Butera was Pitt chemistry professor for 50 years

Richard A. Butera, a chemistry faculty member for more than 50 years, died Sept. 26, 2018, at 83.

His departmental colleague since 1985, David Waldeck, counted Butera as “a very loyal friend. He was always very engaged with the students and the mission of the department.” The pair published papers together and co-taught courses.

Butera was trained in classical physical chemistry, focusing his research on thermodynamics, particularly the heat capacities of solids. In the late 1980s, he moved to study surface phenomena, using x-ray photo-electron spectroscopy, working on the control of interfacial properties of semi-conductors.

“He was well-known in his area,” especially for studies of magnetic phase transitions, Waldeck recalled. “Those were an interesting testing ground for trying to understand what are called critical phenomena.” His research included work on high-temperature copper oxide superconductors.

“He was very passionate as a teacher,” Waldeck added. “He was very interested in helping students succeed.”

Among the courses on which the pair collaborated was the physical chemistry laboratory course. “That was the ideal course for him — he was a very hands-on person.”

Waldeck recalled his colleague spending many hours devising experiments for the course. Even after retiring in 1998, Butera often taught courses in the department — the last time in fall 2009.

He also continued to volunteer as a teacher in the state’s Governor’s School for the Sciences, a summer enrichment program.

Born in 1934 and a veteran of the Korean War, Rick Butera earned his bachelor’s in chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh in 1960 and his Ph.D. from the University of California-Berkeley in 1963. He joined Pitt as an assistant professor in 1963. 

He is survived by wife Susan; stepchildren Lisa Marie Thomas and Amy Lea Marco; and grandchildren Faith and Jalen Thomas, as well as nieces and nephews.