Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

December 10, 2015

Dick Howe: Go-to guy retiring after 45 years


Dick Howe in his office in the Cathedral of Learning: “I’m the oiler who keeps the machinery moving so that our faculty can fulfill their institutional and research commitments and our students can expand their horizon.”

W. Richard Howe, who will retire as associate dean in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences on Jan. 6 after more than 45 years here, remembers seeing the ad for his first Pitt job in a national chemistry journal in 1970. He was 24, a chemistry instructor at St. Vincent College, and feared he wouldn’t be taken seriously as a candidate by Pitt’s chemistry department, which was looking for an executive assistant to the chair. But his department chair at the Latrobe college thought this Pitt position would suit him well.

“I took a flyer,” Howe says. “I always like to organize and be involved in project administration.”

Pitt’s chemistry department was planning to build a new facility to pull together faculty scattered in seven buildings. “I thought, that sounds like a real challenge,” Howe recalls.

But he told William E. Wallace, then Pitt chemistry chair: “This is really a fascinating opportunity, but what happens when the new building is completed?’ And Wallace said, ‘Don’t worry, Dick, we’ll find something to keep you busy.’”

Keeping busy has been the least of Howe’s concerns here.

Says Arthur G. Ramicone, who has been working alongside Howe since 1988, most recently as the University’s CFO: “Without fail the administration’s go-to guy has been Dick Howe, due to his can-do, positive-attitude personality, his ability to provide guidance on almost any project or policy change, or vendor issue, or research-related issue, or a construction project involving faculty research labs or student instructional labs, and the list goes on and on.

“Dick has never complained or begged off an assignment even though his versatility keeps him overly busy, or offered poor guidance. He simply brings his considerable skill and wisdom to bear on every issue and offers balanced professional input that results in an optimal outcome.”

After Howe joined the chemistry department, he began working with faculty and design and construction contractors to create the Chevron Science Center. By 1986, when he was the department’s first assistant chair, he was chosen to become associate dean for administration and planning in arts and sciences. He has been key to every major capital project for arts and sciences for the last three decades, including the construction of Sennott Square, renovations at Langley Hall and the Chevron building, and replacement of Pitt’s 100-year-old Nuclear Physics Laboratory, between O’Hara Street and University Drive, with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)-funded experimental physics facility.


“I’ve always considered my job to be behind the curtain, setting the stage upon which others can perform,” Howe muses in his office in the Cathedral of Learning. “I’m the oiler who keeps the machinery moving so that our faculty can fulfill their institutional and research commitments and our students can expand their horizon.”

It’s been that way since the beginning of his career here, when he joined the Pitt chemistry department “without a true job description,” he says. The Chevron Science Center opened on schedule and on budget in 1974. “In the process I was also able to wrap my hands around the finances of the department and also work all the normal administrative activities associated with a large science program.”

When Peter Koehler became arts and sciences dean, he recognized the need for this new type of administrative expertise and hired Howe as associate dean for administration.

“To me the most important part of my involvement in capital projects has been the conceptualization,” Howe says. “I like to look at an area not for what it is, but for what it can be.”

Thirty years ago, Howe recalls, “we had a lot of spaces that were just of no value to anyone” for instruction or research. “We were able to turn a lot of our useless space into productive areas for education and research.

“I’ve been very fortunate that the University entered into a strategic facility planning process about 15 years ago,” he adds. “We were able to take this opportunity to provide over a quarter of a billion dollars of improvements for our education facilities, our research facilities, our public spaces and departmental offices.”

One of his favorite examples is the Nuclear Physics Laboratory. Housing a Van de Graaff particle accelerator, which had come to the end of its useful life, the building was “a concrete bunker,” he says, with walls three feet thick and floors five feet thick in some spots to contain stray radiation.

Because this was the beginning of the recession in 2008, Howe was able to take advantage of a NIST-advertised program that funded capital projects with federal stimulus money. Pitt’s proposal garnered a $15 million grant, and turned the building into “modern facilities that are as good as any to be found in this country,” he says.

“And this project did give us the chance to reconnect with one of our PhD physics students, Patrick Gallagher,” who was chosen five years later as the current chancellor.

Chemistry faculty member Dennis Curran has known Howe since Curran’s first days at Pitt in 1981. “Dick is one of those administrators who gets it, and always has,” Curran says. “He has always realized that university administrators are stewards of shared resources, not brokers of money or power. He has always realized that university administrators work for the faculty, staff and students, not the reverse.”

Howe is adamant in sharing credit for his work with former provost James Maher and former vice provost Robert Pack, and their current counterparts, Patricia E. Beeson and David DeJong, respectively.

“Dick Howe is an absolute legend,” DeJong says. He has been working with Howe here since 1989, “and he was already having a large impact on the University. Dick is a consummate problem solver.”

When DeJong was economics department chair, he faced two classrooms “that looked like two bowling alleys” and were hardly usable. Working with Howe, they used nearby offices to expand some of these ugly spaces into “one big, beautifully configured classroom,” he recalls, and made offices of the remaining classroom. “To this day we’re benefiting from that new configuration.”

DeJong also remembers struggling to reach his office during the “snowmageddon” of February 2010, when two feet of snow caused the city to request that Pitt shut down.

“I called the dean’s office and the only person on the job was Dick. No big surprise there. He was everywhere, all the time, whatever you needed. A power outage, floods — Dick was always the first guy on the scene, making sure functionality was restored as soon as possible.”


Howe also oversaw the creation or renovation of Heymann Theatre, Charity Randall Theatre, the Humanities Center and Department of English offices, as well as spaces for new programs such as the Pittsburgh Experimental Economics Laboratory, the World History Center and the Center for Comparative Archaeology.

“Having an opportunity to be fully introduced to the breadth of diversity that makes up the arts and sciences, I found new opportunities for partnerships that I never expected,” he says. “That’s what makes the arts and sciences so exciting.”

His work continues today, teaming with MacLachlan Cornelius and Filoni architects to make multimedia art exhibits possible in the Frick Fine Arts Building.

“I’ve really been extremely fortunate — in my 16 years with the chemistry department I only had three chairs,” he says. In his entire 45 years at Pitt he has worked under only three arts and sciences deans and four chancellors. “I have worked in the University with an extremely stable set of senior administrators. That’s very important if you want to have any kind of continuity in the ability to create and implement strategic plans.”

Howe may have had even more impact through his long association with three local professional organizations: the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh, the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh section of the American Chemical Society.

The last two groups run Pittcon, a conference and exposition officially known as the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy. It is now the world’s largest annual meeting for laboratory sciences professionals. Howe organized Pittcon as its president in the early 1990s, when the conference had 32,000 attendees from 88 countries and more than 2,100 technical presentations and 2,000 companies displaying their products. Today only five cities in the U.S. have big enough convention facilities to host it.

In 1989, then Chancellor Wesley W. Posvar asked Howe to be Pitt’s representative to the local committee hosting the International Science and Engineering Fair for high schoolers. When the local organizer died, Howe suddenly was leading the host committee.

At about the same time, some local scientists and educators were pushing to invite the International Chemistry Olympics to town. “Everyone said, why bother? It’s never left Europe,” Howe remembers. But based on Pittsburgh’s success with the International Science and Engineering Fair, “we were able to convince the organizers that Pittsburgh could handle this event.”

Howe plans to remain involved in these groups. He credits an “understanding of the importance of reaching out to students at the lowest levels to give them an opportunity to understand the value and excitement of science. If you look at the International Science and Engineering Fair, many of these students have been entering projects into science fairs for multiple years. Science outreach is not a one-shot inoculation. Hopefully when it comes times for making a decision on college majors they will be interested in pursuing science. And if not, they are at least a learned member of society who will appreciate science.”


“More than anything else he is probably the most unflappable guy that I know,” says William T. Valenta Jr., assistant dean of MBA and executive programs at the Katz Graduate School of Business and former assistant chemistry department chair.

Valenta experienced Howe’s quiet command firsthand when Howe recruited Valenta years ago to be a marshal at Pitt’s commencement. Howe was lead marshal and has been involved in commencements for 39 years.

“I can remember the very first commencement that I was on,” says Valenta. “He pulled me in and said, ‘Our job is to get the faculty where they’re supposed to go, the students where they’re supposed to go, and you’re doing this with 4,000 excited family members watching you.’”

Sure enough, a faculty member headed off the platform in the wrong direction during the ceremony, and everyone behind her followed. “I looked at Dick with this horrified look on my face. He never flinched.” Howe redirected the group without a hitch. He told Valenta: “No matter what mistakes we made, you just pretend like it never happened and nobody will notice the difference.

“This is a microcosm of how he goes about managing. It doesn’t matter if a crisis popped up in any project he worked on. He just sits back and works the problem. To this day, when I have something complex and I need somebody to bounce it off of, he’s the guy I pick up and call.”

Why retire? Howe says: “After 45 and a half years of working to fulfill dreams and aspirations of lots of faculty members and department chairs, I’ve reached the point where it would be important for others to come forward with other skill sets than I have to fulfill the aspirations of our faculty.”

Plus, he says, he wants to “find a new playground.”

He’ll still work as the chair of the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Heritage Council instrumentation and artifacts committee, which runs the foundation’s museum in Philadelphia as the largest U.S. repository for everything from ancient manuscripts to iconic instrumentation.

“As I look back over 45 and a half years,” says Howe, “there’s nothing that I have done personally — it’s been the ability to work with a wide variety of individuals on campus, to build teams and be surrounded by people who could be pulled together to achieve the targets and fulfill the opportunities that have presented themselves.

“I have been truly blessed by the ability to work with some unbelievable colleagues in the chemistry department, across the arts and sciences and across the University as a whole. Some of my favorite times here have been special projects where I’ve had the opportunity to meet dedicated staff members from other schools and administrative units, and I’m going to miss working with them.”

Bettye J. and Ralph E. Bailey Dean N. John Cooper of the Dietrich school says that no problem has been too small to get Howe’s attention “and no opportunity too big not to get him excited and take advantage of it.”

Cooper cites the Pymatuning Laboratory for Ecology, 90 miles north of Pittsburgh, which as part of the biology department offers undergraduate summer programs and research opportunities for faculty.

“Twenty years ago that was a decaying, barely functional facility. It’s now a state-of-the-art field station for ecology. Dick paid attention to that for 20 years … and transformed the place. We’ll miss him but enjoy his legacy.”

—Marty Levine       

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 8

Leave a Reply