Million-dollar gift supports teaching at WSU

Julie Lutz in a knit hat posing near a telescope.
Julie Lutz

The tremendous impact made by professors Tom and Julie Lutz during 20-plus years at WSU and the legacy of Julie’s “full life” are now honored and celebrated in a professorship, a teaching excellence award, and a scholarship all bearing the Lutz name.

During the 1960s and ‘70s in America, it was not altogether common to see women working in the physical sciences. Nonetheless, Julie Lutz reached for the stars.

The first from her family to attend college, Julie earned a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State University and a master’s and doctorate from the University of Illinois before becoming an astronomy professor at Washington State University in 1972. Along with husband Tom, who became an astronomy professor within WSU’s Department of Mathematics three years earlier, they made up WSU’s astronomy department well into the 1990s, influencing generations of stargazers from WSU’s Pullman campus.

Sadly, Tom died suddenly of a heart attack in 1995. A few years later, Julie remarried and relocated, finishing her stellar, trailblazing career at the University of Washington’s Department of Astronomy.

Before Julie passed away from cancer at 77 in May 2022, she wished to see the Lutz’s extraordinary legacy of teaching, learning and discovery endure. With this in mind, she designated more than $1 million in estate gifts to benefit WSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, where she and Tom spent a substantial portion of their careers as astronomy professors. The funds created by the gifts to honor their work and careers:

  • Tom and Julie Lutz Distinguished Professorship: emphasizing a “superior mastery of teaching”
  • Tom and Julie Lutz Science and Mathematics Teaching Excellence Award: given annually to a faculty member from the sciences who has “exhibited exemplary teaching”
  • Tom and Julie Lutz Science and Mathematics Scholarship: providing support for graduate and undergraduate students “who intend to pursue a career as science teachers”

Note the emphasis on “teaching.”

“She really enjoyed her research but also enjoyed her students, who reached out after her passing to express gratitude for her teaching,” said Melissa Lutz Blouin, Tom and Julie’s older daughter who as a young driver received the blue 1966 Dodge Dart in which the family of four first arrived in Pullman in 1969. “Mom and Dad were the astronomy department. If one was sick, the other was teaching the course.

“Teaching became a passion for Mom, who realized how important it was for professors to be recognized for teaching. The influence of being a teacher and sending kids into the world prepared mattered a great deal to Mom.”

Julie’s strengths and impact as a teacher were not lost on College of Arts and Sciences Dean Todd Butler.

“At the same time as she pushed the boundaries of our universe through her research, Julie raised others up through her teaching,” Butler said. “In the classroom and the lab, Julie exemplified the curiosity, intelligence and drive that characterize the best learners, faculty and students alike. In creating Arts and Sciences’ first distinguished professorship focused on teaching, she has created a legacy that will shape and support generations of Cougars to come.”

Life among the stars

Tom and Julie Lutz while on sabbatical at Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile in 1988–89.

Julie was just as strong as a student as she was a teacher. Despite showing extraordinary promise as a high school student — skipping not only the third grade, but also the eighth grade — Julie encountered doubters.

“I did have a high school counselor who definitely thought I was crazy to want to be an astronomer,” Julie said during a March 2019 lecture titled “My Life Among the Stars” in which she described the pleasures and perils of being a woman in the physical sciences at the dawn of the modern feminist movement. “That was OK. Fine. I didn’t pay attention to that really.”

Julie paid zero attention, becoming the first in her family to attend college, at UCLA — at 16 years old. Craving smaller classrooms and the company of a certain boyfriend, Julie transferred to San Diego State.

Speaking of the boyfriend, Julie was asked to decide between becoming a homemaker (she actually won a Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow award in high school) or becoming a graduate student.

“Grad school won over the boyfriend,” Julie said, “and I went off to University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.”

The experience changed her life in more ways than one. She met Tom at Illinois and ultimately earned her PhD in 1972 while working on her thesis on planetary nebulae in absentia from her new home in Pullman.

In addition to being a standout teacher, Julie would move swiftly up the ranks at WSU:

And Julie’s impact was felt well beyond the WSU campus in Pullman:

  • Director of the Division of Astronomical Sciences at the National Science Foundation (1990–92, during which time she won the Director’s Award for Management Excellence)
  • Member of the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee (1990–92)
  • President (1991-93) and member of the Board of Directors (1987–92) for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 
  • Chair of the Astronomy Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1993–96), and elected as Fellow (1991)

The transformative power of higher education that Julie experienced in becoming one of the leading female astronomers in the United States might explain why support for graduate and undergraduate students was included in the Lutz gift.

Inspiring the next generation

“I am so grateful to be chosen as a recipient of the Tom and Julie Lutz Science and Mathematics Teaching Excellence Award,” said Sandy Auttelet, a physics and math major who entered her third year of study this past fall. “This award will be used to help pay for my living expenses while I work on my third year of my degree.”

The oldest of nine siblings, Auttelet graduated from Heritage High School in Vancouver, Washington, with an associate degree of arts and sciences from the Running Start program at Clark College. Her plans include graduate school and obtaining a PhD in physics.

“I am the first and only person in my family to pursue a degree in the STEM field,” said Auttelet, who is an officer for both the Physics and Astronomy Club and the Environmental Sustainability Alliance. “The funds will be very helpful in ensuring I can manage my work and course load. Because I am currently working on an independent research project, I am working for free, and scholarships like this are great ways to subsidize my work as a student.”

Clea Lutz Hupp, like her older sister Melissa, grew up on WSU’s Pullman campus witnessing firsthand the impact and influence of teaching excellence within public higher education.

“Melissa and I spent many hours at WSU, in the Math Department offices or even handing out exams for our parents,” said Clea. “We are thrilled that Mom chose to support teacher training and excellence in teaching. It is very touching that Mom and Dad will always be remembered in this way and have a lasting impact on teachers in Washington state.”

By Brian Boyle, WSU Insider