CCB mourns the loss of one of its own - Dr. Roy Caton Jr.

Departmental News

Posted:  Jan 07, 2020 - 12:00am

Roy Caton holds up a model of a salt crystal during a lecture on chemistry for gardeners in 2000. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology announces with sadness the unexpected passing of Professor Emeritus Roy Caton on August 7, 2019. Professor Caton received his B.S. in Chemistry in 1952 and his M.S. in 1953, both from Fresno State University.  In 1963 he completed his Ph.D in Chemistry at Oregon State University and started as an Assistant Professor at UNM the same year.  His research at UNM focused on electroanalytical chemistry, but his real passion was teaching undergraduate Chemistry students and making it as lively as possible until he retired in the early 1990s. 


The grave of Roy Caton at the Santa Fe National Cemetery. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Professor Emeritus and colleague Tom Niemczyk recalls that Roy was one of the faculty who influenced the construction of Woodward Hall.  “Roy was a one of the older members of the faculty when I joined the department in January 1973.  He had been trained as an analytical chemist and had a relatively encyclopedic knowledge of classical analytical techniques. He could tell you how to perform a quantitative analysis for almost anything using a colorimetric or gravimetric procedure.  He was passionate about teaching, and by the early to mid-1970’s most of his laboratory time was spent developing and testing demonstrations that could be used in the classroom.  It was common to see him wheeling a cart down the hall loaded with the apparatus needed to perform one of his classroom demonstrations.  When the University decided construct Woodward Hall Roy insisted that a good lecture prep room be included in the design.  Roy’s enthusiasm and charming presentation style made him a popular teacher.”

As one of those students, John L. “Jack” Jackson, B.S.1969, remembered, “My fondest memory of Dr. Caton was in my freshman Chemistry 121 class in the Spring of 1961.  It started at 7:15 a.m. and went until 9:00.  Needless to say, most of the students were half awake at that time of day.  One morning we were to receive a lecture on chemical and physical changes.  Dr. Caton bounced onto the lecture hall stage wearing this loud, bright, colorful shirt and large awful looking tie whose color painfully clashed with that of his shirt. He suddenly reached into the drawer of the desk on the stage and produced this large pistol.  He pointed it at the ceiling and then discharged it with an almost sonic boom.  That, he cried, was a chemical change!  While our ears were still ringing from the echo of the discharge, Dr. Caton produced a large pair of shears and promptly cut off the tie just below the knot.  That he proclaimed, was a physical change. Dr. Caton was always enthusiastic about his teaching, and I believe he was one of the main reasons that I decided to major in Chemistry shortly thereafter. Anyone who says that one person can't make a difference never had the pleasure of knowing Dr. Caton.”

John Solenberger, Ph.D 1963, said, “Roy Caton was a breath of fresh air to the UNM Chemistry Department when he arrived. He challenged the way things were done and helped to modernize instrumentation, particularly that related to measurements that were used previously. He provided excellent instruction in analytical chemistry."

Regents’ Professor Doug Klein from Texas A&M University at Galveston knew Professor Caton when he was a graduate student in Oregon. He writes, ”To illustrate Roy’s friendliness I might recount how I first met him, during the summer between my high-school sophomore and junior years, when I attended a summer-science camp hosted at Oregon State University. One free afternoon, being very interested in Chemistry, I went over to the chemistry building, walking around in the hall-ways, mostly seeing closed office or lab doors. One office door was open, and as I timidly walked by looking in, there was Roy, who asked me if I was looking for something. Of course, I did not know what to say, but somehow we started talking, for quite a while – and I came back the next day to talk a bit more. Anyway when I came to Oregon State a couple years later, I already knew Roy, and was a regular visitor in his office.

He did demonstrations in his lectures, some-times just to keep up the interest of his students. One which he passed off in a sort of semi-spontaneous manner, involved him cutting off the tip of his tie, and throwing into a beaker of (concentrated) sulfuric acid. If the material of the tie was chosen properly, the result was dramatic. He of course would say something about being very careful with concentrated sulfuric acid.”

Professor Emeritus and colleague Cary Morrow knew Roy Caton as an avid skier and organizer of outdoor activities. “Apparently, there was a time when he led hikes by groups of his undergraduate students. A couple my wife and I met a number of years later because our daughters were in the same dance school, described Roy taking them and others in their class on a hike in the Sandias.  He also led hikes of faculty.  Fairly early in my time at UNM he asked if anyone on the faculty was interested in hiking the La Luz trail.  I joined the group and he led us up and down in a long day.  Roy had been doing the hike for so long that he knew where the “old trail” ran and took us up that one.  My memory is that it was more wooded in the bottom area than is the current one, but joined the current trail part way up.  A year or two later, he asked if anyone was interested in hiking up to South Peak beginning near Tijeras.  Again, I joined the group for a very long day’s hiking.  I believe our colleague Paul Papadopoulos, who hiked with Roy a lot in later years, was on that hike as well.” 

Professor Caton often entertained groups of students at his home which was very close to the University on Harvard Street.  It was known for its beautiful garden which he maintained as a Master Gardener, and its distinct architecture.  While his presence in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology faded over the decades during his retirement, it is clear that his academic legacy will live on in the thousands of freshman chemistry students he taught in 30 years of hard work and in his dedication to their education.