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Remembering Stephen J. Mecca, Ph.D. 1943-2018
Dr. Stephen J. Mecca ’64 & ’66G, a professor of physics who led a life dedicated to science and service to communities both local and international, died Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. Dr. Mecca taught at PC for almost 50 years and previously served as vice president for academic administration, department chair, and Faculty Senate president. Read about Dr. Mecca’s life, accomplishments, and funeral information.
Steve! Where are you? I’ve not stopped reflecting on my purpose for this life since hearing of your passing into eternity last night. You continued giving me hope, stating, “Comfort, I will fight this ‘thing’!” And fighting you did till your last breath. Steve, it was a blessing having you in my life as a mentor and friend! I learned so much from you in the past few years. “Systems thinking” has become a core of my philosophy, thanks to you. Your insights always amazed me. You left your mark locally and internationally. I can’t imagine the lives you’ve touched in the world beyond the USA, especially in my continent, Africa, and specifically, Ghana and Kenya. Your voice of wisdom and intentionality in your work will live with me forever as I attempt to discover my own purpose for this life. Despite all you have accomplished you still had so much to do! Your latest and ongoing research on “XPONICS,” a term you coined to enhance knowledge on hydroponics, aimed at improving food access in the developing world! You were so excited to share the engineering aspect of that work and I looked forward to be a partner in reflecting on the agronomic aspect! Your international work on hygiene through engineering affordable toilets, water filtration, education and health portals, just to name a few! My God! Steve, no amount of writing can describe your greatness! I am comforted in knowing that you are resting in peace, for I know not when you took a rest during your active life since knowing you. Amidst pain in the hospital you continued to write and discuss your research. All I can promise is doing whatever I can to help keep your legacy. Adieu Steve! Thank you for being a friend, a mentor, my hero. Rest in Perfect Peace. Will miss you!
— Dr. Comfort M. Ateh ’18P, associate professor of education
Margaret “Peggy” Saanuo ’16, who grew up in Pokuase, Ghana, met Dr. Stephen J. Mecca ’64 & ’66G when she was 13. She was a member of the Girls Exploration and Empowerment Club, which his granddaughter helped establish. Dr. Mecca encouraged her to study in the United States. After attending high school in New Hampshire, she was awarded a scholarship to Providence College. She now works in Ghana as an operations manager for the New Crystal Specialist Center at the New Crystal Health Services Limited.
Growing up with no grandparents, Poppy, as I usually called him, became my grandfather. At the age of 13 years he saw the best in me and promised to help me pursue my goals. It didn’t matter where I came from, he became everything I wanted in a grandfather, and with his help I was able to complete high school and college in the U.S.A.
He was my mentor, my role model, and tutor. He always wanted to create change and put smiles on people’s faces. With his positive energy and support, I felt I could do anything, especially with him around. He was my reference; I would run everything by him before I embarked on it. His words hold so much life and value, and I’m grateful I had one smart, courageous, and hardworking professor as a grandfather.
Poppy has played a vital role in my life and the lives of many Ghanaians. Pokuase wouldn’t be the same without him. I just hope to work extremely hard to make him proud and be part of what he has started here in Ghana.
Rest in peace, my hero.
— Margaret “Peggy” Saanuo ’16
My favorite memory because it illustrated the best of Steve is from a few years ago when we were at a conference in DC together. Linda had come down too to enjoy the area. We were flying back in the same flight and needed to get to BWI for our flight. There were no convenient trains and a man approached us outside the terminal and asked if we needed a ride. This was before Uber. Linda and I were not enthusiastic but Steve jumped at the opportunity. When we went to put our bags in the back, it became clear that this couple were living out of their car. We all piled in and as we made our way to Baltimore, I could tell that Linda was thinking the same thing I was – maybe this wasn’t a good idea. But Steve struck up a conversation with the driver and soon they were having a lively conversation about past Friar basketball teams. I was struck by the fact that Steve was so easily able to find a way to connect with this man he had never met and had not judgement (but only compassion) for his situation. That ride to the airport with Steve and his wife will always stand out as an example of who Steve truly was.
— Dr. Lynne M. Lawson, assistant professor of physics
In 2014, Jermoh Kamara ’15 accompanied Dr. Stephen J. Mecca ’64 & ’66G to Ghana, where she learned to build the microflush toilet he invented in his lab. On a trip to Liberia, she installed the first microflush toilet in that country. Since graduation, Kamara founded and is president of HVK Children’s Foundation, an organization that helps meet the public health and education needs of women, children, and families in Liberia. She earned a master’s degree in public and global health from New York Medical College in May 2018.
I met Dr. Mecca my first year at PC at the study abroad fair. We spoke about the fair, my interest in studying abroad, and about another student, Peggy Saanuo ’16, who arrived at PC later that year. Through the hustle and bustle of school work, I lost communication with him, but I remembered that he led trips to Ghana. During the summer of 2014, I interned with him there. Ever since, Dr. Mecca has been my mentor and has supported me. In 2015, he helped me get a Rotary Club grant for $5,000 to open a micro-lending fund in Liberia. He gave me tablets and desktops for Liberia. He also nominated me to serve on the board of directors of the Global Sustainable Aid Project, which he helped start.
He was always so lively on the phone, so vibrant, so optimistic. But after his wife passed away (in May 2018), I could sense a change in his tone. He told me, “Jermoh, Linda and I have been together since college. She’s been my support. Not having someone here who I spent my life with is really hard.” I could hear that it had taken a toll on him.
In the future, I intend to dedicate some projects in his name. He was more than a mentor to me. He was always pushing me. He told me to keep going, keep pushing, work for a little bit, get some experience, go back to school, and don’t stop there. He said that my education as a woman in this culture is very important. I even took a physics class with him, and I am not a physics person, but he told me I was one of his best students.
He had so many ideas. It is not common to see people his age always thinking about sustainable projects to benefit low-income countries and that can change the lives of people. The majority of his projects aim to generate income for the less privileged with low literacy, who are mostly women. He also just reopened a school building that had been struck by lightning in Kitale, Kenya. It serves children and trains community members.
There was never a dull moment talking to Dr. Mecca. He knew there were innovative solutions that could have an impact on people and he was testing them right in his S-Lab at PC. His ideas helped to expand my thinking; I learned a lot from him. He amazed me. PC lost a great person. He’s gone, but I know that he’s here, because he said he would always be here with us. I know he is.
— Jermoh Kamara ’15
Dr. Terence A. McGoldrick is an associate professor of theology at Providence College.
When I first met Steve Mecca about 5 years ago and he told me about his projects in the developing world like the microflush vermi-composting toilets, the 64GB education portal, and slow sand water filters, I said, “Wow, wow, and wow, how can I help?” I’ve known some very smart people in my life but this man was a genius, a humanitarian, with unbounded energy and a heart for the poor. He became a dear friend and an inspiration to me like so many others. It may seem odd that a theologian and a nuclear physicist would team up to create a class together and join forces in this work, but not for Steve. He was a deeply spiritual man, a poet, a musician. I can’t find the words to explain the hole he leaves behind.
In science, the simpler the solution, the more elegant the solution. Steve was able to find very cheap, simple, adapted technologies that would have life-changing impact on some of the biggest problems faced by the world’s poor. His microflush toilets won a challenge grant of $100,000 from the Gates Foundation for field testing, and then another $1million grant to scale them in Ghana. Yet Steve was fiercely ethical. He and I would often have discussions on what some may consider the smallest things, to weigh the ethical dimension of our interventions. The folks at the Gates Foundation were surprised when he turned down that second grant, but he wasn’t willing to deal with the corruption once he saw how things were taking shape with his African partners.
His innovation with the S-Lab, a lab for students in all disciplines, was to see how developing world problems, like sanitation, are not simply science problems. He saw that these kinds of problems are systemic and multi-dimensional. He came to believe strongly that any success must also consider social, religious, ethical, economic, educational, and cultural aspects at play. Steve was a systems thinker. He spent a sabbatical living in Accra, worked closely with the University of Ghana’s engineering department, and was eventually asked to become a member of their board of trustees. For about 10 years he would bring students to Ghana to work on a host of common social problems affecting daily life, and then return to his S-Lab to work out solutions to new problems, or to refine things that earlier groups of students had produced. He was against just giving things away (although he did admit some exceptions, including the thousands of refurbished old PC computers he shipped to Africa with containers of books over the years). He had many stories to explain why he didn’t believe in giveaways, like the time he helped Rotary give a well with a hand pump to a community in Africa, only to return a year later to find it broken and unused.
His non-profit was called The Global Sustainable Aid Project, because it was based on the philosophy that lasting solutions needed a systems approach. Creating small businesses and supporting them with microloans and technical advice is one example. It’s a simple idea with tremendous impact. Once solving a problem like disease from open defecation is turned into a business that someone in the community of the poor can create, using locally sourced materials that are easily found in the local market, they are empowered. Ghana created a new government ministry of sanitation and signed a memorandum of understanding with GSAP to use their toilet technology for the entire country in 2017. We have trained makers in over 20 countries to date and set up loan funds for many of them, using a model that continues to revolve those repayments into new loans for more toilets. There are more such projects described on GSAP’s website, www.globalsustainableaid.org.
Long ago, with a freshly minted nuclear physics doctorate in hand, when Steve was offered the job at PC he was also offered a much more prestigious job at Johns Hopkins and all that goes with it to fund his research, but he and Linda decided to stay at PC. It was his alma mater. That didn’t stop him from going on to have an outstanding academic career. He was a consultant for NASA, NATO. and the NSF, published three books and a host of much cited articles.
He had a deep impact on his many students’ hearts and minds. One student complained to me that he received a 50% on his exam from Dr. Mecca. “Never in my life have I ever gotten such a bad grade,” he told me. But then he explained that Dr. Mecca told the students that was the grade he was expecting from them. He wanted them to learn that they had part of the answer, but that there was much more to learn.
Coming to PC instead of a R-1 university with an international reputation didn’t stop him from founding his own successful computer company that specialized in services to law offices with profit-sharing for his employees. When it started getting too big he gave it to a young guy starting out, who he wanted to succeed and who he knew would take care of his customers and employees.
He has a long list of accomplishments that I can’t do justice to here. Steve Mecca was an unstoppable force who was going to thrive wherever he was planted. Sure, he could be a steamroller, he would admit it, but he could be reeled in because he listened. I think that’s why he was able to see these simple solutions to complex problems. In the end his humanity was larger than his formidable intellect.
I can picture him as I write this on our trip to the Haitian Health Foundation in Jérémie, Haiti, jumping into the co-pilot seat of our eight-seater Cessna with the eagerness of a child for our hour’s flight to a remote dirt runway. What a blessing his life has been to the entire PC community. Bringing to bear a multitude of disciplines to collaborate between the sciences, liberal arts, and business to make a difference in some of the world’s most important problems is not going to end with Steve’s passing. Providence College is going to find a way to continue Steve’s work and legacy, because the man had such respect, because the work is profoundly meaningful, and because it is at the heart of our mission as a Catholic liberal arts College. I can’t think of anything that he would like more.
— Terry McGoldrick
I studied Applied Physics and had Dr. Mecca in class just about every semester at PC. He taught me such a wide range of subjects – data analysis, coding, systems science, engineering, and nuclear physics – which really speaks to his brilliance and amazing mind. However, most of my memories with him were not from class. The most impactful lessons and times we had together were always in the S-Lab or in office hours or in the field. He and his “foxy lady”, Linda, hosted all of the engineering students at their home for dinner during our first few months at Providence, really bringing our class together. He took our Modern Physics class to the nuclear reactors in southern RI for labs and trusted us with difficult problems – all the while referring to us as colleagues. He made shirts for our Scientific Programming class to celebrate learning Java and I just remember being so excited to wear this XL t-shirt (I’m 5’4″) around that he made us. He would host hours on hours of meetings with the 20+ students in his lab, and somehow I never felt rushed while meeting with him. He always asked about my day and family and would work through issues I was having with experiments. My favorite talks with him were always about God and our Catholic faith, and to have a science professor excited about how religion and science complement each other beautifully made a world of difference for me at PC.
I co-presented with him at a conference in New Orleans and he took me to get some of the best cajun food I’ve ever eaten, all the while telling me stories of his college days and meeting his wife and working around the world. He was an INCREDIBLE storyteller and loved his family so so much.
I distinctly remember that after we presented he was peppered with so many questions from people inspired by his work in sanitation and health in the developing world that we held up the session. He was feisty and never took no for an answer.
I worked with him full time in the lab one summer and he would come back from lunch and casually mention, “Oh, I just raised another $5,000 for our education project” or “Our toilets will be put in the refugee camps in this country…” like what he was doing was typical. He did so many extraordinary things, and he expected that of his students, too. He demanded that we think outside of the box – like that summer when we converted propane tanks to water heaters. Or 3D printed toilets. Or turned cassava into glue.
I have so many memories of him in Ghana, too, during the summer of 2016. He dropped us off in little Pokuase without much instruction besides find a SIM-card to communicate. I learned so much in those weeks about engineering, about empowering others through science, and about his love of plantains. He was so loved by that village – we couldn’t walk down the street without people yelling out, excited to see him. And he was so loved because he took the time to get to know people and their problems and to co-design solutions. He smiled constantly while there and we all couldn’t help but do the same. I remember learning traditional drumming alongside him, listening to him play the piano beautifully in downtown Accra, watching him run to put out a fire that broke out while cooking, and riding in tro-tros that were way over capacity.
Dr. Mecca will forever influence the work I do, and I am so grateful to have learned from the best. Rest in peace.
— Claire Kleinschmidt ’17
Dr. Mecca was my academic advisor all four years as a physics major at PC. I also was part of the S-Lab for 3 years. Weekly meetings with him were a chance to hear a bit of what seemed like hundreds of projects he was working on, and I was consistently amazed at how one person could keep track of all those ideas. What I learned from being his student has helped me in my scientific career and in life in general. Perhaps the memory that will stick with me the most is the last time I saw Dr. Mecca. He was being treated at a hospital close to where I was in Wisconsin and I was able to meet up with him. I learned that he still had many projects he was involved in, even as he was going through chemo. The hope and optimism he had about his then upcoming surgery was truly remarkable, and something that I think needs to be more prevalent in the world. I also shared with him the difficulties I had been going through recently and we connected on a more personal level than when I was his student. His enthusiasm and passion in everything he did and how he used that to make the world a better place is not easily forgotten, and the impact of his work will reach far beyond his life. I’m sure that in heaven, Dr. Mecca already has 5 ways to make it a more efficient place.
— Cayla Stifler ’16
I will be forever grateful for Dr. Mecca and for having had the opportunity to learn from him. I will always admire him for his academic curiosity, but I will admire him more for his love of life.
As a physics professor, he was so unusual for talking with us students about his family and his life outside the classroom. That’s what I appreciate most. I remember his stories about his own time as a physics student at PC. I remember his stories about building his family while starting to teach physics at PC.
For me to say Dr. Mecca was a role model doesn’t nearly convey the truth. He was a great man who is a huge part of who I am today.
— Michael Oumano ’10
Steve was larger than life. I had the pleasure of working in an office beside Steve’s for several years, where I witnessed lines of students meeting with him regarding research projects, overheard conference calls with people from around the world, and I engaged in conversations with Steve about topics large and small.
With his boundless energy and scientific talents, he approached challenges with vigor. I was always amazed at the variety of projects he was juggling and the extensive travels he undertook to promote and support his efforts to help people around the world. Steve is greatly missed by so many …
— Dr. Seth T. Ashman, assistant professor of physics
Dr. Mecca through the years
More memories of Dr. Mecca
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