In memoriam: Robert Benoit, associate professor emeritus in Department of Biological Sciences
December 18, 2020
Robert “Bob” Benoit, an associate professor emeritus in the Department of Biological Sciences who served on the faculty for more than 40 years, died Nov. 18 at age 86.
Born in Enosburg Falls, Vermont, in 1934, he would start his education in a one-room school house and eventually become the first person in his family to go to college. Benoit earned a bachelor’s degree in agronomy from the University of Vermont in 1956, and a master’s degree in soil physics and Ph.D. in environmental microbiology, both from Rutgers University, in 1960 and 1964, respectively.
Benoit joined the then Department of Biology between his master’s and doctoral degrees, in 1962. (He served in the U.S. Army as a commissioned officer after graduating from college and before attending Rutgers.) He became one of the founding members of the department’s microbiology program, teaching thousands of students over his career. Even after his official retirement in 2002, he taught classes in biomedical ethics and general microbiology.
His talent for teaching and advising captured Benoit numerous awards, including the Biology Department Teaching (1996) and Advising (1996 and 1997) awards, the College of Arts and Sciences Teaching Excellence Award (1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, and 1984), the Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching Award (1984), and the university’s William E. Wine Award (2002). In 2002 he was also recognized with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Award and as Virginia Professor of the Year. Benoit also served on the Academy of Teaching Excellence continuously since 1984.
Benoit’s research focused on microbial ecology of subsurface ecosystems, physiology of microaerophilic and psychrophilic bacteria, and microbial degradation of recalcitrant natural products and synthetic compounds. This research took him north to Alaska and south to Antarctica.
Benoit was also a long-time member of the department’s OWLS (Older Wiser Learned Scientists) group. Founded in 2003, this group of retired faculty members would meet once a month to engage in lively research talks with fellow Virginia Tech faculty.
“Bob was a wonderful colleague to me in my early years on the faculty and later as department head,” said Brenda Winkel, a professor in the department, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science. “I know that he will be remembered and missed by many.”
Added Erik Nilsen, also a professor emeritus of the department: “Bob was a very sweet man that I really enjoyed talking with. He told me once that there were more microbes on my body than all the cells in my body. That simple statement really changed my view of the microbial world.”
Associate Professor Emeritus Bruce Turner added, “Bob opened my eyes to some of the social and philosophical issues raised by what seemed to be a cascade of new discoveries in human genetics, gene manipulation, etc. I could always count on him to come up with social implications that I didn’t initially appreciate, and I found these doubly useful because I knew he was effectively presenting them to his students as well. He was happiest, he told me many times, when these issues raised more questions among his students than answers.”
Locally, Benoit was a member of the Blacksburg Master Chorale and Opera Roanoke, served as a trustee of Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library, was a member of the Rotary, and for 27 years volunteered as a reader for the blind.
According to his obituary from McCoy Funeral Home, Benoit is survived by his wife Jean of 62 years; his children, Beth Benoit, Paul Benoit, and Denise Benoit-Turner; his grandchildren, Ethan, John Robert, Bryce, David, and James; his brothers, Paul Benoit and Larry Benoit; and nieces, Betsy, Nickelle, Carmen, and Megan. A celebration of life will happen post-pandemic, according to the family.
Valerie Sutherland of the Department of Biological Science contributed to this story.