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Mitchell K. Dwyer   |   Staff Writer
July 25, 2023
  • Karl Seff

UH Mānoa emeritus professors of chemistry Roger Cramer and Karl Seff were longtime colleagues. Cramer still remembers the conversations they had carpooling to campus for many years.

Karl Seff
Karl Seff

“Karl was a good listener, and he was deeply interested in people,” he says. “When he encountered someone who needed some help or advice, he would get involved. If the situation was difficult or risky for Karl, it did not faze him. He would provide the help and support he felt was necessary. That sort of behavior develops solid friendships.”

Seff, who passed away on Sept. 11, 2021, in Honolulu, was more than a colleague: he was a good friend to Cramer and his family.

Roger Cramer recalls: “Thirty years ago, Christine was in London, following her graduation from college. As Christmas approached, she was feeling very lonely and homesick. Since Karl was on sabbatical in London, my wife and I told him of her distress.”

“Karl Seff was a friend of the family for as long as I can remember,” says Roger’s daughter, Christine Cramer. “My sister and I always called him Uncle Karl.”

“While I loved being in London, the first months were quite an adjustment: new job; new city; new people,” Christine says. As Christmas was coming up, she realized it was the first time she wouldn’t be home for the holidays.

“Uncle Karl was on sabbatical at Oxford, and he invited me to be his guest at the department Christmas party. I eagerly accepted, mostly to see a friendly and familiar face who reminded me of home, and also because, who gets to go to a Christmas party at Oxford University?

“It was an amazing night,” she says, “with a formal dinner in a huge, wood-paneled room with old art, men in black ties, sherry, a plated dinner, flaming Christmas pudding, and Christmas crackers. Karl made sure I felt comfortable and met everyone, and he left me there to close out the party with the ‘young’ folk. It was my first adult dinner party, and what a night it was.”

Christine says she was always grateful to Seff for inviting her, and she continued to have these unique experiences with him over the years. “For example,” she says, “there’s the time he met me and my now husband for dinner in New York City where we were living, and he introduced us to an amazing neighborhood Greek restaurant where everybody knew him and he ordered so much food.

“He was an interesting, unique, vibrant man who liked people and enjoyed life. I miss him.”

A deep influence on others’ work

Seff’s parents, Joseph and Rose, came to the United States from Eastern Europe. He was born in Chicago and grew up on a chicken farm in California. He joined the UH Mānoa faculty in 1967 as an assistant professor and was a full professor by 1975, serving as department chair from 2000 to 2003 and directing the research of 19 MS and 12 PhD students.

Seff was an expert in X-ray crystallography, particularly of zeolites – absorbent catalysts that act as molecular sieves commonly used in the refining industry.

“When I was an assistant professor,” says Roger Cramer, “my research reached a point where it became necessary to determine molecular structure, which is what X-ray crystallography does.

“I asked Karl if he would work with me and teach me how to do it. He agreed, and we solved an important structure in my field. It resulted in my first publication from UH.”

Cramer points out that the chemistry department at UH Mānoa is small and thousands of miles from any other graduate-level program.

“For me it was important to talk to others in the development of my ideas. Karl was the only resource I had available, and he was willing and eager to talk to me about my work and about his,” he says.

“Those car rides to campus were filled with talk about our work, telling each other about interesting things we’d found, and we brainstormed unsolved problems. We each had a deep influence on the other’s work.”

Away from the lab, Seff was passionate about veganism – he served on the board of the Vegetarian Society of Hawaiʻi – and his succulents garden, which was featured in several publications including the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in 2014. He was also active in the Cactus and Succulent Society of Hawaiʻi.

Tributes to parents; tributes to a mentor

In 2012, Seff established the Karl, Rose, and Joseph Seff Scholarship, designating a portion of his estate so earnest, capable undergraduate UH Mānoa students majoring in chemistry, mathematics, physics, or astronomy could devote their full attention to their studies. The scholarship honors his parents, who came to America from Ukraine and Poland and worked toward better lives for themselves and their son.

“The object of life is to do no work,” Seff said, soon after setting up the scholarship. “Work is drudgery. I’ve had minimum drudgery and an awful lot of joy. I hope the young people who receive this scholarship work hard and have a life with a minimum amount of drudgery. Have a good time by working hard at something you love.”

From his humble beginnings, Karl developed into a world-renowned professor in a difficult physical science, says Roger Cramer. “Let his life be an inspiration to students. He has left this gift to them to use as a key to unlock the door to an unlimited future.” 

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