Professor Richard Tia found rest from his battle with cancer on November 30, 2022. While I’m sad that his time with us has closed after less than 45 years, I can only give thanks for bearing witness to a most excellent life.
Professor Tia walked into my life from a crowded lab of lovely faces keen to glean whatever they could from the odd fellow I must have seemed. It may have been my first lesson as a physics teacher at Nalerigu Secondary School, aka NaSS. I had just finished Peace Corps training and had traveled earlier that week in an overnight bus trip from Accra to the northeast corner of Ghana.
NaSS had no lights, back then, or running water. But the school was blessed with a new science block—three labs: biology, chemistry, and physics. Each lab had a full collection of modern lab equipment. There were even five computers, but the generator that came with the lab frequently ran dry of fuel.
Although the facilities were first-rate by any high school’s standard in the US, there was never enough to suit the needs of all the students. There was always at least one student on each lab stool. Yet more students sat on a ledge by a bank of louvered windows running the length of the classroom. But other than my voice, the only sound in the room was the scratch of lead on paper.
Tired of lecturing and hoping to involve some of the students, I put a challenging problem on the board. I told the class I expected a student to post a solution.
After some time, I asked for a volunteer. A thin young man raised his hand, so I invited him to the front of the lab while I moved to the side and leaned against the wall. I can still hear the clicks of chalk on the board sounding over the wind gently howling across the lab as he laid out his solution, one step at a time, without even a hint of a flaw in his logic. After his conclusion, he looked into my eyes as I felt the calm brilliance of Professor Tia’s mind for the first time. I said, Perfect.
Of course, I was telling him something he already knew, and he had known for most of his life. He was Richard, then, and I guess he will always be Richard, to me, even though he achieved a rank far higher than mine in science. Richard went on to study at Ghana’s premiere science and technology university where he eventually earned a PhD in quantum chemistry. He then became one the youngest professors in the history of Kwame Nkrumah’s University of Science and Technology, aka KNUST.
I’ve always laughed at the notion that I taught Professor Tia a single thing he did not already learn while reading a book by candle light in some corner of a study room at NaSS. My life intersected with Richard’s in a way that made both of us more than we would have been if we had never met. Our relationship was a model of mutualism.
I don’t have a world class scientific mind. I was not even a trained high school physics teacher. I was a disillusioned and over-educated engineering student with two degrees and no clue what to do with either. I ended up at NaSS because I could teach physics, and I was willing to go so far beyond home to inspire young people to see the stars, and to convince them the stars were within reach. But Professor Tia already knew the stars were within his grasp.
Professor Tia’s life was shorter than we hoped. But he did more with the time he had than most of us might do with 90 years of life. He did more than any reasonable person might expect with what he was given, materially. Although he was born and raised in challenging
conditions, he was a genius who could have easily taken his skills to a more luxurious place. He almost certainly would have grown wealthy in a place like Silicon Valley or Wall Street or some other high stakes research agency.
Richard and I shared many private chats. I often reminded him that his talents could earn him great wealth in a distant country. I told him his proximity to me, and others like me, people from distant places trying to save their own soul, eager to off-load their spoils to him, could afford him leverage. I told him it was fine if he chose that path, but I also told him of a greater calling. I told him of the rewards of self-reliance, and the gratification that would await him if he chose to
remain in Ghana and serve as a beacon to call forward others like him.
I exchanged letters with Professor Tia many times over the years since I left Ghana, and it always seemed he would eventually choose to move abroad and continue his march of academic excellence in greater wealth and comfort. But that letter never came. Instead, he chose to advance his career at KNUST and inspire those who needed it most.
Certainly, we must wonder what Professor Tia might have done if he lived to be 100. I know that he expressed his political views in several opinion pieces in Ghanaian publications. If Professor Tia had risen to be Ghana’s President, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
It’s correct we grieve such a sudden loss. Professor Tia can no longer research lofty hypotheses or deliver lessons to eager young minds or share his uplifting political commentary. But the fire of his example still burns, and that fire will grow only brighter if we chose to tend it. My last word for Professor Tia is the same as the first word I said to Richard: Perfect.
A padlock clinks on bars, the key on a ring with many keys dangling from the keyhole.
his chalk clicks on the blackboard
—stronger than the wind howling through the open door.