There’s something special here

By Marcia Aghajanian

When Nick “Nicky Ray” (yes, that’s his given name) Baumgartner first interviewed at John Carroll, he and his wife, Phyllis, had been married less than a year. That evening, he called Phyllis at their home in Wyoming.

“She could hear it in my voice and said, ‘You’re going to take the job if they offer it, aren’t you?’ Baumgartner recalls. “I had one other offer for a little more money, but there was something special here. It looked like a great place to start and spend a couple of years.”

Forty-two years later, Baumgartner sits in his corner office of the Dolan Center for Science and Technology — where he played an integral role in its development — and reflects on life and a rewarding career. He plans to retire at the end of the academic year.
Baumgartner was born and raised in Elgin, Iowa, population 620, in the northeast corner of the state near the Minnesota border. The son of a mechanic and homemaker, he lived in town during the school year, but says he’s a farm boy at heart and spent summers on his great-uncle’s farm. They raised various livestock and crops, and when Baumgartner was old enough, he worked a team of horses in the fields.


Before long, he was commuting to college at Upper Iowa University. Soon after, he was off to the University of Wyoming for his master’s, Ph.D., and to meet Phyllis on a blind date.

Now, after 42 years in academia — as a faculty member and administrator, including 10 years as Arts and Sciences dean — Baumgartner says his teaching methods and students have changed throughout the years.

“PowerPoints and current technology are tremendous aids in teaching,” he says. “I used to have everything written out with sample problems. Then, one day, I got to school and realized about 10 minutes before class that I left my notes at home. I scanned the book, made a few notes, and decided I don’t have to have everything as spelled out as I once thought.

“Also, while technology is wonderful, sometimes it limits how we visualize things,” he adds. “Students today have more trouble visualizing in three-dimensions a molecule of a model, for instance, because they can get it in 3-D technology. Sometimes you just have to visualize things in your head.”

Along the way, Baumgartner’s accomplishments have been celebrated with many awards. In 1985-86, he received a Grauel Faculty Fellowship from the University and did research in biochemistry and pharmacology at Case Western Reserve University. In 1990, he received the Distinguished Faculty Award, which he appreciated. And, in 1995, he was recognized by peers with the Distinguished Service Award from the Cleveland Technical Society.

More than anything, he’s proud to recall student success stories — like his former student and now-colleague in the chemistry department, Mark Waner, Ph.D. ’91, and his primary-care physician, Dan Breitenbach, M.D. ’79, who detected Baumgartner’s leaky aortic heart valve during a routine check-up, which resulted in successful valve replacement and triple-bypass surgery.

He and Phyllis have four children: Brian in Cleveland Heights; Scott, JCU class of ’98 in Connecticut; and Missy and Sara who are developmentally disabled and live at home; and three grandchildren.

When he retires, Baumgartner plans to spend more time fishing at their cottage at Pymatuning Lake. He also enjoys woodworking and remodeling projects, working with cars, and just started another three-year term on the board of trustees at church, where he also has served as an elder and deacon.

“This has been a loving, caring, sharing place,” he says. “It’s been a wonderful experience.” JCU

This article originally appeared in the Magis newsletter.

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