaching awards include the Thomas P. Madden Award for excellence in teaching freshmen in 1963, the Presidential Service Citation in 1977, the Professor of the Year award from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education in 1985, and the Father James L. Shilts/Doris and Gene Leonard Teaching Award for teaching in the College of Science in 1987.

In the spring of 1971, the late Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., then president of Notre Dame, asked Hofman to become dean of the Freshman Year of Studies and to welcome female students the following fall after 125 years of all-male education. Father Hesburgh said he picked Hofman because the chemistry professor was “a tradition here” and “a very strong force.”

Hofman remembered it as the most difficult year of his career, attempting to integrate about 350 women into a student body of about 6,300 men. He disciplined some unwelcoming men and consoled some upset women.

“Father Ted decided on co-ed education, but Emil made it happen,” said Julie Silliman, a member of one of the first co-educational classes.

Hofman then undertook a second major transformation at Notre Dame. He felt 18-year-olds were too young to know what they wanted, much less to fail on their dreams. He successfully pushed to make the Freshman Year of Studies equivalent to a college, with its own broad curriculum — despite objections from others who favored more specialization.

“Freshmen need the opportunity to explore (majors) before they commit,” Hofman said. “It’s our responsibility to help them figure it out.”

Within five years of Hofman’s changes to broaden the first-year curriculum, fewer than 1 percent of Notre Dame freshmen students were dismissed for academic failure, compared to a national attrition rate of 17 percent.

Notre Dame presented an honorary degree to Hofman when he retired in 1990. He soon began a new tradition — staking out a bench in front of the Main Building before and after daily Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart for what he called his “office hours” for most of the next 20 years. He also persuaded prospects to come to Notre Dame via his homemade videos and scores of alumni club visits.

When a renovation of the Main Building was completed in 1999, University officials established a Wall of Honor and selected a charter group of 20 people to include for “lasting, pervasive and profound” contributions to Notre Dame. The first honorees included Notre Dame founder Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., coach Knute Rockne, Father Hesburgh — and Hofman.

He exemplified Notre Dame’s spirit of in loco parentis that sometimes frustrates students but also reminds them of their family. What students need, in his opinion, is tough love. For more than six decades, Hofman provided it in appropriate proportions with all his mind, heart and soul.

Arrangements are pending.

Originally published by Brendan O’Shaughnessy at news.nd.edu on July 12, 2015.