New Mexico Highlands University is mourning the Sept. 4 death of Robert Amai, a beloved chemistry professor emeritus.
Amai taught full time at Highlands from 1962 – 1988, chairing the Chemistry Department from 1969 – 1974. In 1986, he became the first faculty member to receive both the Professor of the Year Award and Distinguished Service to the University Award in a single year year.
After retiring, Amai stepped in as needed to teach chemistry classes and lead research projects at Highlands.
“Those of us who were fortunate to have worked with Dr. Amai knew him as overpoweringly optimistic, a mentor, and a strong supporter of Highlands and our students,” said Highlands President Sam Minner. “For more than 50 years, his commitment to our students, many of whom have gone on to distinguished scientific careers, is unmatched in our university’s history.”
A native of Hilo, Hawaii, Amai completed both his undergraduate and master’s degrees in chemistry from the University of Hawaii. He earned his doctoral degree in organic chemistry from the University of Iowa. Amai came to Highlands as a young research associate in 1961 and was asked to join the faculty in 1962.
“You always feel so good when you convey an idea and a student grasps and understands it just as you want them to,” Amai said in 2014. “It’s not them parroting and memorizing information, it’s synthesizing information in a series of thoughts that answer a question thoroughly. Whatever the discipline, a person who truly enjoys teaching busts their buttons a little with pride at their students’ success.”
Amai mentored countless students in his Organic Chemistry Laboratory, where he taught them how to isolate and synthesize organic materials.
Tatiana Timofeeva, longtime Highlands chemistry professor, worked with Amai on the NASA-funded Alliance for Non-Linear Optics Research project beginning in 1996.
“Bob was an extremely knowledgeable organic chemist who was dedicated to giving his students research opportunities,” Timofeeva said. “He was also very kind and had a huge heart.”
Timofeeva said Amai’s legacy continues through the Dr. Robert Amai Fund for Chemistry Students. Each spring, the chemistry faculty chooses outstanding students to receive the monetary award.
In 2009, Amai was named a distinguished professor emeritus for homecoming.
“I always felt students wished to be recognized and treated as individuals, and I tried to associate names with faces of my students as soon as possible,” Amai said in 2009. “I am grateful to all the students with whom I worked, in the classroom and out, for the enjoyment and satisfaction they brought to my career.”
Margaret Vazquez-Geffroy, president of the Association of Emeritus and Retired Faculty at Highlands, met Amai in 1974 when she joined the faculty as an anthropology professor.
“Bob Amai was deeply loved and greatly respected by his students and colleagues at Highlands,” said Vazquez-Geffroy, a distinguished professor emerita. “He was a highly intelligent and thoughtful human being with a peaceful demeanor. Bob was tremendously dedicated to seeing students succeed and kept in touch with alumni, following their careers.”
Vazquez-Geffroy said Amai was an exceptional colleague.
“Bob was always willing to work across disciplines to advance the task of the university to prepare students for life as informed citizens and successful professionals in their careers of choice. He was respectful of everyone, and filled with honesty and integrity,” Vazquez-Geffroy said.
She said Amai played a key role as a founding member of the Association of Emeritus and Retired Faculty. He served as the association’s secretary/treasurer.
“Bob provided continuity for this faculty organization and was an effective liaison with the university. He will be sorely missed,” Vazquez-Geffroy said.
Amai and his wife Pat, a retired school teacher, have always been active volunteers in the Las Vegas community. He was a longtime member of the Kiwanis Club, has coordinated the Las Vegas Crop Walk for Hunger, and served on the board for Carnegie Library.
“We like to do something for the community, and it’s always fun because you’re interacting with other people,” Amai said in 2014. “It’s about bringing joy to someone for a little while, and you hope it has a lasting effect. When we volunteer at the community soup kitchen, it’s nice to see people smile and be happy when they get a plate of food. I’m blessed that at 81 I can still do this. I thank God for my lucky stars.”
Jay Harris, past Kiwanis Club of Las Vegas president, was a Kiwanian with Amai for 47 years.
“Bob was very community minded and cared deeply about the youth of Las Vegas,” Harris said. “He was a longtime sponsor for all of our Kiwanis youth clubs from Key Club to K Kids. We like to all him Mr. Kiwanis because he also held every office and volunteered for anything and everything. He was tireless, and Kiwanis will never be the same without him.”
Harris, a retired district court judge, said he was also fortunate to be one of Amai’s students when he was an undergraduate at Highlands.
“Bob was a fantastic professor who made learning chemistry both interesting and fun,” Harris said.
Amai will be buried in Hawaii. A funeral mass at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Las Vegas will be scheduled at a later date.