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Joe Templeton believes in the dictum that less can be more. Especially when it comes to words.

The less you say, the more likely it will be people will listen.

“When anybody says, ‘I’m going to be brief,’ I go, ‘Oh, no.’ Those five words should have been the first thing to go,” he said.


Chemistry Professor Joe Templeton began his term as faculty chair earlier this summer after 30 years at UNC.

Templeton, Francis Preston Venable Professor of Chemistry, and newly elected faculty chair, comes by his reticence naturally: He passed his third birthday before uttering his first word. It wasn’t that he could not talk, as his parents had feared. It was because of two doting older sisters who attended to nearly all of his needs — even the need to tell people what he wanted.

His parents took him to specialists to find out if anything was wrong with him.

“What they figured out was I didn’t need to talk since I would give a look and my sisters would explain to anybody nearby what I was thinking.”

Over the years, Templeton has learned to speak up for himself, but as faculty chair he knows he will be thrust into the new and uncomfortable position of speaking for others as his sisters once did for him — except that he will be careful not to take it that far.

“I really will look to the faculty to bring forward the topics that we can address constructively and to set priorities,” Templeton said. “I will try to follow their lead.”

And that is why his approach will be to listen before he speaks, a task that is further complicated by a severe hearing loss. If he gets up into your face, he wants you to know, it’s not because he is trying to intimidate you, but to listen intently to what you have to say.

Farms, football and a stolen outhouse
Templeton will tell you that he grew up in Iowa as “kind of a Sputnik kid.” Born in 1948, he had a hankering for science even when he was pulling pranks in high school.

Back then, though, it was not uncommon for good students to get into mischief, as Templeton, who was quarterback of his high school football team, and his teammates demonstrated the night they stole an outhouse from a nearby farm, hoisted it over the school roof and set it down in the courtyard. They most likely would have gotten away with it, too, had they not signed the outhouse with their jersey numbers.

Students, even good ones, were rowdier back then, but more well rounded as well, Templeton said. In addition to football, Templeton acted in school plays, played basketball and ran track. His first love was baseball, but farm work in the summer kept him from playing.

“People expected to go to college,” Templeton said. “People expected to play football and play pranks and be good in class and be a member of the Honor Society and that was all OK. The word nerd didn’t fit anybody. That’s something I didn’t have a definition for until later. I don’t think that is quite as true now.”

The word “hippie” is one that Templeton didn’t know much about either until he left home for the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.

“They were doing things out there I hadn’t seen before and I was the only kid in California with a butch that I can tell.”

Over the course of his college career, he ended up with long hair and a beard. The hair is short again, and graying, but the beard has been on his face continuously since 1970, he said.

He ended up going to Caltech instead of staying in Iowa after his sister applied to about half a dozen schools for him when he was a senior in high school.

“One of them from California sent a professor of physics to visit me in Iowa and I said, ‘I think I’ll go there.’”

One of the first big decisions he faced at Caltech was deciding whether to go out for the football or soccer team. People back home in Iowa rarely heard of soccer, but a buddy who was on the team urged Templeton to give it a try.

Before he did, Templeton went to talk to the football coach. Templeton remembers watching the players at practice and knowing he could contribute, but the coach never gave him the chance.

“I told him I was either going to go out for soccer or football and I wanted to talk to him,” Templeton said. “He said, ‘If you are thinking about going out for soccer, I don’t want to talk to you.”

Templeton would go on to be an all-conference goalie and even got an NCAA post-graduate scholarship after earning his degree.

‘A long and courteous courtship’
Recently, Templeton’s mother gave him Doris Kearns Godwin’s book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” In it, there is a passage about law being a “demanding mistress” that requires a “long and courteous courtship.”

Those descriptions, he said, apply equally well to his love affair with chemistry that began, as many love affairs do, quite by accident.

“I had a great instructor as a sophomore,” Templeton said. “When I should have had organic chemistry, I had inorganic chemistry and I’ve been an inorganic chemist ever since.”

Inorganic chemistry studies all the elements other than carbon, Templeton said. It used to be thought that carbon was the element where all life came from, but those lines have been blurred to the point that it is considered no longer true. In fact, Templeton’s research area over the past three decades has been organometallic chemistry that falls in a continuum halfway between organic and inorganic.

He earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from Iowa State University in 1975, then spent a year doing postdoctoral research as a NATO fellow at the Imperial College of Science and Technology before interviewing for a job at Carolina the following fall.

He has been in Chapel Hill ever since.

One reason why is people like Bill Little, former chair of the chemistry department, who was working in South Building when they met. As Templeton left, he told Little, “Bill, I’m sorry I met you.” After waiting for the surprised reaction, Templeton explained. “You are the only person I’ve met in this interview that I’m going to feel bad if I’m not your colleague in a year.”

Whenever something good has happened to him in the 30 years since, Templeton said, he has found out later that Little was somehow behind it. Templeton said he feels the same way toward his current boss, Holden Thorp, who hates it when Templeton calls him that. That’s the reason he keeps doing it, Templeton said.

The thought of one day returning to Iowa has stuck with him over the years, and on two occasions he looked at administrative jobs that would have put him near the family farm where his father and grandfather and great-grandfather are buried.

What has kept him here are colleagues like Little and Thorp, and the life he has built in Chapel Hill. It is here that he and his wife, an elementary school science teacher, raised their two sons. Both are grown now and possess Tar Heel degrees.

Templeton is now vice chair of the chemistry department. He served as chair of the department from 1990 to 1995, then spent three years working in South Building as an acting associate dean for science.

Students have always mattered a great deal to him, but as his own career approaches its end, Templeton’s interest in helping the next generation of scientists has grown stronger.

“The younger people are, the more they matter to me,” Templeton said. “I’m kind of blown away by the opportunities I have to help people almost every day.”

Templeton said there is a critical interplay between his science and his students.

“I wouldn’t want to be working in a national laboratory where I’m moving research forward and building new chemical concepts as my only task,” Templeton said. “I would rather be educating students at the graduate level for the highest degree they can attain in chemistry. In order to do that, I have to be driving a research program that is internationally recognized.

“It’s a priority thing. Students are my number one product, not research. Research is number two. But in order to put out good students, you have to do good research.”

‘Don’t step forward, don’t step back
As a young faculty member, Templeton’s interest in faculty governance was tepid at best. He spent the first 20 years of his career in chemistry doing his job the best way he could. For a decade or longer, he didn’t read about anything but chemistry.

With age, his interests expanded.

“At some point I said, ‘There is other stuff going on out there that I would like to know about.”

Now, he reads fiction and history, with a particular interest in the Civil War.

His activities on campus have broadened as well. In 1999, as director of the Honors Study Abroad program, he accompanied 32 students for a semester in England. Two years ago, he spent the entire year working for the National Science Foundation in Washington D.C. He has also served on the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee and the Faculty Executive Committee. This past year, Templeton led the Summer Reading Program Book Selection Committee that picked “The Namesake” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri as its choice for incoming freshmen to read and discuss.

There are faculty members who may be better prepared to serve as faculty chair than he, he said. When asked why he sought the job, Templeton said he didn’t.

“My motto is, ‘Don’t step forward, don’t step back.’ I was asked to be a candidate, and I didn’t step back.”

Templeton said he knows from the outset he cannot equal the energy and knowledge that his predecessor, Judith Wegner, brought to bear on a range of subjects.

In much the same way he told Little he was sorry he met him (because he liked him so much), Templeton told Wegner earlier this summer that he did not want to be in the same room with her anymore (because of his respect for the job she did).

Because Wegner was so attentive and good at laying out issues, Templeton said, a big part of his task will be to continue to focus on those same issues, from faculty retention to health care to doing a better job understanding and appreciating the role graduate students play in the life of the campus. Templeton is also excited about the Difficult Dialogues initiative funded through the Ford Foundation that Wegner and other colleagues helped to make happen.

“There are different ways to do things,” Templeton said. “I’m not going to pretend to be Judith. I’m not an attorney. I’m not willing to work at is as hard as she did, and people can like or not like that about me.”

When asked what his style of leadership would be, Templeton referred back to his playing days, not as a high school quarterback, but as a soccer goalie in college.

A quarterback is involved in every play. A goalie rarely moves during a game, but when he does, it is extremely important that he moves quickly and decisively. A goalie leads by being in the right place at the right time, which is exactly how Templeton feels about his new role as faculty chair.

 “I feel that’s where I’m supposed to be,” Templeton said. “I feel like it has taken me 30 years to get to this point and now this is where I am and I’m comfortable with it. I’ll do the best I can in the way that I think is best.

“It’s wonderful. I mean, I haven’t even started yet, but already this summer I’ve been exposed to intelligent, hardworking people who are committed to making this University better than it already is. What more can you ask for really?”

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