When acrimonious contract talks between Boston University’s faculty and administration in 1979 proved divisive, Norman Lichtin, the chemistry department chairman, tried to remain a friend to all his colleagues.
Troubled by the rift, Dr. Lichtin and another professor started a petition seeking support for a moderate position, the Globe reported in February 1979. The two hoped to promote harmony, rather than confrontation, at the bargaining table.
“We could see his pain and unhappiness with the fact that the department was so split,” said Scott Mohr, who was a longtime friend and BU professor. “Because of the goodness of his character, he did not get into it on a personal level.”
Dr. Lichtin, who wrote what BU said is the only known history of the university’s chemistry department, covering 1904 to 1973, died of heart failure April 30 in NewBridge on the Charles retirement community in Dedham. He was 89 and had lived in Newton for many years.
“He was dedicated to improving the chemistry department, and he did,” Mohr said. “Norman was one of the defining chairmen of my department. He helped transform it from one stage to another.”
He helped transform the chemistry department ‘from one stage to another.’
During his 45 years at Boston University, Dr. Lichtin believed that one of his greatest achievements was helping expand the chemistry department. He became a full professor in 1961 and was chairman of the department from 1973 until 1984, retiring in 1993.
Mohr, who often commuted with his colleague, recalled that Dr. Lichtin carried two briefcases of paperwork back and forth, from home to office, each day. “He was a two-briefcase chairman,” Mohr said. “He was very diligent about everything.”
That dedication helped Dr. Lichtin enhance and expand the department, said Richard Laursen, a Boston University professor emeritus.
“The thing that strikes me most of all is that he was really a booster,” Laursen said. “He was part of the department, and he worked really hard to try to get funding for improving things. He was very enthusiastic about that.”
To encourage closeness within the department, Dr. Lichtin and his wife held dinners at their home each year for the entire chemistry faculty, said Laursen. “He kind of liked to have a cohesiveness in the department,” he added.
Dr. Lichtin’s research dealt with topics such as electrolyte chemistry in liquid sulfur dioxide, physical photochemistry, photochemical conversion and storage of solar energy, and the photocatalytic detoxification of air and water, according to the BU website. He consulted with several companies, including Exxon’s solar energy conversion unit and the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital’s nuclear medicine unit.
Norman N. Lichtin was born and grew up in Newark, where he graduated from South Side High School.
He went to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, graduating in 1944 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. The following year, Dr. Lichtin graduated with a master’s in chemistry from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
He married Phyllis Wasserman in 1947. They lived in Cambridge briefly before moving to Watertown.
In 1948, Dr. Lichtin graduated with a doctorate in physical organic chemistry from Harvard University. He began his career at Boston University as an instructor the same year.
A couple of years later, Dr. Lichtin and his wife moved to Newton, where they lived until moving to the Newbridge on the Charles senior living community in 2009.
“Education was very important to him,” said their son, Harold of Newton. “He felt it important that his children become well educated and learn as much as possible.”
Even after Dr. Lichtin retired, he enjoyed tutoring elementary school children in West Roxbury, his wife said.
Dr. Lichtin also was very interested in matters involving Israel, and studied Hebrew all his life, taking classes until a few weeks before he died. “He was a lifelong learner,” said Harold.
Dr. Lichtin taught in Israel on several occasions. He was a visiting professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the early 1960s, and again in the early to mid-’70s . He also was a guest scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.
From 1973 to 1993, Mr. Lichtin was a part of the interdisciplinary University Professors Program at Boston University.
Throughout his professional life, Dr. Lichtin remained devoted to family. “His social life really revolved around his family and his extended family,” his wife said.
For many years, Dr. Lichtin and his family spent summers at a cabin in Rangeley, Maine, where he liked to go fishing.
He also spent several years singing with the Temple Emanuel choir in Newton, and his family recalled how he loved to practice piano pieces such as Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”
“It was a private thing for him. We could hear him practicing at night sometimes,” Harold said.
A service has been held for Dr. Lichtin, who, in addition to his wife and son, leaves another son, Daniel of Highlands Ranch, Colo.; a daughter, Sara Boyd of Athens, Ohio; and six grandchildren.
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