Russell Rule Rycheck, a 42-year epidemiology faculty member in the Graduate School of Public Health with three Pitt degrees, died on Dec. 17, 2021 at 89.
Evelyn O. Talbott, Rycheck’s student, teaching assistant and eventual departmental colleague, recalls him as “just an amazing mentor. He was kind; he was personable. He built you up. And he always gave constructive criticism.”
Rycheck taught Introduction to Epidemiology, a primary course for the entire school, and by 1994 Talbott had become a secondary teacher in the course. He was a “wonderful, lovely man,” she remembers. “He was incredibly organized.” If students had a problem in the course and came to see him, “his door was always open. You would never leave without the question being answered. He brought a lot of clarity to teaching” and was “just selfless. He was a clear thinker, a clear writer, and he helped students tremendously.”
She recalls her research work with Rycheck to map rates of rubella immunization, which was a new vaccination campaign at the time and required geocoding 169,000 children. Rycheck performed a lot of work for the Allegheny County Health Department as well, she says, and worked on vaccine compliance for another new vaccine among the elderly in the 1990s. He also did work early in his career on the transmission of droplet nuclei that spread tuberculosis. “He had a keen mind,” she says. “He was an epidemiologist’s epidemiologist.”
Born in Racine, Wisconsin, Rycheck received his B.S. degree from Mount Saint Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Md., in chemistry and biology in 1953 and earned the rest of his degrees from Pitt: an M.D. in 1957, and both the M.P.H. in maternal and child health (1959) and the Dr.P.H. in epidemiology (1964) from Pitt Public Health. He completed his post-graduate work at Pitt as well, from his internship at what would become UPMC to a residency and fellowships at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and a research fellowship in Pitt Public Health that ended in 1964 – when he began his teaching career here. He had a joint appointment in the School of Medicine and retired in 2006.
Rycheck was a diplomate in General Preventative Medicine for the American Board of Preventative Medicine and a fellow in the American College of Preventative Medicine. He worked with the Centers for Disease Control and was a member of the consulting staff at UPMC Children's Hospital and the infection committees at UPMC Presbyterian and Magee-Womens hospitals.
He received the Excellence in Teaching award from the students of his school, the Alumni Association Distinguished Alumni award at Pitt, the Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award from the University multiple times, and the Margaret Gloninger award for his teaching and service to his school and the community.
Pitt Public Health has established the Russell Rule Rycheck Award for a promising Master of Public Health student (https://publichealth.pitt.edu/home/admissions-aid/tuition-and-financial-aid/types-of-aid/grants-and-scholarships/rycheck-award) which gives $500 to students for professional development or other “opportunities that would enhance their training as a public health practitioner.”
His department chair, Anne B. Newman, memorialized him in a statement as “the embodiment of the kind and wise professor,” while former colleague Elsa S. Strotmeyer wrote that “Dr. Rycheck’s encouragement and support of me as well as countless other students was limitless. The quality of his interactions with students was something that I admired greatly, even more so after I became a faculty colleague of his.”
Epidemiology faculty member Thomas Songer was Rycheck’s student in 1983 before he became a colleague and then took over teaching the introductory course when Rycheck retired.
“He must have taught 10,000 students,” Songer says, and “the vast majority of the students will speak lovingly of him.
When Songer inherited the course, “I went through his materials and I still use some of them today, because they are so wonderful … They help students tremendously to understand difficult concepts.
“When he was teaching, he just had a soft manner,” Songer recalls. “He wasn't pressuring you if you didn't have the right approach” to understanding a concept immediately.
“His office was the messiest office I've ever seen,” Songer adds. “He held onto everything. But he knew where everything was” and could find it in an instant. “He was always very accommodating to other faculty.
“The University needs all kinds of different faculty members for it to truly function as a university,” Songer says. “Russ was a very important faculty member to make our department, our school,” function as it should. Other faculty may be more proficient at gaining grant money for research, but “we need solid teachers and we need faculty who understand the university process and help students.
“I think we undervalue these types of faculty members. Russ is the model for the type of faculty members universities need right now.”
Rycheck was the husband of Joan for 59 years, the father of Michael (Ron Hernandez) and Juley (David) Stragand, and the grandfather of Zachary.
Memorial gifts are suggested to The Dr. Russell Rycheck Student Award in Public Health, Philanthropic & Alumni Engagement, 128 N. Craig Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15260.