Robert G. Fleagle

Emeritus Professor of Atmospheric Sciences

August 16, 1918 - April 20, 2013

Prof. Robert Fleagle

Robert Fleagle

Memorial Service

Professor Robert Fleagle's memorial service was held by the family on Saturday, June 22, 11:00 am, at University Unitarian Church.

University Unitarian Church
6556 35th Ave NE
Seattle, WA 98115


Scientific Career

Robert Guthrie Fleagle, Sr., was Professor Emeritus of Atmospheric Sciences and Senior Fellow in the Joint Institute for Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington. He earned an A.B. degree in physics from Johns Hopkins University and a Ph.D. in physics-meteorology from New York University before joining the UW faculty in 1948. His initial strong focus on atmospheric research gradually broadened to embrace a growing interest in the application of the science to issues of public policy. He served in the Office of Science and Technology, Executive Office of the President, in 1963 and 1964 to oversee atmospheric research of the government agencies. Here he witnessed and participated in many of the crucial actions that led to major advances in the science and to increasing recognition of the importance of atmospheric processes to the welfare of the planet. In later years he served as Chair of the UW Department of Atmospheric Sciences, Chair of the Committee on Atmospheric Sciences of the National Academy of Sciences, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, and President of the American Meteorological Society.

Bob Fleagle was one of the founding fathers of our department, and arguably the most influential in hiring and setting the tone for the collegial atmosphere that we now enjoy. He was hired in 1948 (the department was founded in 1947), and served as department chair from 1967-1977. He was instrumental in the early development of Atmospheric Sciences not just at UW, but internationally too. Among many highlights in his long career, he served in the Kennedy administration, helped establish NCAR, co-authored the influential books, "An Introduction to Atmospheric Physics" and "Eyewitness: Evolution of the Atmospheric Sciences," and established the Robert Fleagle Endowed Lectures in Public Policy at UW.

His influence on this great department cannot be over-emphasized, and he will be sorely missed.

Remembering Robert Fleagle, Professor Emeritus of Atmospheric Sciences

Professor Robert Fleagle passed away on April 20, and will be missed greatly by his university colleagues and others that knew him well. His distinguished career spanned 40 years, which included time as the Department of Atmospheric Science’s Chair and as a Senior Fellow in the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean. His work reached beyond the boundaries of UW, chairing the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Atmospheric Sciences and the University Corporation of Atmospheric Research Board of Trustees. He was also President of the American Meteorological Society, and served under President Kennedy in the Office of Science and Technology overseeing atmospheric research in government agencies.

"Bob Fleagle was a Founding Father of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, who helped establish the productive and collegial culture that yielded the excellent international reputation the department now enjoys,” said Greg Hakim, Professor and Chair of Atmospheric Sciences. “In addition to his publications, students, and influential textbook, his legacy includes an endowed lectureship on atmospheric science policy and a fund to support graduate education."

From Bob Brown–Research Professor Emeritus of Atmospheric Sciences

I met Bob in 1966, when half his life was over; the learning half? He was involved in the new Geophysics graduate program and I became the first student in this PhD program. He became my advisor. He was intellectual, liberal, and quite laid back in general. For my PhD topic he showed me a beautiful picture of cloud streets off the Georgia coast and said “Explain me this for your thesis.” OK. I came back a few years later with an elegant explanation. But in the meantime we met weekly and discussed politics and religion and other contemporary events. We didn’t communicate much on my complicated mathematical explanation of cloud streets, just enough for me to convince him that I knew something about what I was doing; or at least could sound professorial about it.

We played tennis a lot. I will always remember, as an example of “laid back”, one day I appeared for our meeting and his suggestion that we go play tennis right now. I got my racket and he drove us down to the few tennis courts by Hec Edmundson pavilion, a place where usually we would walk, since there were no parking spaces open nearby. Somehow he knew that there were spaces right next to the courts, clearly marked for the construction workers on the new stadium. But he drove right in, parked in the closest place to the courts. We played, I worried about a ticket but he didn’t, and retrieved the car without incident. I understood the attitude, that some rules were meant to be ignored? So I did it in my thesis, it worked, and he accepted it with aplomb.

I learned that guiding someone to a PhD meant more than just producing a thesis, it was teaching a disciple about a way of life. A couple of my PhD students (Bob’s grandPhDs) felt I learned this lesson well.

Marcia and I socialized often with Bob and Marianne; they lived a block from us. Bob and I encouraged each other to never miss a day of biking to work. I had mixed emotions when he biked home late in a storm, in the dark, with inadequate lights (Bob was frugal about these things), ran into a blown down tree limb and broke his collar bone. But he soon got back on the bike routine.

I learned a lot from Bob, the least of which was the enjoyable science, the most about how to live a rewarding life.

From Nick Bond–Deputy Director of the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean and Washington State Climatologist

I met Bob upon joining the Department of Atmospheric Sciences as a new graduate student in September 1980. I had no idea he would be my mentor, but he had a significant influence on my decision to apply to the University of Washington in the first place. Specifically, it was the textbook that he co-authored with Professor Joost Businger entitled “An Introduction to Atmospheric Physics” that really made up my mind. I studied physics as an undergraduate and knew next to nothing about meteorology and atmospheric sciences except that I thought it interesting. So I went to the library at the local state college and browsed the stack. I noticed that a number of the atmospheric science textbooks had been written by faculty at the UW. I was especially taken by the aforementioned text authored by Fleagle and Businger. The prose was clear and at least the first few chapters covered topics with which I was familiar and comfortable. I appreciated how the chapters were prefaced by apt quotations. In particular, there is fair warning provided in this way for the chapter on turbulent transfers, which represents rather difficult material. And I was struck by how he ended the book with a section on the atmospheric response to nuclear explosions. The final paragraph illustrates Bob’s spirit and bears quoting in full: “In concluding our discourse on so dismal a subject as the effects of nuclear explosions no subtle symbolism is intended. The all-encompassing atmosphere need not be destined to serve as the medium of transmission for man’s final inhumanity to man.”

While there is no question that Bob was a pacifist he was also no pushover. I can personally attest to how competitive he was on the tennis court. He and I were well matched even though I was more than 30 years his junior and a decent athlete. He showed little mercy and evident delight in sending me back and forth across the court to try to reach his well-placed shots. I understand he played lacrosse in his younger days, which speaks for itself.

Regarding Bob’s mentorship, a couple of aspects really stand out. First and foremost, he allowed me to flail. I would show him the results from an ill-conceived analysis of the field data I was using in my thesis and he would smile, and gently inquire about what I was trying to show. The outcome was almost always some change in direction. At the time I thought I was doing the steering, but after I was more on my own, I realized that was hardly the case. Bob was a highly skilled writer. He had to have been appalled at my early attempts to get thoughts down on paper. But with his characteristic patience, good cheer and guidance, I did improve (there was probably no where to go but up). He showed me that the writing is part and parcel with the science in a line of reasoning. I continue to strive towards matching his standard for clear and effective exposition.

Bob also set an impossibly high bar in terms of service to atmospheric science, and for that matter, the scientific community as a whole. In retrospect, I have no idea how he pulled it off. I find it challenging to make just modest contributions of this sort. Here again, I will always remember Bob as someone to emulate.

I close with an account of an exchange I had with him a couple of years ago. At the time I had just taken on the duties of the climatologist for the state of Washington, and I did not know what I was doing. His encouragement, and most of all assurance that I was qualified to take on this role and to trust my instincts, provided me with a needed boost that I will not soon forget.

(The Insider: May/June 2013, CoENV)

More Memories of Robert Fleagle: From Robert Charlson–Professor Emeritus of Atmospheric Sciences

I was a grad student in the Department of Meteorology and Climatology in the very first few years of the 1960's, during which time Bob Fleagle was the Departmental advisor to beginning grad students. I had arrived a few months before with a BS and MS in Chemistry and had assumed that I would work a while at Boeing and then do a Ph.D. in Chemistry; however, before that happened via Ed Danielson, I learned of this Department and decided to do that instead. Phil Church gave an OK to the transfer of departments, and Bob Fleagle than looked over my transcript from a BS and MS at Stanford between 1954 and 1959. He said that, while my grades were OK, that background was a poor match to that of meteorology. I asked what I could do to remedy that and he indicated a number of math courses that I needed as preparation for the grad courses such as 541 and 542 that he taught (Dynamics). He once again said that my background seemed inappropriate for Meteorology. So, for about 1 1/2 years I took differential equations, vector analysis etc. while working as an instrumentation engineer at the Boeing wind tunnel. (Aside: that was a very worthwhile experience in that I learned a lot about getting things done in a lab setting. I worked a split shift at Boeing, and did the courses in the AM. Boeing even paid the tuition and $20 per credit hour!) After finishing the math courses, I enrolled full time at the UW and Bob Fleagle's course 541 was the very first thing that I tackled. I was greatly intimidated by the substance of that course and with the instructor (whose nickname among grad students was Black Bob). I received a D in the first midterm, and very meekly made an appointment to see Bob Fleagle and tell him that he was right and that I should go back to Chemistry. Quite surprisingly to me, he said that I was "catching on", based on my homework, and he encouraged me to stick it out. I doubled down on the homework and crammed like mad for the next midterm and the final exam. Bob himself brought my final exam paper to my lab, marked A with a course grade of B. He congratulated me and that was the beginning of my career in what we now call Atmospheric Sciences. I am still in awe of the equations of motion and "del cross V", have never used them directly in my research and respect them for the rigor that they bring to this field.

Later on, in the Autumn of 1963, I decided to apply for a Fulbright Grant to go to work in the UK with B.J.Mason (who had been Peter Hobbs' professor at Imperial College in London). Two or 3 letters of recommendation were required, and because I had done well in his courses, I asked Bob Fleagle for one. At that time, he was in Washington D.C. as an assistant to Jerome Wiesner who was the Science Advisor to President John F. Kennedy. He did indeed write a letter, I did receive the Fulbright Grant and my introduction to the international aspects of meteorology became a reality. Bob Fleagle and I enjoyed many conversations after I returned to the UW, and I treasure then, one by one.

Robert Charlson

Opinion piece in Seattle Times:

Obituary in the Seattle Times