October 20, 1937 to February 19, 2022
Tom Kicher served his alma mater for more than 60 years as teacher, dean, and guiding light.
When a teenaged Tom Kicher ’59, MS ’62, PhD ’65, arrived at Case Institute of Technology in 1955, he had plenty of reasons to be enthralled with his new world.
The school president was a member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. A crater on the moon was named for the chairman of the Astronomy Department. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was building flood control dams using designs drawn up in the Department of Civil Engineering.
Kicher’s admiration for Case, which he wrote about years later, quickly became mutual. He earned three engineering degrees on Case Quad, including his doctorate, then joined the faculty and became a change agent. He led the committee that wrote the white paper that created the modern Case School of Engineering, in 1992, and served as it first dean.
In an era of uncertainty, he guided CIT under the umbrella of Case Western Reserve University, uniting students, faculty, and alumni behind a mission to maintain the rigor and prestige of a Case education.
Upon his death Feb. 19 at age 84, many admirers spoke of his timely leadership, wisdom, and captivating spirit as they memorialized one of the best-known, longest-serving faculty members in the history of the school.
“He was uniquely capable,” said Jack Daly ’89, MS ’91, a former partner and managing director of Goldman Sachs. “He had that positive energy, the ability to grow an organization and inspire people. He was the franchise player.”
Michael Diamant ’68 first met “Professor Kicher” as a sophomore. He later chaired the visiting committee of alumni and industry leaders that helped guide the new Case School of Engineering in the 1990s.
“He was the right guy at the right time to put these things together,” said Diamant, a member of the board of the Case Alumni Association. “He didn’t have an ounce of guile in his body. Tom only wanted the best for the School of Engineering and for the university. And he was highly regarded by alumni, by anybody he worked with.”
Sunniva Collins, MS ’91, PhD ’94, came to know Kicher (pronounced “KICK-er”) best through the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, where she’s an associate professor. Kicher engaged with faculty long after his retirement in 2005 as the Arthur P. Armington Professor of Engineering.
“Always a calming presence,” she said. “He said to me that being a professor at Case is the best job in the world. He said that we get to know these bright young people when they’re just starting their careers, and we can help them. I think he really took that to heart.”
Many treasured his guidance.
“Tom was warm, funny, wise and kind, a true Case engineer,” said Venkataramanan “Ragu” Balakrishnan, the Charles H. Phipps Dean of the Case School of Engineering. “He will be missed.”
Born October 20, 1937, Kicher was raised in Johnsonburg, a small mill town next to the Alleghany National Forest in northwest Pennsylvania. In an earlier interview, he said he quickly fell in love with Case and the University Circle neighborhood.
“I was exposed to a lot of things I’d never been exposed to,” he told Case Alumnus in 2018. “Arts, culture, the sciences. I could approach almost anyone and ask questions. It was an ideal place for a young boy from a small town. Case changed my life.”
After a brief tour in the aerospace industry in California, he joined the faculty in 1965 as an assistant professor of engineering. He became an associate professor, then a full professor in 1979. He served as chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and as the Associate Dean of Science and Engineering from 1974 to 1979.
“I figure I’ve held more and varied roles on this campus than just about anyone,” he once observed.
He met his wife, Janet, at Case and watched all three of his children graduate with Case degrees.
As a faculty member for 40 years, he imparted memorable lessons. Tall, bearded, and prematurely bald, Kicher possessed a resonate voice that carried easily across a lecture hall.
Joe Fakult ’90, a senior engineer at Safron Electrical & Power, recalls him sketching out a mechanical system with felt-tipped markers on an overhead projector, illustrating a problem to be solved in a factory maybe a few miles away. An expert in design and failure analysis, Kicher consulted for industry and brought real-world challenges into the classroom.
“He was an excellent teacher,” Fakult said. “Every step of the way, he put himself at the viewpoint of the students.”
Curious and contemplative, Kicher dove more deeply into Case history later in life, tapping his vast breadth of experience. As a student in the 1950s, he once observed, he had professors who had been teaching at Case since the 1890s.
In 2019, he wrote the cover story for the spring issue of Case Alumnus, exploring the Case family and Leonard Case Jr.’s role in the launch of the Case School of Applied Science in 1880. The Case Legacy proved so popular among alumni that the association commissioned a rare reprint.
Kicher is one of the principal contributors to Case School: An Evolving History, a multimedia history project led by the Kelvin Smith Library and housed online at scalar.case.edu/caseschool/index.
He was also the vice president of an engineering consulting firm, Kicher & Co., where he worked alongside his son, Paul ’91, until recently.
He is survived by Janet, his son Paul, daughter Laura Chamberlin, and five grandchildren — Mackenzie and Peyton Kicher and Macey, Regan, and Keely Chamberlin.
News of his passing sparked tributes from former students and colleagues and from alumni and admirers far and wide.
Distinguished University Professor Clare Rimnac smiles to recall a change agent who kept a fully outfitted machine shop in his basement. When she arrived at the Case School of Engineering in 1996, she was one of five women in a faculty pool of 105. Kicher huddled them into a planning group.
“He brought us together to strategize, how to support female faculty,” she recalled. “He said, ‘If we’re going to attract more women into engineering, they need role models.’ And I appreciated that.
“When I think about Tom,” she added, “I think about his willingness to take chances, try new things. He was always looking to think a little bit bigger.”
Many alumni can recall a Kicher encounter that changed their life. For Ram Fish ’95, MS ’95, it came when he sought to enroll in an unusually large number of courses to finish his degree program early, as he could not afford tuition. When his advisor balked, Fish went to see the dean.
He said Kicher weighed his proposal for several days, contacting references, before approving. He also steered Fish to Roger Cerne ’63, who arranged a loan from the Case Alumni Association.
Fish graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer engineering and become a technology pioneer in Silicon Valley. He has never forgotten the administrator who believed in him.
“I am very grateful to Dean Kicher,” he said. “He listened to me. He was willing to work around the system to get something done for a student.”
Jack Daly, today a partner at the private equity firm TPG Capital, earned two mechanical engineering degrees at Case. But before he could leave for industry, Dean Kicher convinced him to stay on as an instructor for six years. He wanted Daly to continue to run a student group he had founded, one that matched engineering students with community service projects.
Daly feels Kicher saw both a worthy cause and a young man who would benefit from leading it. He flew in from San Francisco for the funeral at St. Noel Catholic Church in the Cleveland suburb of Willoughby Hills.
“He was the most important mentor in my life,” Daly said.
After retirement, Kicher joined the board of the Case Alumni Association, where he became known as Case’s elder statesman. The board made him a life member and, in 2018, awarded him the Silver Bowl, the association’s highest honor.
Stephen Zinram, executive director of the Case Alumni Association, said he has lost a mentor who knew how to get the best out of people.
“He listened to your question and always gave a well thought out answer, often an anecdote,” Zinram said. “He never rushed into an answer, but instead he became the professor who led you down the path and helped you find it.”
Fakult, the president of the Case Alumni Association, sees a legacy enshrined in the school.
“I think he was an agent of thoughtful creation,” Fakult said. “And he fully understood the legacy of Case engineering, what its students and faculty were like. He knew how to keep that legacy alive.”
You can honor the memory of Tom Kicher with a contribution to the Class of 1959 Scholarship Fund. The fund, which Kicher helped to create, assists fourth year students facing an unforeseen financial challenge. Find the fund at casealumni.org/give/.
Questions? Contact Janna Greer; firstname.lastname@example.org, 216-368-3647.
The Kicher family will host a celebration of Tom’s life from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday, February 24, at the DeJohn-Flynn-Mylott Funeral Home, 28890 Chardon Road, Willoughby Hills, Ohio. Find obituary information HERE.
In 2018, the Case Alumni Association honored Tom Kicher with the Silver Bowl, its highest honor. We recorded some of his remarks and reflections.
Harry Fielding Reid set the pattern for generations of intrepid Case professors with his surveying trek to Glacier Bay, Alaska, in 1890. Tom Kicher examined Reid’s epic journey in an online presentation during Homecoming 2020.
Responses to the passing of Tom Kicher
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We never had much direct contact at Yost, but it was always good to see him occasionally and know that the curriculum (whatever one majored in) was survivable. Tom, heading toward his graduation with a bachelor’s degree in the spring of 1959, was a good example.
A few years later, in the spring of 1962, Tom got a handshake from T. Keith Glennan on the stage of Severance Hall as he received his MS degree, and I got a handshake too, receiving my BS.
Through the following years it was always good to hear of Tom’s achievements and progress through the ranks at Case to more responsible leadership roles. It gave me a feeling of continued contact with the school and belief that Case was in good hands, improving continuously with his help.
All the best wishes … and condolences … to those who knew and worked with him through the years and will miss him, as I will. It was great to have him on the stage of life at Case, setting an example and laying plans for the future.
I enjoyed a recent exchange with Tom as a result of his history of the Case family. His work revealed that Leonard Case, Jr.’s mother was from my hometown of Stow, Ohio. Since Western Reserve was founded in neighboring Hudson, maybe my university affiliation was preordained.
He enjoyed woodworking. When I was promoted with tenure, he made a really nice weather station for me with a commemorative plate that I have proudly displayed in my living room ever since.
When he was dean, the alumni association wanted the school to put together a team to compete in the Electric Car Race that First Energy sponsored in 1994 and 1995. Tom plied Ken Loparo, Wyatt Newman and me with alcohol from a buffet he kept in his office for such purposes. Everyone knew that when Tom broke out the drinks they were going to end up agreeing to do something. BTW: our team took 2nd place in the first race and won the series in the second year. Too bad electric cars never amounted to much 🙂
Tom had a great sense of humor. He told me one of my favorite jokes that I still enjoy retelling.
Playing golf with Tom was a lesson in Case history, learning cool things about solid mechanics, learning new jokes and laughing through the game. I really enjoyed it. I remember playing right through sunset one evening. Neither one of us willing to give up. It was fun to watch the ball fly away into the dark - often never to be seen again.
He was not just the first dean of CSE. He was a major force in creating it and making it successful.
Dr. Kicher was a caring individual towards ALL students; I learned a lot from him, both academically, and also the proper manner of interacting with students as human beings with integrity. Although his passing saddens the rest of the community and me, knowing that his legacy will remain helps soothe the pain of his absence among us.
Tom was the quintessential Casie, an undergraduate, graduate, faculty member, Chair, Dean, a leader, always and ever an advocate and promoter of the school. When Tom moved to emeritus status, he deliberately chose to step away from a daily presence in the Department. He didn’t go away, he did shift his focus and energies to playing a major role in the leadership and outreach of the Case Alumni Association. Our faculty lost the daily access to his help and guidance, but he felt it was the better choice for the Department for him to get out of the way. He still remained only a phone call away to anyone who sought his advice or help. This was very much in character. He was able make decisions and follow through without second-guessing.
Tom was a living definition of a real mechanical engineer. He was a designer par excellence. He was an expert in design and failure analyses. He was sought out by industry locally and beyond to bring his expertise to their problems. He directed many graduate students who came from or remained in industry for their master’s or PhD programs. His influence reached in a direction and distance that few Case faculty have matched. He will rightfully be honored and missed by a host of members of industry
There is much more I could write about Tom (including a few golf stories), but there be others who will write more eloquently of him. I am deeply saddened by his death, but I am deeply grateful for his friendship and his example as an admirable human being.
Those were heady times. Computing power had reached a point where matrix methods of structural analysis were feasible, and Tom and I both pursued topics in that area under Prof. Lucien Schmit.
I gather that Tom more than anyone was responsible for establishing the Case School of Engineering, for which we can all be most grateful.
I was grateful to have survived, but also grateful to have rewarded Professor Kicher's faith in me. This one intervention on his part changed the entire arc of my time at Case.
In my junior and senior years, some of my fraternity brothers and I helped Professor Kicher with STEM outreach (although it wasn't called that back then) to the area high schools. Tom Kicher was a caring educator and a truly great man. I am lucky to have known him.
I think Tom was president of the Newman Club, the Catholic organization on campus. By the way, I’m Jewish. He invited me to go, with him, to a mixer they were having for the incoming first year nursing students from Sinai Hospital and St. Luke’s. Couldn’t turn that down, and it resulted in my first college girlfriend.
Great next-door neighbor. He was a Junior and I was a Freshman, so he was always ahead of what I was doing and always ready to help.
The PERFECT first person to meet at college.
He was my advisor during those years and beyond when I went to graduate school at CIT from 1999 through 2002. I would always look forward to meeting with him, even during the dourest of times. He would give advice, that smile and chuckle, which made me know that there was a future and to maintain perspective.
To illustrate that, my Wife Judith and I encountered he and Janet at the Richmond Road Sam’s club, possibly around 2004. He delighted in telling both Ladies, with a gleam in his eye, that he had me as a student over four (4) decades. I remember Judith telling me that I turned red.
Yet because of him, I persisted, flourished as a Mechanical Engineer and successfully retired ten (10) days ago. For that, me and my Family owe him a great amount of gratitude. ALL Teachers at all levels of Education should aspire to be as witty, gracious, concerning and helpful as the good Doctor. He surely is missed by many and will has a place in all our hearts.
He once told me about how his philosophy on teaching had changed over the years. Early on in his career, he wanted to make sure his students "got their money's worth" in his class. He tried to impart as much knowledge as possible, teaching at a fast pace where the students would take lots of notes. His methods changed when he realized that the students could do more learning in his lecture if he slowed down and gave the students time during the lecture to think about and struggle with solving problems. The learning happens because of the struggle. This continues to ring true in my life, as I learn new things in my career, and as I raise my children. Think, embrace the discomfort, figure out what you don't know, learn, and grow.