Ken Hedberg
Ken Hedberg, a professor in the department of chemistry, moved into his office in the basement of Gilbert Hall in the early 1960s. (Photo by: Justin Quinn – Daily Barometer)

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.

Upon completing his Ph.D., Hedberg was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship and Fulbright Scholar Program within the same year carrying out his research in Oslo.

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.

Undergraduate of the Quarter - Winter 2014
Undergraduate of the Quarter – Winter 2014

Stefan was born in Indiana where he lived for his first six years. He subsequently moved around (Florida then British Columbia then Washington DC) before finally settling in the Lake Oswego area 16 years ago.  He wanted to come to OSU to take advantage of our in-state tuition and because he was interested in research.   He has a deep commitment to giving back to society – believing that we exist for the sake of making societal progress (the idealized world of “Star Trek”). At OSU, he has been surprised how much the professors will do to foster his growth.  He has worked particularly closely with Distinguished Emeritus Professor Darrah Thomas and Distinguished Professor Doug Keszler – commenting “I was surprised how important I was to them… they have been insanely supportive.” in fact, his life-long goal is to “follow in the footsteps of Dr. Ken Hedberg and Dr. Thomas by continuing to do research as long as possible.”  His favorite courses so far have been in the Physical Chemistry series and his favorite professor has been Professor Wei Kong.  Professor Kong “stays true to the material, doesn’t dumb it down – very pure.” Stefan is already following through on his commitment to giving back to society by serving as an Undergrad Research Ambassador. He gives talks to new students to get them excited about science.  Once he graduates he plans to get a masters degree in Chemistry before pursuing his PhD.  After school he would like to first work in industry (his dream job is working at Intel), but would like to end his career as a professor.  Stefan’s energy, passion and excitement are infectious. It is students like him that make OSU an amazing place and we congratulate Stefan for all his hard work!

Undergraduate of the Quarter - Fall 2013
Undergraduate of the Quarter – Fall 2013

Josh Holmes has been selected as an undergrad chem major of the quarter for Fall 2012.  Josh was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts , but grew up in Wilton, New Hampshire.  Josh took a non-traditional path to OSU.  While excelling in math throughout high school, he was unsure what career path to take.  Consequently, he decided to work in the construction industry after graduating from high school in 2002. During that time, he became interested in snow skiing and began working as a ski lift operator. His interest in skiing ultimately brought him to the west coast (California) were he met his wife.  In 2008, his wife enrolled in graduate school at OSU in geology.  Josh took the opportunity to re-engage with his education and starting taking classes at LBCC in 2009.  Within a year, he had matriculated to OSU where he has excelled ever sense.  He enjoyed taking math classes at OSU, but it was his General Chemistry course with Dr. Phil Watson that really caught his attention – commenting that he was “blown away by it.” His interest in the fundamental aspects of chemistry drove him to work for emeritus Professor Ken Hedberg because he “wants to known deep down inside what is happening” in chemistry.  Josh has enjoyed the personal attention and friendly attitude that OSU offers – providing easy access to faculty.  Both of those attributes he associates with the Experimental Chemistry courses run by Emile Firpo, John Loeser and Chris Pastorek.     He is unsure exactly what he wants to do after graduation, but he feels that he would like to teach in some capacity.  Josh still likes to snow ski and is an accomplished musician – playing guitar in the band called the Psych Country Revue (rock and roll with a country twist).  Our Department is lucky to have wonderful students like Josh who will surely inspire the next generation of chemists through their passion and enthusiasm about science!