David Lazarus, a summer resident of Chilmark for more than 50 years, died on Thursday, Sept. 8, at his home in Urbana, Ill., where he had lived with his wife, Betty, for 50 years until her death in March 2009, and where they raised their four children, Barbara, William, Mary Ann, and Richard.
David and his family spent their first 20 Vineyard summers renting the Parsonage near Beetlebung Corner in Chilmark, before they moved into their own summer home on Middle Road. Emeritus professor of physics at the University of Illinois and formerly editor in chief of the American Physical Society, David was a pioneering scholar in solid state physics known for his “great hands” in the laboratory, celebrated teacher who made physics accessible to nonscientists, and a strong proponent of basic scientific research and its potential to promote the public good.
The son of Barney and Lillian Lazarus, David Lazarus was born in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sept. 8, 1921, where his mother’s family owned an electric product manufacturing company, and he was one of 35 first cousins. He obtained both his undergraduate and doctorate degrees in physics at the University of Chicago. He interrupted his graduate studies to work during World War II at Harvard University’s Radio Research Laboratory. There, as part of the Special Reserve of the War Manpower Commission, he developed devices to jam radar, which were successfully used on every airplane and ship during the D-Day Invasion.
David loved the Vineyard and Chilmark. During their first 10 Vineyard summers, he and Betty shared the Parsonage on Menemsha Crossroad in Chilmark with their close family friends, the Wattenbergs. A total of four parents and seven children lived together under one roof at a time when the Parsonage did not boast of running water, but instead of a celebrated two-seater outhouse named “The Jaguar” by the children that, when occupied, a sign on the door indicated was “out for a spin.” After building their own home in 1979, David and Betty no longer limited their time at the Vineyard to the summer. They would arrive in May, stay until mid-October, and return again for several weeks in January and March. He was a strong supporter of the Chilmark Community Center and served for many years on the Chilmark Town Affairs Council, including as its treasurer.
David was also an avid sailor. He could often be seen in Quitsa and Menemsha Ponds sailing his beloved sloop Geezor. He reveled in the physics of sailing and relished converting the energy within wind to mechanical energy capable of moving his boat. He greatly enjoyed the opportunity to contemplate the Island’s beauty at a slow, decidedly up-Island pace, occasionally also participating in the Wednesday and Saturday races.
Meals were special times at the Lazarus Vineyard household. During the summer David and Betty were frequently joined by more than 20 family members under their roof for housing, meals and lively conversation. Their Vineyard community began, but did not end with the children and grandchildren. Island and summer residents of all kinds — academics, artists, musicians, writers, doctors, and professionals and others of all stripes — gathered at their Middle Road home for great food and stimulating discussion.
At the University of Illinois, David Lazarus gained international renown for his path-breaking research on diffusion in solids, particularly metals. He was also widely celebrated as a teacher of undergraduates, where students repeatedly singled him out as one of the best teachers in the university, describing how “Lazarus raised physics from the dead.” He believed strongly that everyone — not just scientists — should understand physics and its significance to their daily lives, once describing to a grandson his pride in having taught thousands of students “about the beauty of physics.” Along with his colleague and fellow Chilmark summer resident Bob Hulsizer, he published a high school physics text, The World of Physics, that high schools across the country and in other nations adopted.
But his greatest love was his family, especially his wife of almost 65 years, Betty. They met when he was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Chicago and she was a 16-year-old high school student at New Trier High School who later also attended Chicago, and he repeatedly marveled at his great luck in having married someone so beautiful and so much smarter than he was. David also enjoyed painting, and their Urbana home came to boast his watercolor and oil paintings amidst the art of many others.
From 1980 to 1991, Mr. Lazarus assumed a new professional challenge, serving as editor in chief of the American Physical Society, directing the society’s three peer-reviewed journals: Physical Review, Physical Review Letters, and Reviews of Modern Physics. He is credited with greatly enhancing the quality of the journals, restoring their financial viability, and successfully defending against lawsuits that sought to breach the confidentiality of the society’s decision-making process for publication decisions.
As he approached his 90th birthday, he made clear that he was content with his life, describing it to his children in his final days with the simple words: “What a pleasure.” Precisely as he had hoped, he died peacefully, at his Urbana home with his family present, on his 90th birthday. And, as he had wished, he will join his wife, Betty, in interment at a family plot on Abel’s Hill in Chilmark.
In addition to his wife, Betty, he was preceded in death by his eldest daughter Barbara, who died in 2003. He is survived by his children William, Mary Ann, and Richard, niece Amanda Broun, sons in law Marvin Sirbu and Daniel Jay, daughters in law Suellen Lazarus and Jeannette Austin, dear friend Karen Frerichs, grandchildren Margaret and Benjamin Sirbu, Eben and Oliver Lazarus, David, Laura, and Michael Jay, and Samuel and Jesse Lazarus, great-grandchildren Brooklyn Beth Campisi and Skylar Dugan, Amanda’s husband Michael Siegel, and grandnieces Johanna and Rosalie Siegel.
There will be a memorial service in Urbana at the University of Illinois’ Levis Faculty Center on Nov. 13 at 11 a.m. and an opportunity for friends on Martha’s Vineyard to celebrate his life next summer.
Donations in his memory can be made to the Chilmark Town Affairs Council Funding for the Future Campaign.