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Courtlandt Bohn
Courtlandt Bohn

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

April 3, 2007

NIU mourns loss of physicist Courtlandt Bohn

Memorial service will be held on campus Thursday

DeKalb, Ill. — Northern Illinois University Physics Professor Courtlandt L. Bohn, a former captain in the U.S. Air Force and an internationally known physicist, died Sunday, April 1, after a 15-month battle with cancer. He was 53.

A campus memorial service will be held for Professor Bohn from 2 to 4 p.m. Thursday in the Altgeld Hall Auditorium.

Just a year ago, Bohn was awarded NIU’s Presidential Research Professorship, an honor recognizing the university’s top scholars.

“This is a major loss for NIU, as well as for the research communities at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory, where Court Bohn was a key collaborator,” NIU President John Peters said. “In his five years at NIU, Court made a significant contribution to our physics program. He will be sorely missed by colleagues and students alike.”

Joseph Grush, acting dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said Bohn “clearly was among our very best scientists.”

“But as good a scientist as he was, he was a better person,” Grush added. “He was a consummate gentleman, someone who had style and grace.”

Bohn was trained in the world-renowned astrophysics program at the University of Chicago, where he earned his master’s degree (1977) and Ph.D. (1983). His star rose, however, in a field that would seem far removed. Instead of gazing toward the heavens, he studied the subatomic workings of laser and particle beams, the latter of which evolve in ways similar to galaxies.

Colleagues and family members described him as brilliant. As a U.S. Air Force officer, he at one time directed nearly all U.S. Air Force laser and accelerator programs from the Air Force Secretariat in the Pentagon. As an associate professor of physics at the Air Force Academy, he won major research awards.

Bohn later took a post at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia, where he led the design, construction and commissioning of a breakthrough free-electron laser. He worked as a physicist at Argonne and Fermilab and continued collaborations at those institutions after coming to NIU in 2002.

At NIU, Bohn established the Beam Physics and Astrophysics Group, which includes faculty members, postdoctoral research associates, graduate students and a cluster of more than 100 computers. The group attracted several million dollars in research funding.

“At one time, he had a fabulous offer to leave the university and go into private industry at almost double his salary,” Acting Dean Grush recalled. “He came to me with the written offer, but he did not ask for anything for himself. Instead, he asked if we could do something to help his staff. That is the essence of who Court Bohn was.”

Bohn’s research group is shedding new light on the complicated evolution of charged-particle beams as they accelerate. The aim is to learn how to produce the most intense beams possible, an area of keen interest to industries ranging from national defense to manufacturing.

“Court had a knack for understanding the physics of very complicated systems that involve many objects, such as galaxies with many stars or beam pulses with many particles,” said NIU Presidential Science Adviser Gerald Blazey, who also is a physics professor. “He was a pleasure to work with and had a deep understanding of physics. In one of his last e-mails to me, he said he had some pretty serious physics questions for God.”

Bohn was a spiritual man, according to his family members. He authored more than 100 research papers, but credited his successes to God. “He told us he knew that when he died he was going to learn everything, but he was upset because he wouldn’t be able to write any papers about it,” said his daughter Yolanda Cook.

She and her siblings recognized their father’s brilliance early on.

“We always told him he was special, that his brain worked differently,” she recalled. “He would say that he was just a hard worker. He didn’t see his gift. He was very intelligent but also very humble.”

While his career took a rocket-like trajectory, Bohn also was a family man with a silly side.

“He was always a little less serious than people thought,” his daughter said. “He listened to Led Zeppelin and Van Halen. Around the house, he would take a commonly known song and change the words, singing about how much he loved my mom or one of us.”

In addition to Yolanda (Jonathan) Cook, Bohn is survived by his wife of 29 years, Mary Lynn Bohn; his son, Jason (Meghan) Bohn; and daughter Kimberly Bohn.

A viewing will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, at Butala Funeral Home and Crematory, 1405 DeKalb Ave., Sycamore, Ill. Private burial services will be held Thursday morning.

In lieu of flowers, a scholarship is being established to honor his memory. Contributions can be made to Northern Illinois University, Foundation Gift Planning, 1425 W. Lincoln Highway, DeKalb, IL 60115. Checks should be made payable to the NIU Foundation in memory of Courtlandt Bohn.