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Gerhard "Gerry" Joseph Fonken

Obituary for Gerhard "Gerry" Joseph Fonken

August 3, 1928 - April 13, 2017
Austin, Texas | Age 88


Dad's life followed a common, but by no means ordinary, early 20th century American theme. He immigrated as a baby through Ellis Island with his mother and brother, escaping the hardscrabble chaos and brutal economic depression of Weimar Germany. They joined his father and uncle in North Haledon, New Jersey, the two having come earlier to find work. Like so many others of his generation, Dad was a child of the Great Depression, the hardships of which helped forge his great determination, self-reliance, and notable work ethic. When he entered first grade, Dad spoke no English, like many of his predominantly immigrant classmates. The students began the school year speaking a mélange of German, Polish, Hungarian, Italian, and other languages, but by the following summer all spoke English fluently. Nobody had much, but Dad and his friends scraped together a memorable childhood. They scavenged dropped apples from a nearby farm and fallen coal from the train tracks to help their families get by. On their walk home from school, a veteran of the Union Army, who loved to sit on his porch and watch the children walk by, would share an occasional story of the old days and his experiences during the Civil War. He and his friends adventured in the woods and surrounding countryside. They delighted, as perhaps only young boys can, in blowing up discarded sticks of dynamite scavenged from a nearby quarry, somehow not to killing themselves in the process. In 1935, Dad and his family returned to Germany for an extended visit with relatives and to consider moving back, but made a quick return to the States after witnessing the fevered spectacle of a Nazi rally, including a speech by Hitler, in their town square and understanding its portent. At age 8, he and his friends watched in morbid awe from a nearby hilltop as the massive airship Hindenburg burned below. Upon graduation from high school, Dad enlisted in the army and served with the infantry in Europe during the WWII occupation period.

After discharge from Ft. Jay, New York in 1949, Dad qualified for the GI Bill and enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. He drove across the country following the "Main Street of America"- the famous Route 66- in a car he won in an army poker game. Dad's studies in chemistry were put on hold in 1950 when he was called up to serve as a Field Artillery Chief (Sergeant First Class) in Korea. Like many combat veterans, he didn't talk much about the reality of his time in-country, save for the rare "lighter" moments. When shells from a navy cruiser were falling short of target and endangering Dad's unit, radio calls to the ship were answered with dismissive skepticism. Getting no relief, Dad decided he had to be more persuasive, so he ordered his crew to drop a few choice shells from their 155mm self-propelled gun within splash distance of the wayward navy gunner- one can imagine Dad thinking "Can you hear me now?"- who then rather quickly recalibrated his aim. When his crew needed a much-deserved beer on one of their R&R days, Dad put his childhood procurement skills to work, standing on the hood of a speeding jeep while liberating a few "surplus" cases of beer from the back of a moving supply truck and its oblivious driver. During Dad's return trip to the states, aboard the troop transport Kongo Maru, an approaching typhoon grounded the ship as it approached Japan. Dad and his comrades spent the next 2 days riding out the storm aboard ship, contemplating a watery fate. They ultimately escaped by a risky rope climb from the Kongo Maru to a navy LST in still heavy seas. He talked about the sailors hauling him over the rail, throwing him onto the deck, and handing him a dry blanket and a cigarette as if it were one of the best moments of his life, and no doubt it was.

Dad returned to his studies at Berkeley, where he met Carolyn Stay, whom he married in 1952. After earning his PhD in Chemistry in 1957, Dad worked as a research chemist at Proctor and Gamble and Stanford Research Institute. In 1959 he, Mom, and their 3 oldest children drove to Austin for a temporary teaching position at the University of Texas. That one-year appointment led to a distinguished 35-year teaching, research, and administrative career at UT. Dad gained tenure and achieved full professorship, won numerous teaching awards and recognitions for his research, and was honored by the university with several endowments and scholarships established in his and Carolyn's names. An appointment as special assistant to the UT president in 1970 initiated Dad's transition into the university administration, where over the next 25 years he served in numerous vice president and provost positions before capping his career as Executive Vice President and Provost. Dad loved UT and devoted most of his life's energy over those 35 years to helping build it into a research powerhouse and one of the nation's premiere universities. During his time at UT, Dad's Forrest Gump-like intersects with historically significant events and people continued, through both happenstance and intent. Exiting a building mid-day on August 1, 1966, Dad instantly recognized the sound of gunshots and pulled a naïve gawker and would-be victim of Charles Whitman to safety. In the mid-1980s, Dad accompanied Prince Charles on a campus tour and in his mischievously persuasive way, convinced His Royal Highness to lift his pant leg and show his famous argyle socks to a nearby group of enamored coeds. Over the course of his UT career, Dad met and interacted with a parade of notable academics, politicians, university benefactors, and heads of state, the experiences adding to his seemingly endless supply of stories.

Dad is survived by a large family of 5 children- David Fonken and wife Carol of Austin; Kathie Bailey and husband Bill of La Grange; Steve Fonken and wife Jan of Boise, Idaho; Karen Fonken and partner Grace of Austin; and Eric Fonken and wife Jennifer of Austin; 12 grandchildren- Erin Fonken and husband Brandon Mathis; Brian Fonken; Laura Fonken and husband Andrew Gaudet; Gregg Schmedes and wife Kelly; Sarah Chatman and husband Brian; Jennifer Hoffman and husband Josh; Meghan, Kyle, and Ryan Fonken; and Emily, Cara, and Will Fonken; 9 great-grandchildren- Isaiah, Emory, Ada Grace, James, and Jacob Schmedes; Eamon and Alton Mathis; Haley Hoffman; and the imminently-arriving Finlay Gaudet; cousin Ruth Cannon; nieces Marty Castillo and Emily Fonken, and nephew Peter Fonken; sister-in-law Agnes Hughes; and brother-in-law Darryl Rideau. Passing before him are his wife of 60 years, Carolyn, grandson Christopher Fonken, and brother Gunther Fonken. Private burial with military honor guard will be on Saturday, May 6th.

"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly…who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement…" President Theodore Roosevelt

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