Longtime PSU physics chair dies at age 89

Dr. Mark Gurevitch, a professor who guided the physics department from a 2-year college to a fully-fledged doctorate-level research institution, died Feb. 16 at age 89 after spending more than two decades at Portland State.

Before coming to Portland in 1958, Gurevitch had received his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, where he shared a room with renowned physicist David Bohm. He taught in his field for a number of years at the University of Idaho at Moscow. For the next 24 years, he served avidly as chair of the Physics department at at Portland State.

“To me, he was a fatherly figure,” said Erik Bodegom, Portland State’s current physics chair. “He appreciated people, but he was a very sharp guy – he was always much appreciated for his wisdom.”

Bodegom took over the responsibilities of the physics department around 1991, when Gurevitch retired for the second time. His first retirement came in the early ’80s, when PSU was facing a financial crunch. Every department had been given a quota of cuts to make, and Gurevitch ultimately chose to retire. Professor Emeritus John Dash explained why, “He wasn’t ready to retire, but he had a higher salary so he could take the brunt of the cut just by retiring. That was a great thing to do for the viability of the department. It might have taken two or three faculty. [If he hadn’t retired] they might have lost their jobs.”

Although officially retired, Gurevitch couldn’t stay away from the university for long. Shortly afterward, he came back to serve as a part-time department chair for several more years. “He was serious about wanting to do a good job,” said Dash, “But he smiled and we joked and everything like that too – he never seemed to have trouble making up his mind. He was a real leader.”

Gurevitch’s colleagues said that while he was serious about his work, he also thoughtfully took care of his colleagues and was not one to hold a grudge.

Around 1967, Dash said, the physics department was given 6 new faculty positions because PSU was newly authorized to offer graduate programs. Motivated by this, he wanted to propose to the state a PhD in biophysics, which wasn’t well received by the science faculty. The dean of science wanted a PhD in environmental science and resources instead, and four or five of the new faculty wrote letters to the state in opposition to the biophysics program.

“It caused a big fuss, and I guess I was na퀨͌�ve but I wrote such a letter,” said Dash. “I asked the physics secretary to type it, and she did on department stationery, and I sent a letter to Governor Tom McCall. Dr. Gurevitch was totally upset about this and he called a meeting and berated the letter-writers and I kept my mouth shut, not knowing what was going to happen – that storm blew over and he never held it against me, otherwise I couldn’t have stayed.”

Although the school chose to stick with the environmental science and resources doctorate, Gurevitch’s persistence paid off when he hired Kwan Hsu as the first biophysics professor at Portland State University.

“That was a very astute thing to do, because biophysics is very important and keeps getting more important,” said Dash.

Gurevitch was also instrumental in the creation of an endowed chair in the physics department. His perceptiveness helped him recognize the potential of Gertrude Rempfert, who is still serving as a Professor Emerita of physics. In high part due to Gurevitch’s emphasis of her talent, the department raised money to endow a chair in her name. This was the first endowed chair in a physics dept in any university in the state of Oregon.

In addition to his duties at Portland State University, Gurevitch acted as chairman of the science division for when the former chairman left for a couple of years. He published papers on sub-micron metal particles in iron and on the principles, development and use of high altitude precipitation gauges. He was also a member of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.