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Joseph A. Pask, professor emeritus and a ceramic engineering pioneer, dies at 90

 Joe Pask
Joseph Pask. (Courtesy of the Pask family.)

– Joseph Adam Pask, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and an internationally respected leader in the field of modern ceramic science and engineering, has died at age 90.

Pask died peacefully in his sleep on June 14 at the Brentwood residence of a long-time home healthcare nurse. He had been moved there one week before from his home in Berkeley after his wife, Margaret Pask, suffered a heart attack.

"Everybody who knew Joe loved him as a person, not only as a scientist," said Dick Bradt, professor and chair of metallurgical materials and engineering at the University of Alabama and a personal friend of Pask's for 37 years. "It's a sad day for the entire ceramics world that Joe Pask has passed on."

Pask joined the faculty of UC Berkeley in 1948 at a time when the field of ceramics was bursting out of the confines of pottery and lavatory materials and onto the stage of modern engineering. Pask and another UC Berkeley professor emeritus, Richard M. Fulrath, who died in 1977, formed the first graduate and undergraduate programs in ceramic engineering on campus.

"There was no ceramic engineering at UC Berkeley before Pask," said Alan Searcy, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of materials science who was recruited to the campus by Pask in 1954.

"The impact was remarkable in proportion to the size of the program. The graduate students have gone on to become leaders in industry and faculty members at major universities."

In 1958, Pask became chairman of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, a position he held until 1961. He served as associate dean for Graduate Affairs in the College of Engineering from 1969 until he retired in 1980.

During his time on campus, Pask not only garnered respect for the program in ceramic engineering, he expanded the Department of Materials Science and Engineering by recruiting faculty with a broad range of expertise, from minerals processing to physical chemistry.

"He helped establish the reputation of the ceramics program at UC Berkeley around the world, and he created an environment that brought in some notable figures to the materials science department," said Douglas Fuerstenau, UC Berkeley professor of materials science and engineering. "Pask, together with his predecessor, Earl Parker (the late professor of metallurgy), was responsible for the emergence of research in a big way within this department."

Pask was born in 1913 in Chicago on Feb. 14 to Adam and Catherine Poskoczem.

In a listing under Who's Who in America, Pask credited his achievements in life to his upbringing. "Whatever success I have had can be attributed to hard work generated by a desire for success and recognition by my peers," he stated. "This attitude was generated by my mother who came to this country, a land of opportunities, as an immigrant from Lithuania at the age of 16 without any knowledge of English. There was no question in her mind - and consequently mine - that I would get an education and be successful."

After changing his last name to Pask at the suggestion of a high school teacher, he went on to get his bachelor's degree in engineering at the University of Illinois in 1934, and his master's degree in engineering at the University of Washington in 1935. He returned to the University of Illinois to get his PhD in ceramic engineering in 1941.

While he was studying for his doctorate, Pask met his wife, Margaret, on a blind date to a college football game in 1935. Three years later, they were married in a small ceremony near the University of Illinois's Urbana campus.

Over the next decade, Pask would take various research and teaching positions at the University of Illinois, the Northwest Experiment Station of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, the University of Washington's College of Mines and the Westinghouse Electric Company.

After coming to UC Berkeley, Pask grew into a leader in the field of ceramic engineering. His colleagues point to Pask's work in mullite, an alumina-silica compound used in engines, turbines and energy conversion systems.

"He conducted very sound science in the ceramics area at a time when ceramics was considered the dirty cousin of metallurgy," said Andreas Glaeser, a professor of materials science and engineering who was recruited to UC Berkeley by Pask.

"Pask's work on mullite is still the standard reference," said Bradt. "His decades of research helped us better understand how to control it and make it stronger. Without mullite, we'd have no steel. It's used in the linings of furnaces to hold molten metals because of its very high melting point and thermodynamic stability."

While Pask's career achievements are notable, those who knew him remember him for his personal warmth. "Although he was very distinguished in his field and garnered top awards, he is remembered as an extremely human person," said Fiona Doyle, professor and chair of materials science and engineering at UC Berkeley. "He touched the lives of many staff, faculty and visitors, and he stood out as a real gentleman."

Fuerstenau said that he regularly hears from former graduate students - even in fields outside of ceramics - that Pask always gave his time whenever they came to seek his advice on their research.

Pask and his wife regularly hosted visitors and scholars in engineering from around the world, forming a social nexus through which countless researchers met.

"Arguably one of Joe's greatest contributions was as an ambassador between the ceramic community here in the United States and in Japan," said Glaeser. "He brought people together who ordinarily wouldn't have come together. Some very senior scientists in Japan still refer to him as the 'Great Father.' "

Peers say the U.S.-Japan channel that Pask helped create led to the establishment of the Richard M. Fulrath Award for outstanding contributions to the ceramics field. The goal of the award, established one year after his colleague's death, is to promote technical and personal interactions between American and Japanese ceramic engineers.

"One should not undervalue the significance of what he did by bringing people together," said Searcy, Pask's former UC Berkeley colleague. "The community of scientists that he helped create has far reaching impacts in the field of ceramics."

Pask earned numerous awards throughout his life, including the 1967 John Jeppson Medal for outstanding achievements in ceramic technology and the highest award of the American Ceramic Society, and, in 1980, the Berkeley Citation, one of the campus's highest honors for extraordinary achievement in one's field and for outstanding service to the university. Pask was also elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1963, and to the National Academy of Engineering in 1975.

Pask is survived by his wife, Margaret; son, Thomas Pask of San Luis Obispo; daughter, Kathryn Pask Hruby of Emeryville; half-sister, Frances Tarvid of Chicago; three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is scheduled for 4 p.m. July 11 at the Heyns Room at UC Berkeley's Faculty Club. Donations in Pask's memory may be made to UC Berkeley's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, 210 Hearst Mining Building, Berkeley CA 94720-1760.