Legacy of a legend

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Dr. Olenick has been a beloved instructor for both STEM and non-STEM majors alike. Photo by Henry Gramling.

Olenick retiring after forty-five years of teaching

Long-time beloved professor of physics, Dr. Richard Olenick, is retiring at the end of this academic year after forty-five years at the University of Dallas.

After impacting so many lives at UD since starting in 1979, it is only fair that UD tells the story of a man who has lived so rich a life. With a life so full, Olenick offers wisdom for those who wish to learn from his example.

Born in Chicago, Olenick was interested in science ever since he was a young child. Reading his books alone, he was watched by his Polish grandmother while both his parents worked.

Olenick explained, “I got interested in science because science is something you can ask questions of and seek answers on your own.”

The inherent curiosity inside Olenick was apparent to the rest of his family. His uncle on his mother’s side would quiz him on everything, give him puzzles and call him the “Little Professor.”

Those experiences stayed with Olenick who remained curious as he explored the world around him. His interest in science continued to grow as he spent one summer of high school at Northwestern University, where his love of physics began to ignite. That spark grew in college as his love for physics was solidified.

Olenick recalled joyfully, “It was amazing. My junior and senior year, I lived in the lab practically.”

After college, he went to Purdue, originally desiring to pursue astrophysics. Unfortunately, the astrophysicist Olenick desired to work with went on a sabbatical and never came back, leading Olenick to pursue theoretical high-energy physics instead.

“I loved my time at Purdue,” said Olenick. “I thought I grew a lot, had a lot of friends. And now when I think back how old I am, I always feel twenty-five because it was a happy time as a graduate student.” Olenick also shared that working with 18 to 22 year olds at UD makes him feel young still.

Olenick explained that he looked for jobs when he was finishing at Purdue, and at a conference in New York, he met Fr. Benedict, the former Cistercian chair of physics, and talked to him whenever he was free.

“I remember he asked me, he said, ‘Well you’re Catholic.’ And I said, ‘You’re not supposed to ask those questions.’ He said, ‘Because I don’t need to, I can tell you are.’”

Olenick continued, “So I ended up visiting here, and I thought that this place had a lot of potential, and that’s what drew me to it. So I have enjoyed tremendously teaching here. The students are fantastic, and it’s been a very joyful forty-five years.”

During his forty-five years at UD, Olenick had experiences most people could only dream of. He taught in Moscow on a Fulbright grant for faculty, made a PBS series called “The Mechanical Universe,” and met people such as Frank Capra and Mikhail Gorbachev.

But throughout all of these amazing experiences, Olenick’s primary concern was the students.

“That’s what we want,” he explained. “We want to touch people’s lives.”

Indeed, Olenick has touched the lives of many students as he made the physics major program what it is today and started the astronomy course that humanities students have taken for decades. Though one door closes with retirement, another one opens as Olenick looks forward to the new adventures life will bring him. Alongside research and traveling, Olenick is working on two books, one on computational physics and the other a coffee table book on astronomy and poetry.

Explaining the astronomy and poetry book, Olenick said it would contain: “Images from Hubble or now James Webb and a physicist’s explanation of what’s going on and then a poem that to me reflects a similar thing but with people’s relationships.”

This book will have one poem each day of the year, and Olenick has already picked out 365 poems. He hopes that this book will teach more people astronomy and to help them gain a better understanding of the galaxies, the structure of the universe and their relationships with other people.

No matter the chapter on his journey, Olenick will first and foremost always be a teacher who seeks to spark a deep love of learning in his students. Some of his final advice to UD students are as follows: “Ask your own questions and seek answers – that’s what we try to educate the students with here. To always be curious and to delve deeper into that curiosity.”

The UD community is forever grateful to Olenick. We will miss him dearly and hope he has a wonderful retirement!

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