Ronald Fenton Fleming — professor, teacher, mentor, scientist, skeptic, engineer, physicist, part-time political activist, brother, husband, father and friend — died suddenly but peacefully in his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the early morning of Wednesday, June 2, 2021. He was 84 years old.
Ron was born in February 1937, in Paola, Kansas, to Fenton Fleming and Eva (Taylor) Fleming. He is preceded by his brother, Roger. He leaves his daughter, Anne (Adam); three grandchildren; his former wife, Katherine; his sister, Diane; dear cousins and family in Kansas; and his dear friend, Susan Wayrynen and her family.
Ron grew up in Hoquiam, Washington, where he graduated from Hoquiam High School in 1955 as valedictorian. In 1959, he earned a bachelor’s of science degree from the University of Washington, and then in 1961 he earned a master’s of science degree from the University of Michigan.
He worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 1961-1966 and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1975. Ron worked at the National Bureau of Standards (later NIST) from 1978-1989, first as a staff physicist and later as group leader. He returned to the University of Michigan where he joined the engineering faculty as a professor in 1989. He directed the Memorial Phoenix Project there until 2000. Ron became a professor emeritus of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences in December 2011. Ron never stopped being a scientist.
Ron defied the ordinary. He was a free spirit who did not feel beholden to social convention. He made friends easily. He broke into dance spontaneously. He would go out of his way — sometimes very far out of his way — to help an acquaintance. He was dedicated to science; he was a skeptic of all things, including organized religion, Republicans (though many years ago he used to be one) and government in general. He loved being rogue. He welcomed debate and arguing.
He was a much, much loved university lecturer. He was very dedicated to his students, undergrads and grads both, and he took a deep interest in helping them with their research. He loved being a mentor, and he loved lecturing. Countless students have commented on his dedication, guidance and his commitment to their projects.
He went on a sabbatical to The Netherlands and became quite enamored of it. For years afterward his stories would begin with “Well you know, in The Netherlands …”. He developed an interest in Canada as well, and travelled widely in eastern Canada. Later in his career he developed an interest in China, and led many University of Michigan engineering students on exchanges to China and helped to bring many Chinese students to the U.S.
Ron was interested in bluegrass music, and he and his daughter attended concerts of the Seldom Scene countless times. He loved a good old-school music or folk festival. He was interested in mysticism, mystic symbols and paganism. He wore a five-pointed star ring and celebrated solstices and equinoxes.
He loved being an “other” and he loved taking contrary positions. He thoroughly enjoyed puzzles, mind games, being cryptic and Catch-22s. If asked what he was against, he would quote a famous rebel who replied: “What you got?” And he meant it.
Ron was a man of traditions and customs, often of his own making. He always bought his cars second-hand from the same woman. He ate the same food at the same restaurants, though he never ate much. When visiting, he would stay at the same hotel or inn, and often make a connection with the innkeeper. He loved traveling, exploring, walking, meeting people and spending time in second-hand bookstores. He would share stories, some wine, and then be welcomed back on his return visits.
He loved history, geography, unique facts and being knowledgeable. He reveled in giving gifts that the receiver did not know he or she wanted, until Ron gave it to them. Ever the teacher and guide.
He was a collector of souvenirs from places around the world, of stamps, of books, all of which had a special place in his heart. He encouraged others to take an interest in his learnings as well: after visiting a friend or acquaintance, Ron would purposefully leave cryptic paraphernalia for them to wonder at and ponder, after he had left.
With his passing, the world is a less intelligent and vibrant place, and we are all left to wonder and ponder.
Plans are currently being made for a memorial service in Ann Arbor, Michigan and later in Ron’s hometown of Hoquiam, Washington.