About Chemical Innovation - Subscription Information
March 2001
Vol. 31, No. 3, pp 1, 55–IBC.
Chemist at Large

Table of Contents

Michael J. Block / Editor

Remembering Ben

As we reported in the February issue of Chemical Innovation, Benjamin J. Luberoff, the founding editor of our forerunner, CHEMTECH, passed away on January 18. Ben’s fight to live when he was stricken by a sarcoma in September 2000 was chronicled earlier on this page (CI, December 2000). But when the cancer spread to his lungs, there was nothing the medical profession could do to prolong his life.

Jack R. Gould, a colleague and close friend of Ben’s since the early 1960s, captured the essentials of his life in this obituary. Jack is the president-elect of the Chemical Society of Washington, DC.

Benjamin LuberoffBenjamin J. Luberoff, 75, chemist, chemical engineer, consultant to the chemical industry, and founding editor of CHEMTECH, the award-winning publication of the American Chemical Society, died of cancer in Fearrington Village, NC, on January 18, 2001. He and his wife had residences in Fearrington and in Summit, NJ.

Dr. Luberoff had a strong commitment to family, to community, to his religious heritage, and to his work. His inquisitiveness and zest for life touched everyone he met. He was also an artist who worked in a variety of media, most notably collages made from homemade paper and other materials. He was active in a number of community groups in North Carolina and New Jersey, plus other organizations such as the Vintage Car Club, Books on Tape, and the Literacy Council. He was a volunteer worker for local community causes. For the ACS, he was also a tour speaker, college consultant, and career counselor.

His offbeat editorials in CHEMTECH, “The Industrial Chymist”, rarely failed to “grab” you for their diverse, interesting subject matter and humor. His work philosophy was expressed in one of these editorials, “What’s the past tense of status quo?” (October 1976, p 601): “Why do we do nothing? Simple—it’s easier than doing something. Getting background is hard. Making decisions, even recommendations, is painful. So we stand still and try to be invisible. But that’s a device to keep safe that was thought up by bunnies. I guess it’s OK if all that one wants out of life is what bunnies get. But if somebody swipes your status quo while you’re hiding—well, I warned you.”

Ben was born in Philadelphia in 1925. He served in active duty during World War II and then earned a B.Ch.E degree from Cooper Union in 1949, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry from Columbia University in 1950 and 1955, respectively. He served on the faculties of Cooper Union and Columbia University. His industrial employment experience included American Cyanamid Corp., 1953– 1957; Stauffer Chemical Co., where he was a section head, 1957–1962; and Lummus Engineering Co., 1962–1970. He founded CHEMTECH in 1971 and was its editor until 1993. He published extensively, including seven years as a columnist, “Perkin”, in the British journal Chemistry and Industry; edited Homogeneous Catalysis, Industrial Applications and Implications (ACS Advances in Chemistry Series 70); and was granted several patents on industrial processes. He was chair of the ACS North Jersey Section in 1976.

Ben is survived by his wife, Renee, of 56 years; a daughter, Nancy, of Chapel Hill, NC; a son, David, of Lexington, MA; and seven grandchildren. Another son, Neil, died in 1987.

When I assumed the editorship of CHEMTECH in spring of 1999, one of the first people to contact me was Ben. I had not met him previously. He congratulated me on landing the position and told me it “was the best job in the world.”

I didn’t meet Ben face-to-face until a few months later, when he visited Washington on the way from his New Jersey home to the one in North Carolina. By that time, in the course of the comprehensive redesign of CHEMTECH, we had decided to change its name to Chemical Innovation. Based on what I had learned of Ben’s—shall we say—feisty reputation, I expected the worst. And sure enough, I was quizzed extensively about the purpose, implications, and desirability of the impending changes.

Once we got through that, a couple of beers, and dinner, Ben evidently became comfortable enough with me and the new incarnation of his “baby” to offer all sorts of support to the magazine. He would distribute complimentary copies of it on his speaking tours. He would suggest and even recruit writers for us. And he would, of course, be a resource for story ideas and tips on how to improve the publication.

By the end of the evening, I summoned the courage to ask for what I really wanted—Ben himself to write for us. I pitched a couple of ideas to him: first, a retrospective of CHEMTECH, to appear in its final issue in December 1999, and second, a revival of The Industrial Chymist, a one-page column to appear on the back page of CI.

After some discussion of the details, Ben agreed to both proposals. The retrospective, “CHEMTECH, a phoenix”, was garnished with anecdotes from others associated with the magazine’s early days and provided a fitting ending to a nearly 30-year-old institution. And, even if it was for only a year, Ben faithfully supplied more than a magazine page’s worth of copy for The Industrial Chymist every month. It was always provocative, always fun, and always delivered well before the deadline. Ben was the consummate professional right up until the time he was no longer able to contribute.

Even during the brief period when he had sufficiently recovered from his surgery to communicate, it was clear that Ben hadn’t lost his touch. In the late fall, after we ran out of recently supplied material, we decided to rerun Industrial Chymists from Ben’s CHEMTECH days. He had suggested some from very early issues, but when we asked him for columns from later years, he replied, “I’m sorry, they’re all packed up, and I can’t get to them. But pick any one—they’re all brilliant.”

He knew himself pretty well.

I saw Ben in person only twice more after that initial meeting, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that, beyond his technical and editorial brilliance, he was most interested in people and their welfare.

Ben, I’ll miss you, but I’ll always keep learning from you.

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I asked two people who worked with Ben extensively over the years to write remembrances of Ben. Dorit Noether was associate editor of CHEMTECH from 1976 to 1993; Marcia Dresner was managing editor of CHEMTECH from 1989 to 1999.

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Dorit wrote:

“Read this—DAMN IT,” was Ben Luberoff’s call for action as he started his ACS North Jersey Section chairmanship (Indicator, Vol. 57, January 1976). He told how valuable his interactions with society members had been and how others too would gain from active participation. His call to action ended with: “I’m gonna need all the help I can get. Will you? Please.” It was to the point; it was classic Ben.

In 1970 ACS decided to stop publication of the three journals that focused on industrial chemistry. To replace them, consultants to the Publications Division proposed the creation of a magazine—not a journal—of chemical technology. The person to head this publication needed experience that spanned the whole range from benchwork to direction of research, with understanding of the underlying needs of management. Ben Luberoff’s credentials fit the demands, and he was willing to accept the task. He became the founding editor of Chemical Technology magazine, later known as CHEMTECH.

Few would have the courage to take over an editorship alone, without a staff and without prior editing experience. Few would have succeeded. But Ben learned quickly. In addition to his extensive industrial experience, he believed deeply that chemists must become aware of the importance of chemical technology and the process of innovation. The new magazine’s permanent editorial staff in Summit, NJ, consisted of Ben Luberoff and a part-time secretary. Employees in the Publications Division at ACS headquarters in Washington taught him about publishing tasks, and Ben worked closely with the designers and artists as well as marketing personnel.

Ben alone was responsible for the editorial content. He invited people active in state-of-the-art R&D and in management to write for the new magazine. Ben’s editing changed the traditionally formal, and at times long-winded, language of authors into a reader-friendly active voice. Ben saw his magazine as primarily serving the readers, in contrast to journals, which served authors and readers.

The magazine functioned as a forum for some of his strong views. He firmly believed in the ultimate need for renewable energy. He believed that commercial nuclear energy had a fatal flaw and that the nuclear arms issue needed to be addressed (see the box below regarding the 1984 Olive Branch Award). He stressed the role of individuals in the innovative process, be they technicians or managers.1984 Olive Branch Award

After 4 years of solo editing, Ben looked for editorial help, and I joined him in a collaboration that lasted until he resigned 17 years later. Once a month, we went to Washington to “put the book to bed”, that is, to finalize the illustrations and to decide which article would be featured on the cover. There were crazy-looking yellow energy-supplying trees that derived from Ben’s sketches (January 1978), a huddle of decision-making helmet-wearing managers (May 1983), and the inside of a head showing our right–left brain mode of thinking (November 1981).

Ben was multitalented. He loved to suggest gag lines for our cartoonists. His favorite one concerned the 11th commandment (“Thou shalt make back-ups”, see below). Ben responded to my objection to male bias and dropped cartoons showing dumb sexy gals. He enthusiastically published The Rub, a series of true incidents that involved women and chemistry (e.g., “Today’s seminar must be easy, even the librarians are coming. What is the gender of the chemists?”).

Ben was a proud graduate of the Cooper Union in New York; the P.E. (professional engineer) after his name gave him more satisfaction than his Columbia University Ph.D. His military service during World War II in Europe gave him the confidence he later used in his career. He felt that he could handle all tasks, be they running the evening graduate school at Rutgers, writing promotional material for CHEMTECH, or serving as president of ACS. Ben was a unique, stimulating, and fine human being. I’m privileged to have been able to work with him.

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Marcia wrote:

Ben Luberoff was a man of great passion and vision. He was a teacher. Most of all, he was a man who didn’t sit on the sidelines and watch. I will miss him.

There are many who can claim they knew Ben longer, and many who knew him better. But for 5 years, we worked together as editor and managing editor of CHEMTECH, the magazine Ben founded, nurtured, and poured his heart into for 22 years. When I think of Ben, there are pictures that come to mind. Here are a few.

I see Ben the day I interviewed for the CHEMTECH job. He was sitting in a mostly bare office at ACS headquarters. We talked about a wide range of topics during our first hour and a half together. At one point he stood up, picked up the thick organic book sitting on the desk, and slammed it down. “Are you prepared,” he challenged me, “to learn all of this and more?” It was typical of Ben. Learning was his passion, and he couldn’t imagine working with anyone who didn’t share that passion.

I see Ben and the rest of the CHEMTECH team at our monthly art meetings. Ben would lead the five of us (Ben, Dorit Noether, art director Amy Hayes, the production editor, and me) on a creative roller-coaster ride. He challenged us to keep up with his imagination as we decided what illustration best suited each article. We had some famous arguments. But we were proud of the magazine that came out of the process.

I see Ben at meetings, standing and talking to friends and strangers. How he enjoyed telling those strangers about CHEMTECH. He would come back from a meeting with lists of people he had spoken to, many of whom had agreed to write for the magazine.

One meeting stands out. We celebrated the 20th anniversary of CHEMTECH at the ACS national meeting in New York in August 1991. Ben didn’t want to just throw a party. So we organized a half-day symposium on the future of chemistry and invited each of the editors of the ACS journals to participate. Almost all of them came or sent a representative. Ben moderated a series of panel discussions. The people in attendance were excited by the optimistic vision of the future of our science that was presented that morning. And because it looked to the future instead of dwelling on the past, the whole experience was pure Ben.

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We also received tributes to Ben from others who knew him over the years.

He was a complicated mixture, this Ben Luberoff—by turns charming, mercurial, truculent, iconoclastic, generous, and witty. He was without doubt the most natural magazine editor I ever met: He was interested in everything about chemistry and chemical engineering, and there wasn’t anything in the world of things and ideas beyond science and engineering that did not fascinate him either. He read voraciously, and to know him was to receive at regular intervals a stream of clippings and photocopies of articles from publications as varied as The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Mealtime conversations with Ben were roller-coaster rides of subjects and direction shifts.

When he was editor of CHEMTECH and I was its “publisher”, I regularly marveled at his genius at picking unconventional subjects and approaches—but sometimes his sense of humor was not shared by some of the copy editors. I well remember one refusing to edit a particularly Rabelaisian poem (which I found hilariously funny) on the subject of saltpeter. I was often thoroughly exasperated at his tendency to rip the whole magazine apart, even after page-proof stage, to insert a late-arriving manuscript he thought “would fit well” in that issue. That CHEMTECH’s charges for printer corrections were the highest in the ACS stable of publications was of little consequence to Ben.

Nor did he believe in conducting reader surveys or poring over subscriber demographics, pursuits that were extremely common in the magazine publishing environment of the 1970s. Ben knew what the reader needed was whatever he chose to provide them, and he knew it without a shred of arrogance. Surprisingly, perhaps, this offbeat approach to subject matter usually met with the wholehearted approval of his readers. Ben particularly hated “selective dissemination of information” systems, just coming into vogue as he started his editorial career. They’re for people who think they know exactly what they need, he used to say. What they needed, in Ben’s view, was to stumble upon something in CHEMTECH he had carefully put there for them to run across accidentally, then to profit from reading it. It was an editorial philosophy that worked for the times.

Ben was one of the few people in professional life with whom I ever lost my temper. The fact is, the man cared. The technical publishing world misses Ben Luberoff sorely. We shall not see his like again.

D. H. Michael Bowen
Former Director, ACS Books and Journals Division
Bethesda, MD
dhmbowen@yahoo.com

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Ben Luberoff was larger than life. He was one of those “just good folks” that drew people to him. He ran a town in Germany after World War II because he could speak German. He decided to start an innovative ACS magazine so he started CHEMTECH. He could talk with Nobel Prize winners, bench chemists, high-school students, and kindergartners—and all would respond. His enthusiasm and interest in everything around him (particularly in science) were infectious and inspiring.

Our world is a poorer place now that he is gone

Howard Peters
Peters Verny Jones and Biksa
Palo Alto, CA
peters4pa@aol.com

Sally Peters
Xerox-Parc
Palo Alto, CA

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The death of Ben Luberoff is very sad news for the international community of chemists and chemical engineers. Ben was creative and innovative, and I especially remember his extraordinary kindness and unparalleled generosity. In the early 1990s, Ben offered to donate part of his personal library to the Institute of Chemistry in Cluj, Romania—and we know well what a library Ben had. (I decided to not accept this offer because I hoped that Ben would still use the library for many years after his retirement.)

Death, beyond all doubt, is a shocking and destructive event to those close to any human being. However when it happens to someone of the greatness of Ben Luberoff, his essence, his very being—his ideas, core values, methods, modes of thinking, and his admirable culture, which became the culture of CHEMTECH and Chemical Innovation—all these do not die, but stay with us and continue to grow, develop, and prosper.

Death is oblivion, but it cannot touch Ben. You, and we, all have to continue Ben’s work.

Peter Gluck
Dynamic Network Technologies
Cluj, Romania
pgluck@dntcj.ro


cartoon
One of Ben's favorite cartoons

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Luberoff's Ark
Readers may wonder where to send donations in Ben’s memory. Ben himself provided the perfect suggestion in Benjigram #36 (see December 2000 CI, p 1, for definition of Benjigram), when he thanked people for all the flowers they had sent him but said that their money could be spent better elsewhere:

“The Heifer Project provides animals and training in their care to families and communities here and overseas. This project helps hungry families feed themselves and makes self-reliance for food and income possible. For my 75th birthday, I started ‘construction’ of Luberoff’s Ark, which when completed will be filled with two flocks of chickens, two sheep, two trios of rabbits, two beehives, two trios of guinea pigs, two llamas, two camels, two donkeys, two goats, two oxen, two pigs, and so forth. I would love to see this Ark completed and filled. You can send donations of any amount to

Heifer Project International
Attention: Virginia McElroy for Luberoff’s Ark
PO Box 8058
Little Rock, AR 72203-8058

The project staff will send you [and the Luberoff family] an acknowledgment.”

—Ben Luberoff

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