Originally printed in The Daily Barometer, Wednesday, February 5, 2014 (used with permission)
By: Dacotah-Victoria Splichalova
Professor Ken Hedberg makes waves in his field after nearly 30 years in retirement.
He tells everyone to “just call me Ken.”
Professor Ken Hedberg is an Oregon State University alumnus and the longest emeritus faculty researcher to continue researching after retirement for nearly 30 years.
Hedberg was born in Portland on Feb. 2, 1920. His father only completed eighth grade, and his mother didn’t continue her education after high school.
“Both of my parents were incredibly smart,” Hedberg said.
When the Great Depression hit, Hedberg’s father lost his job, which put the family in financial straits.
Hedberg recalls the lights being shut off in his home for periods of time; food rationing became a reality.
This experience left a strong imprint on Hedberg.
“My father said to me in my early teens that with every dollar I made, he would match for my college education,” Hedberg said, “but then how the depression hit us and with my father being out of work for such a long time — I knew that this promise would not come to be.”
Readjusting through a series of moves across the state, Hedberg, his mother and his sister moved to Corvallis with the goal in mind for the Hedberg children to attend OSU, while Hedberg’s father took a job working on the coast.
“I was so impressed by how my mother and my father came together to see what options they had in order to do the best for our family,” Hedberg said.
In order to meet this goal, Hedberg’s mother ran a boarding house within their home.
“It was a lot of work for my mother — the cooking the cleaning,” Hedberg said. “Almost 75 years later, I wouldn’t be seated here nor carrying out my research if my mother didn’t work as hard as she did.”
Graduating OSU in the 1940s, Hedberg attended graduate school at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., where he first met Dr. Linus Pauling, a fellow OSU graduate and head of the department of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology.
For the young graduate student, Pauling took note of Hedberg’s talents and intelligence and pushed Hedberg to pursue research that he was interested in. Pauling supported Hedberg by cultivating channels of opportunities and became a close, lifelong mentor and friend.
Hedberg enjoyed exploring and seeing all the sites that the Norwegian culture offered him.
One warm summer evening in Oslo, Hedberg, a lover of chamber music, booked a ticket to attend an outdoor performance.
While waiting in line to pick up his ticket, Hedberg looked over to see a young woman, a woman researcher who worked with him in his new lab. She too was picking up her ticket for the show.
They entered together.
“Following, we went to a famous restaurant called Blom,” Hedberg said. “We had some snacks and munchies and walked our separate ways home.”
That was the first evening of the rest of their lives.
The couple married. Sixty years later, Lise and Ken Hedberg have two children — who respectively graduated from Stanford University and Harvard University — and four grandchildren.
In the early years, Hedberg worked at Caltech. Yearning to leave the Southern California smog, Hedberg decided to return with his family to beautiful Oregon to carry out his research and teach chemistry at his alma mater in the 1960s.
Hedberg retired from OSU in 1986.
Monday through Friday, Hedberg still arrives in the mornings to work on his research.
Hedberg is considered a sort of phenomena in the chemistry department.
He is an internationally recognized scientist and is one of the world’s pioneers in the development of electron diffraction and the study of molecular structures and intramolecular dynamics.
Moreover, Hedberg is the only researcher in OSU history to remain continuously funded, while being retired.
“Ken’s been retired — but not retired — for almost as long as I’ve been here,” said Phillip Watson, professor of chemistry at OSU.
Working for free, Hedberg continues to conduct his research at OSU and make scientific advancements within his field.