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In Memoriam: John Risley

Longtime physics Professor John S. Risley, 71, passed away at home on April 5 after battling a rare and aggressive form of cancer for six months. He was born on March 3, 1942 in Seattle, Wash., to Henry M. Risley, chemist for U.S. Food and Drug, and Helen S. Risley, musician and piano teacher. He graduated from the University of Washington in 1965 after taking a year off from college to travel in Europe and Egypt by motor scooter and train. After graduation he married Dellaine Anderson and began eight years of graduate school, earning his Ph.D. in atomic physics. Risley stayed at U.W. for two years of postdoc work. By now he had three young children and the family moved to Lincoln, Neb., where he worked for six months as a visiting assistant professor.

In 1976 he begin his career as a physics professor at NC State, where he taught and did research for more than 30 years. After finishing his exploration of the atom, Risley switched to physics education research, wanting to understand how students learn physics and what changes in teaching might help them learn better. He recognized very early that technology was becoming available that would eventually be used in education and he designed a way for computers to be used in the classroom for teaching. This research eventually led him to found WebAssign , an online homework and assessment tool, and a spin-off company was born. In 2003, WebAssign moved to Centennial Campus as a private company which now employs about 200 people. Risley always gave credit for the success of WebAssign to his years at NC State and the outstanding support and freedom to follow his dreams. He was widely published and received numerous national and international awards and was a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In addition to his passion for education and work, Risley loved to travel the world, attend classical symphonies, garden, remodel the family home and ride horseback. He loved formal dress, especially his tux, but he was just as comfortable teaching in shorts. Most of all, he loved to spend time with his family. When the children grew up, they became his best friends and he enjoyed many trips with them and their families and having them visit the home he loved. He was a complex person with high standards. He gave his children, students and employees freedom to think and to act, but he expected them to strive for the best and be honest in all they did.

Risley is survived by his wife of nearly 48 years, brother Robert Risley of Alameda, Calif.; daughter Renelle Risley and her partner Marguerite Conti and grandchildren Mandelyn, Zachary and Zoe of Seattle, Wash.; son Jim Risley and wife Shannon and grandchildren Stetler and Ashlyn of Wilmington; son Steve Risley and wife Kathy and grandchildren Andy, Desha and Lainey of Wilmington. He was predeceased by his parents and grandson Jacob Risley.

There will be a private burial on April 18 at Raleigh Memorial Park, followed by a celebration of his life at the Hunt Library Auditorium on Centennial Campus at 5:30 p.m. A reception will follow at the WebAssign office: 1791 Varsity Drive, Suite 200, Raleigh. Parking is free after 5 p.m. in the Oval West Deck and Partners 1 lot.

By Risley’s request, if you are considering a memorial gift, in lieu of flowers he suggested gifts may be made to the PAMS Foundation for the Risley Endowment (memo line) which will support the Department of Physics. Mail to PAMS Foundation, Campus Box 8201, Raleigh NC 27695-8201.

From the News & Observer.

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  1. Dellaine, I looked up John on a whim today, August 9, 2019, only to read of the sadness of his death. You will remember me from Johnson and Higgins in the l960s. Wishing you and yours well wherever you are at this time. Charles and I still live in Anacortes WA. Jeane Smith