Colleagues mourn professor's passing


Published: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 20, 2003 at 11:53 p.m.

Friends, colleagues and students will gather Friday to remember Ralph Dawson Jr.

The 48-year-old associate professor of pharmacodynamics in the University of Florida's College of Pharmacy was killed in an automobile accident on Interstate 10 on Christmas Eve.

Those who knew him best remember Dawson, who grew up in rural Alabama, as a man who loved learning and the outdoors, probably in equal measure.

Executive Associate Dean William Millard joined the faculty just months after Dawson arrived at UF in 1985. He remembers Dawson's enthusiasm for teaching courses in pharmacology and toxicology.

"He was dedicated to his students and wanted them to learn. He pulled no punches. The students knew he was going to be hard, but when they walked out of his course, they had in-depth understanding of the subject," Millard said.

"He yearned to learn and was one of the most intelligent people I ever met," Millard said.

Fellow faculty member Michael Meldrum said: "He had to work hard for his education, so he placed a high value on it. For him, there was wonderment in learning, and he tried to instill that feeling of wonder in his students."

Dawson was raised in rural southwest Alabama, near the town of Frisco City. He was the only child of Ralph Dawson Sr. and Christine Dawson, who own about 700 acres of farm and woodland there.

Dawson graduated magna cum laude from the University of South Alabama in 1976, then earned his Ph.D. in toxicology from Johns Hopkins University in 1983.

While with the College of Pharmacy, he served terms as associate dean for research and graduate studies and as graduate coordinator for the pharmacodynamics department.

As a researcher, he received a $3.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to discover novel drugs to treat Alzheimer's disease. He had devoted most of his recent research to understanding memory loss and brain disorders.

Most recently, he received a grant from the McKnight Brain Research Foundation to study whether a daily intake of taurine, a diet supplement used in many energy drinks, could preserve learning and memory.

Janet Karlix, an associate professor of pharmacy practice, defined Dawson's legacy this way: "He was a kind and loving human being. He had a great sense of humor and was truly interested in people's well being. He always understood that the purpose of his work was to help people."

Millard also valued Dawson's sense of humor, describing him as a "modern-day Henny Youngman, with perfect one-liners that always came straight out of the blue."

His scientific expertise sometimes disguised the heart of a man who loved the outdoors, colleagues say. He loved to hunt, fish and kayak, and he had planned to transform some of the woods on his parents' property into a hunting facility.

Millard said he had an early Christmas with his two children - Ralph Dawson III of Newberry and Alecia Dawson Perkins of Gainesville - then set out on Christmas Eve to spend the holiday with his parents in Alabama.

"He was headed west on I-10 that night, when we had such high winds and heavy rain," Millard said. "I'm not sure anyone will ever know exactly what happened."

The memorial service will be held Friday at 3 p.m. in the auditorium of the new Health Professions, Nursing and Pharmacy Complex.

Maureen Keller-Wood, who heads the department, said: "We were like family, a small department with practically no turnover. There are only seven of us now, so the loss is felt more profoundly than in a department of 50."

That loss is felt far beyond the College of Pharmacy, Millard said, adding: "Ralph was a well-liked guy who touched many people here. He was just fun to be around."

Diane Chun can be reached at 374-5041 or chund@gvillesun. com.

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