LSU alumnus Frank Richard "Rick" Steldt recently visited campus after more than 30 years since completing a doctorate in physics. During his trip, Steldt enjoyed going back to many familiar places including his former graduate student office and laboratories in Nicholson Hall. One of the highlights of his trip was to share with Dean Kevin Carman that he is leaving a trust to the LSU Foundation valued at more than $1 million dollars for the benefit of the Department of Physics & Astronomy.
A retired physics professor at Indiana University, Steldt fully credits LSU for his successful career as an educator. Upon his retirement, he received an annuity, and has since established a trust to be used to help graduate students like himself. "When I first started at LSU, I did not have any financial aid. I'd like to have a fund in part to service incoming graduate students who don't have any kind of assistance themselves," Steldt said.
Steldt was born in Indianapolis where he lived for the first 15 years of his life. Following his freshman year of high school, his father took a job in St. Paul, MN. After high school, he went to the University of Minnesota where he majored in physics and mathematics. When asked why he chose LSU for his graduate studies, he explained, "When I was finished, I was so tired of the bitter cold winters. I mean Indiana is cold, but Minnesota is unbelievably cold." While researching graduate schools in the South, he heard many great things about the physics department at LSU. "I was very happy," Steldt remarked. "The graduate school was very hard and demanding, which is what you'd expect. But it was an excellent educational experience, and I gained a great deal of knowledge that I used in my career.
One of Steldt's favorite LSU memories was when he made a accidental discovery while using a research technique called positron annihilation. In one particular sample he had prepared, Steldt discovered the formation of positronium had occurred which had never been observed in this material. Seeing a surprisingly unusual pattern in the graph from this sample, Steldt rushed to his major professor, Paul G. Varlashkin, who explained how positronium did form in that sample. Positronium is a hydrogen atom that has a positron in the nucleus rather than a proton. "So it's a positron and an electron. That little critter was so interesting, and finding it was an accident. I mean the research just happened and there it was in the sample!. I can still remember making those samples." It was an odd situation for Steldt; his sample produced positronium, an atom made up of matter and antimatter. When they annihilate, the masses are gone and pure energy is formed.
It was not just physics that made Steldt's experience favorable. "I remember the number of times we would trek over to the union to get a late night snack while studying," Steldt added. "And every once in a while I would actually take time off and go to a football game, which I will never forget."
In December 1971, Steldt received his Ph.D. in physics, with an electrical engineering minor. He then became a research associate and taught a semester of sophomore physics to undergraduate students in Nicholson Hall. At that time, academic positions were scarce, but because of his teaching experience at LSU, he was more marketable. When a position opened up at Indiana University, he was hired. "I became the one person that had all these things," Steldt explained. That was my career. Everything that happened as a result of that job shaped my life, and the one reason why I got that job was because what I did at LSU was unique."
Steldt took the job at the Big Ten University in the field of physics, doing what he loved in an area where he could pursue his interests. During his time at IU he became interested in astronomy, particularly in solar eclipses. Steldt began traveling around the world photographing them. He would host "star parties" on the campus lawn, which later grew into introductory astronomy classes that routinely filled up just after registration started. He also became interested in lasers and holography and these interests led to the building of the IU Kokomo Observatory/Lecture Hall which also contained a laser laboratory. This building is still used today by students in astronomy, physics and physical science courses.
Now, Steldt spends his days traveling the world with his family, still attempting to capture solar eclipses. His current goal is to join the Traveler's Century Club, a group of people who have each traveled to over 100 countries. Steldt's recent trip to Tibet, Mainland China and Macau have put him at 98 countries, He plans to travel to Chile over Christmas and then on to Easter Island for his 100th country.
Though he is retired, Steldt still keeps up with the field of physics. "Physics is the world around us, it's how things work. You can't have anything more important than how things work in the world in which you live," he said. Steldt has always felt indebted to LSU. He is leaving a generous gift to the physics department, and in return he gets to leave a legacy, something he has wanted to do for a long time.