Case Forever

Tom Kicher

October 20, 1937 to February 19, 2022

forever case

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; janna.greer@casealum.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
Send yours to casealum@casealum.org

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