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Chemist James Lu Valle dies at 80
STANFORD -- James E. Lu Valle, a visiting scholar at Stanford and retired director of undergraduate laboratories in the Chemistry Department, died Jan. 30 in Te Anau, New Zealand, while on vacation. He was 80.
During a long and varied career, Lu Valle's research covered electron diffraction, photochemistry, magnetic susceptibility, reaction kinetics and mechanisms, photographic theory, magnetic resonance, solid-state physics, neurochemistry and the chemistry of memory and learning.
Lu Valle was well known in track circles as the 400- meter bronze medal winner of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
In a 1984 interview with Campus Report, Lu Valle recounted that he got into track when a high school coach asked him to pace the team's crack half-miler.
"I was persuaded to be the stooge," Lu Valle said. He ran faster than the person he was supposed to pace. Lu Valle immediately was added to the team and started his first race two days later.
"They put me in the quarter-mile, and I asked the coach, 'How do you run this race?' The coach was a bit of a joker, and he replied, 'Run as fast as you can as far as you can - then sprint!' Being rather gullible, I did. I nearly died. But I won."
Lu Valle ran in the Olympics the same year he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of California-Los Angeles. He then returned for his master's degree in chemistry and physics, during which time he helped found the graduate student association and served as its first president. In 1983, UCLA named its new Graduate Student Union in his honor.
Lu Valle's career in chemistry started at age 8, when he found a chemistry set under the Christmas tree. He tried every experiment possible, and eventually filled the house with smoke. At his mother's insistence, the rest of his childhood experiments took place on the porch.
In 1940, Lu Valle earned a doctorate in chemistry and math under the tutelage of Linus Pauling at the California Institute of Technology. He then taught at Fisk University in Tennessee, after which he spent 10 years at Eastman Kodak working on color photography.
He was the first African American to be employed in the Eastman Kodak laboratories. While there, Lu Valle went on loan to the National Defense Research Committee to conduct research at the University of Chicago and the California Institute of Technology on devices for monitoring carbon dioxide in planes.
He later served as director of research at Fairchild Camera and Instrument and became director of physical and chemical research at Smith-Corona Merchant Labs in Palo Alto in 1969.
During that time, he made extensive use of the Chemistry Department library, in the process getting to know faculty members. When SCM closed its Palo Alto operations, the Chemistry Department asked him to head the freshman labs.
"He was eminently qualified, a first-class chemist," Professor Douglas Skoog recounted in 1984, "and we were glad to have him. In fact, he was overqualified for the job."
As head of the labs for seven years, his task was to assign teaching assistants and make sure that the right equipment was always ready.
In practice, he became a friend and counselor to the chemistry majors and pre-med students passing through the department. In an average year, 900 students would start freshman chemistry.
Lu Valle is survived by his wife of 47 years, Jean Lu Valle, of Palo Alto, and three children. Son John Vernon Lu Valle is an engineer with Allied Signal under contract to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and Michael James Lu Valle is associated with Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Daughter Phyllis Ann Lu Valle- Burke is a molecular biologist at Harvard Medical School. A sister, Mayme McWhorter of Los Angeles, also survives.
A memorial service is set for 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 670 East Meadow Drive, Palo Alto.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions to the Nature Conservancy or to the donor's favorite charity.
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