Retired professor energized his engineering students

08/02/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By PETER WARD Sun Staff

LOWELL It was a glorious moment for Robert Zepp Hollenbach.

He had an audience.

In 1986, more than 200 of his former mechanical engineering students gathered at Cumnock Hall on the UMass Lowell campus and toasted their retiring professor.

"He had a profound impact for people to be coming back after 20 years," said David Barrett, a former student of Hollenbach's who was there that day. "About 15 to 20 people stood up and read pieces on how he had changed their lives."

"Dad was touched," said his daughter Ann Hollenbach Barrett, 44, who was also present.

Hollenbach, a tenured professor at the old Lowell Technological Institute who could inject passion and humor into such dry engineering subjects as "statics" and "body forces," died on Dec. 13 in New Jersey at the age of 84.

Sadly, his son, 47-year-old Mark Robert Hollenbach of Dunstable, died nearly two weeks later, on Thursday, of cancer, at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington.

The elder Hollenbach taught at what is now the University of Massachusetts Lowell from 1959 to 1984 and was named professor emeritus when he retired. In addition to the unusual student-led retirement celebration, he received the university's prestigious rocking chair.

"He had an affinity for his students," said his daughter, who lives in Needham, where a joint memorial service for her father and brother are planned for tomorrow.

Born to Pennsylvania Dutch parents, he was raised in New York City after his father died when he was 5.

Hollenbach learned draft design first at the prestigious Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, then obtained degrees in engineering from MIT and Rensselaer Polytechnic University.

In 1950, he married the former Louise Blake who lived near Fall River and who died in 1994.

Before teaching, Hollenbach helped design glass-milling equipment including a special stove for the Corning Glassworks Co. in upstate New York, now Corning Corp, a job he held until the mid-1950s.

"Then he wanted to teach, which he wanted to do for a long time," said his daughter, adding he first taught engineering in Hartford for more than two years before moving to the Lowell university.

"He was a real character who made teaching interesting," said Barrett, his son-in-law and former student. "He could really teach complicated subjects and had a knack for conveying what was important in them."

Every day, Hollenbach would walk to the campus from the family home on Wilder Street in the Highlands neighborhood.

He and his wife belonged to the PTA and were active in city and school politics, even campaigning for candidates.

"My parents were also interested in Lowell's history and became members of the Lowell Historical Society," said his daughter.

Hollenbach was a voracious fan of anything written by Edgar Rice Burroughs and, as a result, all three children were expected to read Rice's series of "Tarzan" books.

"All of us read the first Tarzan, which we enjoyed, but maybe not all 24, like he did," said his daughter.

In Lowell, the Hollenbachs supported numerous charities such as Reading is Fun-damental, and both participated in the Learning In Retirement program.

Mark Hollenbach, who was single, died of cancer of the esophagus.

He earned a degree in economics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and another degree in electrical engineering from UMass Lowell.

He worked at Raytheon Corp. and Mitre Corp. before retiring. For a brief period, he worked for the Kloss speaker company.

Said his sister, "His major interest was in high fidelity and listening to music."