Standing in a room full of former colleagues and students, Dr. Tim Ritter reflected on his 21 years as a physics professor at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
The lasting friendships forged in the halls of the Oxendine Science Building will be treasured, along with excitement building up to the NC Region IV Science & Engineering Fair he led for years.
But of all the experiences that shaped his career, none drew a bigger smile on Ritter’s face than when he spoke of his students.
“It was a wonderful 21 years,” he said. “I miss the people a lot. Some of my best friends are here at this university and that will always mean a great deal to me.
“The most important thing, however, was I always tried to put the students first and do what was best for the students. That was my guiding light. That’s why it means so much to see some of my former students here.”
Several students, including Candace Langston, and colleagues attended a celebration in Ritter’s honor on October 19. Ritter was accompanied by his wife, Marie.
Langston, a 2013 graduate, considers Ritter the best professor she had “hands down.”
Siva Mandjiny, chair of the Chemistry and Physics Department, thanked Ritter for his many contributions, including securing research grants.
“These grants led to student success,” he said. “Students could be seen in his office all the time. He helped students tirelessly, writing grants or helping them with assignments.”
“Dr. Ritter you really worked very hard,” Mandjiny said with tears in his eyes. “We appreciate all you have done for UNCP and we will try to follow in your footsteps.”
Ritter’s return to campus was bittersweet. It wasn’t the type of retirement ceremony anyone imagined two years ago.
Ritter, a commander with US Navy Reserves who served a year in Iraq after 9/11, was recalled to active duty on a teaching assignment at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
He was teaching class in March 2015 when he sensed something was wrong after he had trouble picking up a piece of chalk.
“I went to the doctor and they rushed me to Walter Reed Military Hospital.”
After a series of tests, neurologists diagnosed him with ALS.
Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a disorder that affects the function of nerves and muscles. Studies show more than 6,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with ALS each year.
Since his diagnosis, Ritter has been active with local chapters of ALS Association in Fayetteville and near his home in North Myrtle Beach, S.C.
He returned to UNCP and taught briefly in 2016 before taking medical leave.
During his retirement ceremony, colleagues praised Ritter’s dedication to the university and the community. He is a two-time recipient of the UNCP Outstanding Teaching Award in 2004 and 2009 and the more prestigious UNC Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence in 2013.
That winter he gave a memorable commencement address in which he quoted Dr. Suess. At one point he stepped off stage, handed the microphone to graduates, asking them to share their college experience.
Langston, his former student and research assistant, said Ritter is one of the most genuine professors she had.
“He cares about you as a person,” she said. “He is probably the reason I passed in physics because he would take time in his office to make sure that I understood every concept.
Physics professor Dr. Tom Dooling was hired in 1996, the same year as Ritter.
“He is a great guy who made big contributions to our program,” Dooling said. “I will miss his sense of humor and miss talking to him about physics. Campus doesn’t seem the same. It’s like a piece of you is missing."
Dr. Paul Flowers said Ritter impressed him as always being down-to-earth, … “even for a physics professor,” he said jokingly.
“We had similar research areas in our graduate work, so we always had something ‘sciencey’ to talk about. We got pretty tight over the past 20 years. I miss him terribly.
“He was an awesome colleague, but an even better friend.”
Of his many accomplishments, Ritter is most proud of the NASA-sponsored microgravity research program he led from 2002 to 2014. During that time he had eight teams of UNCP students accepted by NASA to fly their zero gravity experiments in NASA’s Microgravity Research aircraft in Houston, Texas.
The student teams were dubbed the “Weightless Lumbees.” Members of the 2002 team, including Robie Goins, Mary Beth Brayboy Locklear, Kiel Locklear and April Oxendine, attended the retirement celebration, along with Tiffany Scott, a member of the 2014 crew.
“I can’t say how much it means to me to have all these students come back and share this day with me,” Ritter said. “They were a very special group who will always have a very special place in my heart.
“I feel that my time here has been worthwhile especially when I learn that students from that program went on and did great things.”
Mary Beth Locklear, director of the Office for Regional Initiatives, said Ritter is credited with bringing national science programs to rural North Carolina.
“Dr. Ritter encouraged his students to dream big and go after what we wanted to achieve in education and life,” she said.
“He made a positive impact on my academic career at UNCP and I cannot thank him enough for his service to the university and nation.”
Goins said he was honored to reconnect with the beloved professor.
“He taught us a lot … He was a great mentor. He knew how to bring out the best in everybody. It was great seeing him after all these years.”