TUSCALOOSA, Ala. –Thousands of University of Alabama “baby boom” era students remember Dr. Robert H. Garner – either as the teacher of many undergraduate chemistry classes or as one of the University’s most sought-out advisers who guided them through rough academic times or helped them stay the course into medical or law school.
Garner, UA professor emeritus of chemistry, died Monday at the age of 71.
Garner served for 35 years on the UA faculty including 21 years as assistant dean and head of the Office of Student Services in UA’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Garner’s early career at UA coincided with the “baby boom” years of the 1960s and 1970s when UA saw record growth in enrollments. Courses that prepared students for medical school, nursing, and other health professions were in high demand, and he was well known by pre-health professions students for his undergraduate courses in introductory organic chemistry as well as his courses in chemistry for non-majors, nursing, and dietetics students.
In 1967 he became chairman of UA’s Health Professions Advising Committee that established guidelines and policies to assist health-professions students with academic planning. He served in that post until 1971 and again from 1986 to his retirement in 1994.
In his retirement years, Garner remained active at the University, heading advising projects, teaching chemistry for non-majors, and actively working with Rural Medical Scholars, Rural Health Scholars, and the Minority Health Scholars programs, joint projects of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Community Health Sciences.
Throughout his career, he was recognized for developing innovative programs in both research and teaching to mentor students and help them be successful.
An active researcher in the area of organic chemistry, Garner served as a research adviser for 12 graduate students and directed a highly successful National Science Foundation-sponsored summer program which provided undergraduates with paid research experience in faculty laboratories and which continues today. He successfully obtained grants from the National Science Foundation for a science education program for high school teachers in 1970, for a cooperative program with two-year colleges for 1972-1974, and a major U.S. Department of Education grant to establish a mentoring program for minority pre-medical students.
“The University has lost one of its legendary faculty members and administrators,” said Dr. Bob Olin, dean of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Long before mentoring programs and student learning communities were being promoted in higher education, Bob Garner was starting programs designed with one purpose: to help students succeed in their education and gain entry into their chosen careers. As a teacher and researcher, his focus was always on the student. During his 21 years as an assistant dean, he transformed the way the largest unit of the University helps students plan their academic careers and was a model for later innovations.”
In 1973, Garner became assistant dean for natural sciences and for student services in the College of Arts and Sciences, UA’s largest division with nearly 5,000 students at that time. Under his leadership, the College’s Office of Student Services was expanded to accommodate the growing number of students coming to UA.
He hired the College’s first team of professional academic advisers; established specialized advising programs for pre-health, pre-law, and pre-professional majors; designed and taught an academic orientation program for first-semester students; and instituted a program of continued advising leading up to graduation and post-graduate planning.
“Dr. Garner was a wonderfully kind and compassionate man who always had the best interest of the student at heart,” said Jeannie Thomley, registrar in the Office of Student Services of the College of Arts and Sciences, who was hired by Garner in 1986 as the College’s first full-time health professions adviser.
“He was never too busy to help students whether it was tutoring for organic chemistry or preparing a medical school application,” said Thomley. “It was truly a joy to work for someone with such integrity and who led by example. Retirement didn’t slow him down. Within the last two weeks, he was conducting practice interviews with students planning to apply to medical school, and he was doing an enormous amount of work with our joint medical scholars program with the College of Community Health Sciences. If the students needed him, he was always there.”
Garner served on UA’s planning committee for the Paul Bryant Continuing Education Center in 1984-1985 and on the Alabama State Department of Education Committee on Advanced Placement from 1982-1987.
He was a member of the national and local chapters of the American Chemical Society and served as chairman of the Alabama Section of the American Chemical Society in 1965-1966. He also was a member of the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions.
A native of Mobile, Garner graduated from Murphy High School and received a Bachelor of Science degree from Vanderbilt University in 1954 and a doctorate in chemistry from Rice University of Houston, Texas, in 1958. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society at Vanderbilt and the Society of Sigma Xi at Rice University.
At The University of Alabama, he was an honorary member of Gamma Sigma Epsilon chemistry honor society and Alpha Epsilon Delta pre-medical honor society and Golden Key scholastic honor society.
Garner served for many years as a member of the board of directors of both Habitat of Tuscaloosa and the Kiwanis Club of Greater Tuscaloosa. He was a member of Calvary Baptist church where he has served on a number of committees, assisted with youth camp and where he was currently serving as Sunday School Teacher of the Curtis Evans Sunday school class.
Garner is survived by his wife, Margaret Garner, assistant professor and director of nutritional education and services at the University of Alabama College of Medicine; and sons Mark Daniel Garner, Robert David Garner, Jonathan William Garner, Benjamin Pipkin Garner, and Thomas Weatherford Garner.
The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.