Emeritus Professor of Chemistry John Tanaka Dies

John Tanaka, emeritus professor of chemistry and former longtime director of the University’s Honors Programs, died April 14.

A candle burning.

John Tanaka, emeritus professor of chemistry and former longtime director of the University’s Honors Programs, died April 14, from complications of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). He was 87.

Tanaka was born in San Diego, Calif., in 1924. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from UCLA, then earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Iowa State University in 1956.

He taught for seven years at South Dakota State University. While there, he met Patricia Ellwein, and they were married in 1959. They later moved to Pittsburgh, Pa., where Tanaka completed a two-year post-doctoral study in inorganic chemistry.

He joined the University of Connecticut in 1965, where he made significant impacts in teaching, service, and research over the next 45 years.

His research focused on electrical insulation, and included studies for Laboratories of Westinghouse Electric Corp. He was active in the international Dielectrics and Electrical Insulation Society (DEIS/IEEE), eventually serving as president, and also the Insulated Conductors Committee of the Power Engineering Society. In 1985, he helped found the Electrical Insulation Magazine, becoming editor in 1987, and managing editor from 1991 to 2001. The magazine ran a 12-page tribute to his work in vol. 19, no. 4.

From 1971 to 1993, he was director of UConn’s Honors Program. In order to broaden the education of honors students, already at their credit limit, Tanaka introduced mini courses. An interdepartmental experimental one-credit course was also created to introduce freshman honors students to the services of the University. These courses have become the popular First Year Experience courses. In addition to course work, he also began a mentoring program within the Honors Program, where older students worked with freshmen. He also initiated a ‘get acquainted’ picnic in the fall, summer reading lists of classics for GRE preparation, and advising and preparation of composite letters of recommendation for pre-medical and pre-dental students. His colleagues say his advice and the composite pre-med or pre-dental letters he provided helped open the doors to dental school for hundreds of students.

After his retirement in 1993, he continued to advise the Pre-Dental Society, and until 2010 taught a senior inorganic laboratory class for which he co-wrote the book, Experimental Methods in Inorganic Chemistry, with Steven Suib.

“John Tanaka gave over 45 years of service to the department and the University, and impacted thousands of students through chemistry, the honors program, the Pre-Dental Society, and, occasionally, glass blowing,” say his colleagues in the chemistry department. “His positive attitude, inquisitive mind, and keen humor will be sorely missed.”

Tanaka received awards including an honorary doctorate from Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse France, 1983; Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Fellowship, 1986; DEIS/IEEE Distinguished Service Award, 1988; EEIC Hall of Fame Award, 1991; UConn Alumni Association Faculty Excellence Award for Public Service, 1994; Millennium Medal from the IEEE, 2000; and Lifetime Achievement Award for research, teaching, and service from the chemistry department at UConn in 2011. He mentored 15 graduate students at UConn, and three at South Dakota State University.

He is survived by his wife of 52 years Patricia, his sons Pete, Paul, and their families; and his sister Iris Fukutaki of Los Angeles and his brother Tyler of San Diego, and their families.

A memorial service will take place on Friday, May 4, at 10:30 a.m., at Storrs Congregational Church, 4 North Eagleville Road. Donations in his memory may be made to one of the following funds: The Dr. John Tanaka Scholarship for Honors, the Tanaka Fund for Innovative Undergraduate Advising, or the Emeriti Fund for Undergraduate Chemistry Research. Checks should be made payable to The UConn Foundation Inc., and sent to 2390 Alumni Drive, Unit 3206, Storrs, CT 06269. For an online memorial guest book, visit www.potterfuneralhome.com.