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Legendary Professor Dr. Cormack Passes Away

SOCORRO, N.M. March 16, 2015 – Dr. Robert Cormack, professor of psychology, passed away Saturday, March 14, 2015, in Socorro. A service of remembrance will be held on campus later in the semester.

Dr. Cormack was the longest-serving, full-time member of the faculty at Tech, having come to Socorro in 1968. 

New Mexico Tech bestowed upon Cormack the Distinguished Teaching Award in 2004. For almost 30 years, he delivered the proem at commencement. Cormack retired recently and was granted emeritus status by the Board of Regents on Friday, March 13.

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Dr. Robert Cormack

1934-2015

 

Cormack is survived by his son Dr. Lawrence Cormack, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and four daughters, Nadia, Tania, Sonia and Chandra Salgado; granddaughters, Emily Cormack and Elena Ariola; and grandson, Antonio Ariola.

“Dr. Cormack was an institution at New Mexico Tech,” said university President Dr. Daniel H. Lopez. “He was a very accomplished researcher and a great teacher. The Tech family is saddened by his passing. He contributed much and he will be fondly remembered for his strong interest, not only Tech, but in the students who attended our institution.  Our condolences go to his son, Larry and family.”

Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Warren Ostergren said, “Dr. Cormack has been such a remarkable faculty member and a leading academic in psychology. He has mentored so many faculty and students and helped create so much of what is Tech today. He is beloved by the campus community and we are so saddened by his loss.”

Dr. Cormack served as Dean of Students from 1970 to 1978 under presidents Dr. Stirling Colgate and Dr. Ken Ford. He was the first chair of the Faculty Senate and served two terms. He was the Acting Dean of Graduate Studies in 1986 and 1987. He served as Director of Athletics for one year and taught racquetball classes for many years.

Dr. Mark Samuels of the Psychology Department supported Cormack’s emeritus status, writing that, “Bob started the Psychology Department and has been its guiding force since its inception. Throughout his time at New Mexico Tech, many students have worked in his laboratory and he has advised many more. He has always been available to help anyone throughout the University and its community. He has dedicated his life to New Mexico Tech and its students. Since I arrived, it was rare that Bob was not here seven days a week, with his doors open to anyone who needed his assistance. … He was an inspiration to me.”

(Most of the following text appeared in the alumni magazine Gold Pan in 2013, written by Valerie Kimble.)

Robert H. Cormack was born in Dayton, Ohio, on Feb. 20, 1934, to Elbert and Orpah Cormack, who not long after moved to Cincinnati. Cormack received a bachelor’s in psychology in 1955 and a master’s in general psychology a year later, both from the University of Cincinnati. He then spent three years in the U.S. Air Force before returning to Cincinnati for a Ph.D. in experimental psychology in 1962.

As a graduate student, Cormack taught classes in the university’s night school, the equivalent of a community college. He then spent four years at Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y., before moving to Savanna, Ga., to join the psychology program at Armstrong State College.

His own specialty was visual perception, including depth perception, illusion, color vision and tactile and aural stimuli, for example.

Among his standout courses was one on the philosophy of science. “I enjoyed teaching that,” said Cormack, explaining that philosophy is important in studying the nature of consciousness in specific targets, as opposed to any overarching philosophical rendering of the mind.

He said he enjoyed reading the works of Bertrand Russell and David Hume, whose studies examined the psychological basis of human nature.

“A lot of that work has become the conditions under which people have phantom experiences,” Cormack said. “We’re treating them not as anything supernatural or paranormal, but as having the same kind of neural chemistry as others.”

Another subject he finds interesting is the fallibility of human memory, and the “fake” memories people have; showing, he said, “that the easiest person to fool is oneself.”

He often presented a “How to Study” seminar. “There seemed to be a need, so I started it on my own,” he said, adding that Student Services then offered to sponsor the seminar, “and it took off from there.”

He also lent his bass voice to Tech musicals in the days. Cormack’s first theater experience was in high school musicals, before taking on stage-hand duties for a collegiate Shakespearean play while in the military.

After playing the Russian patriarch Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Cormack was the stage manager for many campus productions.

“I’ve been extremely fortunate to have been allowed to teach here at Tech,” Cormack said. “I’ve worked with some fantastic colleagues and met some very fantastic students.”

The first time Cormack taught a class in perception, he set up an experiment using samples of Coors and Budweiser beers, to see if students could tell the difference between the two. “I don’t do that now,” he said. “I use different brands of sodas. … It’s not all that acceptable now to be allowing students to drink alcohol.”

Cormack was amused when, early in a semester and after class, a student would say to him: “My mom says to say ‘hi’.” Now, he says, he is as apt to hear a student say, “My grandmother took your class.”

Many of Cormack’s former students went on to grad school and disappeared; still others came back to campus for 49ers or commencement. “Now,” he says, “we have several students who returned as professors.”

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Dr. Robert Cormack Scholarship Fund, New Mexico Tech, Office for Advancement, 801 Leroy Place, Socorro, NM 87801. Memorial notes are encouraged.

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich and Valerie Kimble/New Mexico Tech