John H. Ashe - Remembrance

By Jeremy Kaye, Graduate Student Editor

On Thursday October 28, 2004 , UCR’s University Theatre was filled with family, friends and colleagues, who gathered to attend a memorial service for the late Dr. John H. Ashe. Professor Ashe, who held dual faculty appointments in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, died on October 1, 2004 . After joining the UCR faculty in 1980 as a professor in the Department of Psychology, Dr. Ashe served as Chair of the Department of Psychology from 1997-2002. Dr. Ashe then served from 2002-2004 as the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Research for the College of Humanities , Arts, and Social Sciences at UCR.

Colleagues speak on behalf of Dr. Ashe’s legacy

Visitors to the memorial service entered the University Theatre were greeted with a display of photographs of Dr. Ashe from childhood to the present. Visitors were also treated to the sounds of one of Dr. Ashe’s life-long passions, the jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. “One thing John didn’t like about Riverside ,” one of his former colleagues and a speaker at the service joked, “was that there weren’t enough jazz clubs in Riverside .” Dr. Ashe felt a deep affinity toward jazz, and it was a well-known fact among his colleagues and students that a picture of Miles Davis hung right above a model of a brain in his office. Such a strange juxtaposition not only encapsulated the diversity of his interests, but also captured Dr. Ashe’s great “sense of humor” that so many of his friends and colleagues spoke about at the memorial service. Not only was Dr. Ashe described as having a great “sense of humor,” but his colleagues described him as an imminently generous man, who always loved to go to local jazz clubs, drink a “double scotch,” and talk about colleagues, family, jazz, and, of course, the lab work that he devoted his professional career to. Marvin Nachman, one of Dr. Ashe’s colleagues who not only taught him as a promising undergraduate at UCR, but also hired him as one of their faculty, praised to Dr. Ashe’s devotion to his research: “After an evening out at a local Riverside jazz club, he would still go back to his lab to check on his research.”

Speakers at the memorial service include colleagues and friends of Dr. Ashe’s from all over campus -- UCR’s current Chancellor France Cordova; the Interim Dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Joel Martin; UCR Emeritus Professors Paul D. Wilson and Marvin Nachman; and former graduate students of Dr. Ashe’s, Charles “Lee” Cox and Valentin Gribkoff. All of these speakers, along with others, spoke at moments with great passion, and at other moments with great pathos, about Dr. Ashe’s legacy – a legacy that included not only important work at UCR, but which also included significant contributions to the surrounding community in Riverside . In this way, friends and colleagues spoke of Dr. Ashe’s sense of humor, his generosity, his shyness, his sense of pride, his “x-ray vision” for bullshit, and, above all, his obligation to raising the stature of UC Riverside as a research institution. Integral to his vision of increasing UCR’s research reputation was increasing the visibility and opportunities for underprivileged minority students and faculty at UC Riverside. As an African American professor, Dr. Ashe worked tireless and fearlessly to increase the presence of Affirmative Action programs, and was, in the words of former Dean of CHASS Patricia O’Brien’s, “fearless when it came to talking to power.”

Auspicious Beginnings

One fact that many people don’t know about Dr. Ashe is that he was a “home-grown” faculty member at UC Riverside. He not only attended UCR as an undergraduate, but he also grew up in Riverside ’s East-Side, which, as many of his colleagues confirmed, was not the “ideal part of town.” Growing up African American in a period of racial and social unrest during the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. Ashe always viewed UCR as an “idyllic setting on a hill.” Many of his colleagues spoke of his determination to “defy the odds” that were stacked against him, and strived to succeed in higher education.

One story, above all others, clearly evokes the unrivaled determination of Dr. Ashe. Before he attended UCR, Dr. Ashe enrolled at San Bernardino Community College . Because he felt that he was starting college a bit late (in his early to mid twenties), he was in a hurry to complete his studies. He attempted to take a full-load of courses, but ran into problems with a Dean who was hesitant to allow a man who also worked full-time to take a full schedule of classes. Dr. Ashe, however, was so determined that he not only took all of the classes that he was allowed to enroll in at San Bernardino Community College, but he then proceeded to enroll concurrently at Riverside Community College, and take a full-load there. In addition to continuing his full-time work, he received all “A’s” from both institutions. He then took the transcripts to the Dean at San Bernardino Community College , and, subsequently, was allowed to enroll full-time.

Such a story speaks volumes of Dr. Ashe’s hard-work and determination in the face of overwhelming odds. Marvin Nachman, UCR Emeritus Professor of Psychology, first had Dr. Ashe as a student in his Fall Semester 1970 Physiological Science class. Dr. Nachman spoke of Dr. Ashe’s quiet ways -- “he always sat in the back, and would always get the best score on all of the exams. John would be embarrassed but prideful when I would tell the class that he received the best score.” As an undergraduate at UCR, Dr. Ashe ran Dr. Nachman’s lab, and eventually obtained his B.A. from UCR, graduating with highest honors from UCR, all while continuing to work the midnight to 8am shift at Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino . As he finished up his comments at the memorial service, Dr. Nachman said that “it was an honor and a privilege to reminisce about John.”

Graduate School in Irvine and San Francisco

Professor Norman M. Weinberger, Research Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior at UC Irvine, spoke of Dr. Ashe’s acceptance to graduate school at UCI. Mr. Weinberger said, “John’s letters of recommendation caused me to salivate.” At UCI, Dr. Ashe served on various committees as a graduate student, but Dr. Weinberger never ceased to be impressed by his young pupil’s propensity to “understand the deeper issue.” Dr. Ashe was more concerned with improving the level of faculty appoints and tightening the requirements for tenure, than he was concerned with improving graduate student wages or conditions. Even as a young and eager graduate student, Dr. Ashe was always looking forward at the bigger issue: how was he going to become a better researcher and better teacher and mentor. “And he succeeded,” Dr. Weinberger said, “with the highest possible integrity.”

After receiving his Ph.D. at the University of California , Irvine , Dr. Ashe accepted a prestigious post-doctoral fellowship at UC San Francisco in 1977. Emeritus Professor Ben Livitt of UCSF spoke kindly (via a letter read at the memorial service) of Dr. Ashe’s success as an academic researcher: “John made a significant contribution to cell research.”

Coming Home -- UCR Hires Its Own

After fulfilling his post-doctoral fellowship at UCSF, Dr. Ashe returned home, becoming a faculty member at UCR – the once dreamed about ideal setting on the hill. Paul D. Wilson, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at UCR, spoke of Dr. Ashe as the “unanimous choice” for being hired as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at UCR in 1980. Dr. Wilson said that “John was simply the best.” Dr. Wilson also spoke of Dr. Ashe’s capabilities as a cutting-edge researcher: “John was more interested in what was new than in having many publications.” Such a devotion to the cutting-edge in research and teaching helped make Dr. Ashe well-respected and well-liked. “The University,” said Dr. Wilson, “needs to have more people like John.”

Devoted Teacher & Mentor

Since his appointment to the faculty at UCR in 1980, Dr. Ashe mentored literally hundreds of students, both undergraduate and graduate. He was a strong proponent of having undergraduates in laboratory situations, often taking students into his labs, not because he wanted them to become scientists, but to show them that they could succeed. Two of Dr. Ashe’s graduate students, Charles “Lee” Cox and Valentin Gribkoff, spoke of their student-teacher relationship with Dr. Ashe. Mr. Gribkoff spoke of spirited debates he would have with Dr. Ashe, fueled as much by intellectual disagreement as by mutual respect. He also stated that “John was resistant to being anyone’s role model.”

In the Dean’s Office

Dr. Ashe was appointed Associate Dean of the College of Humanities , Arts, and Social Sciences in 2002. Throughout his tenure in the Dean’s Office, the University was undergoing tumultuous times – with an increasing budget crunch and a new administration. However, Dr. Ashe would never compromisethe needs of faculty and students, remaining steadfast in his vision to increase the standing of UCR as a research institution. Former Dean of CHASS, Patricia O’Brien, spoke of Dr. Ashe’s “tough love” and his “shyness.” But she also spoke of his “sense of pride, obligation, and duty as a Black man to be a spokesman and mentor for minority and underprivileged students.

Dr. Ashe’s vision of integrity, loyalty, tolerance, and humor has helped make UCR the most racially and ethnically diverse campus among the University of California . Dean O’Brien summed up the spirit of the memorial service well when, fighting back tears, she said: “John was ultimate cool and cool was forever.”

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