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March 5, 2009

Obituary: Francis Byrne Colavita

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. March 26 in Heinz Chapel for Francis Byrne Colavita, associate professor emeritus of psychology, who died Feb. 16, 2009, in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., as the result of a traffic accident. He was 69.

Colavita’s wife, Harriet Phillips, 67, died at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, Fla., shortly after the Feb. 13 accident, which involved a pickup truck and six other vehicles. Colavita died three days later at the same hospital.

The driver of the pickup truck has been arrested and charged with two counts of DUI manslaughter, three counts of DUI with serious bodily injury and six counts of DUI property damage, according the Broward County sheriff’s office.

Friends and colleagues remembered the personable Colavita as an outstanding teacher and a man of great wit.

“I’d known Frank for more than 40 years and I can honestly say I never knew a funnier person,” said Tony Caggiula, a fellow psychology professor and friend. “He lit up the room when he walked into it. I don’t know anyone who knew him who didn’t love him. He was so bright and a tremendously witty, funny person. He absolutely enthralled his students. When they weren’t laughing, they were learning. He had tremendous communication skills. His lectures were so clear and crisp.”

Many of Colavita’s former students told Caggiula they went into psychology because of him.

“Ironically, Frank did research in recovering from brain damage. He was an expert on that, too,” Caggiula said. “His research was always logical and well-organized. We loved going to his brown bag presentations, which were a model of clarity. He was an extremely talented man, and just the nicest person in the world. He will be sorely missed.”

Colleague Susan Campbell, professor and chair of the psychology department’s developmental program, said, “Certainly, Frank was a devoted teacher. He spent so much of his career teaching and inspiring undergraduates, especially in the large introductory courses, but also teaching graduate students how to become good teachers. He kept his students engaged because he could make scientific things come to life, but also he was so funny.”

She added, “As a person, he was open, warm, nonjudgmental and such a positive force in the department. He would have made a great therapist, even though that was not his specialty. We were all shocked and saddened by his death, and by Harriet’s too. They had a warm marriage. It was very tragic.”

Pitt retiree Marilyn Kramer worked as Colavita’s secretary when he served as department chair. “I worked at Pitt for 32 years, and I worked for a lot of people, but he had to be the most wonderful person of all. He was kind and very considerate,” Kramer said.

Colavita also had a knack for boosting departmental morale, Kramer said. “All you had to do was mention a subject and he’d come up with a joke. Or he’d ask how I was and if I said I was having a bad day, he’d say, ‘Let me tell you a story.’ It was always very funny and cheered me up.”

Known for his extemporaneous teaching style and his enthusiasm for teaching large introductory psychology courses, Colavita shared some of his teaching philosophies with the University Times in 2001.

“I’m an excitement junkie: I skydive and I ride motorcycles. I was a ranked runner in my age group and I still run marathons and other races,” said Colavita in the Dec. 6, 2001, University Times. “I like to challenge myself. And teaching these huge classes and trying to keep everybody awake, alert and interested is quite challenging.

“I warn them very early: ‘This is a broad discipline; there’s going to be something here to interest everybody.’ I say, ‘It’s okay to have a little fun.’ Let’s face it, good teaching is more fun than bad teaching. Saying something outrageous is sometimes necessary. It breaks the rhythm, so students can re-focus,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any one personality that makes a good teacher. Different people are effective in different situations. In a graduate seminar they’ll cut you some slack. To be confident, dynamic, energetic — these are much more important with a large group. I believe that I am effective in a seminar, a small class and a large class. But the one that excites me the most is the large one.”

Colavita began his Pitt career in 1966 as assistant professor with a specialty in biological psychology. He was promoted to associate professor in 1970, and served as psychology department chair, 1980-88.

In 1983, he was appointed associate professor in educational psychology at the School of Education.

He served as academic dean for the Semester at Sea program summer 2003 voyage.

Colavita retired in 2005 and was named emeritus associate professor. Following retirement he held an adjunct faculty position at Florida Atlantic University.

Colavita won five teaching awards, including in 1997 the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award, Pitt’s highest award for pedagogy.

He authored “Sensory Changes in the Elderly” and published more than 30 scholarly articles in the areas of sensory processes, perception and recovery of function following brain damage.

Colavita was a member of several professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the Eastern Psychological Association, the Pittsburgh Psychological Association, the Psychonomic Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He served as occasional spokesperson for scientific psychology at high school career nights, for social workers’ organizations and at various Unitarian churches.

A native of Newark, New Jersey, Colavita earned his undergraduate degree with honors in experimental psychology at the University of Maryland in 1961. Three years later, he completed his PhD at Indiana University-Bloomington.

Prior to coming to Pitt, he was a lecturer and postdoctoral research fellow at Indiana’s Center for Neural Sciences, 1984-86.

Colavita is survived by his daughters, Lisa Colavita Keibler and Jill Colavita Vertes; his son, Francis Byrne Colavita Jr.; his stepdaughters, Jamie Lynn Phillips and Lisa Blake Phillips; his brother, Henry Colavita; grandchildren Kara Elizabeth Keibler, Kiley Decker Keibler, Chase Caleb Keibler, Ryleigh Valer Vertes, Charlotte Marie Vertes and Kendall K. Vertes, and great granddaughter Lily Marie Keibler-Robinson.

A scholarship fund in Colavita’s honor is being planned.

—Peter Hart

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