Jack Nolte, PhD: ‘A Very Great Person”

Sunday, December 1, 2013

By Jane Erikson

Students, faculty, family and friends poured into DuVal Auditorium the morning of Nov. 25 to celebrate the life of an extraordinary man: John “Jack” Nolte, PhD, professor emeritus of cellular and molecular medicine, who died October 22.

A faculty member at the UA College of Medicine since 1990, Nolte received 15 top teaching awards from students and colleagues who recognized his excellence and innovation, and his love for what he did.

“John Nolte was probably the most motivational teacher I have ever had in all my life,” second-year medical student Dana Hariri said before the service started. “He just used compassion and care and enthusiasm in his teaching, and you knew he loved it . . . The world has lost a very great person.”

Paul St. John, associate professor of cellular and molecular medicine, described Nolte – the author of two leading textbooks on the human brain – as “a giant textbook on neuroanatomy” . . . “We knew Jack as a man of intelligence, compassion, passion and humor – all in Birkenstock sandals.”

The Birkenstocks were one of Nolte’s trademarks, mentioned by each of the nine speakers who paid tribute to him.

In the early 1980s, William Hynes, PhD, then dean of the college at Regis University in Denver, was looking for a part-time pre-med adviser for his students. 

Hynes recalled the afternoon when “this very energetic, robust, athletic, Kerouac-like male arrived in my office, clad in hiking shorts, a shirt whose tails trailed outside, and his feet clad in Birkenstocks. In addtion to all this, he had an empty hole in each of his ear lobes.”

But Nolte’s resume made clear that he was already fully employed  at the University of Colorado medical school, as a faculty member and assistant dean.

“Why in God’s name are you trying to take on more academic duties,” Hynes asked.

“I’m bored,” Nolte said. He got the job.

“As we parted,” Hynes said, “I told him ‘Jack, next time you can wear your earrings.’”

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Caleb Taylor, who will receive his MD from the UA College of Medicine in May, described his first encounters with Nolte.

Taylor, nervous and uncomfortable in the suit he had worn for his first interview at the College of Medicine, sat in the library waiting area “trying to feign confidence.” He heard some med students talking about their neuroanatomy professor, who they held in high esteem.

“They spoke about how knowledgeable he was, and about his steadfast dedication to the education of the next generation of physicians,” Taylor recalled. “In that moment, I forgot how nervous I was. I wanted to meet this College of Medicine library legend.”

As Taylor left the library for his interview, a man wearing Birkenstocks called out to him. “Good luck,” the man said, obviously knowing why this nervous young man was wearing a suit.

“Fast forward one year. It is now my first day of neurology, and I’m once again nervous,” Taylor told the audience. “I reached for the door to the classroom, and I paused in the doorway to hold the door open for the person behind me.

“As I turned, I saw the same person who had wished me luck the year before. I knew then this was Nolte, and not just because of the Birkenstocks. As he cut to the podium at the front of the room he flashed a smile that quieted the class and the internal fear I had about the neurology material I was about to learn. . . His passion for education was evident then, and lingers even now. We here at the College of Medicine were especially blessed to have had him here each day.”

Nolte’s all-embracing approach to life was reflected in the program written for the service:

“Jack is survived by his wife, Kathy; his mother, Joan Nolte; his sister, Barbara Nolte; his stepson, Will McNeal and his wife, Tracy; granddaughters Margaret, Nora and Phoebe; his parrot, Megawatt; and his dog Emily Ann.

“Jack liked to cook, drink wine and martinis, play handball, travel, and eat oysters and calamari; but he enjoyed teaching most of all.”