Andrew J. Niemiec, chair and associate professor of neuroscience at Kenyon, died at the age of 58 on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. He had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage a few days earlier, after which he had been transported by air ambulance from Mount Vernon to the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
“Andy was a passionate teacher, dedicated to his students and his discipline,” said President Sean M. Decatur. “He will be sorely missed.”
Niemiec earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from Loyola University Chicago. His bachelor’s in psychology was awarded in 1984, followed by a master’s in sensory physiology and perception in 1989 and a doctorate in experimental psychology in 1991. His graduate work was followed by a three-year National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the University of Michigan Medical School’s Kresge Hearing Research Institute in Ann Arbor.
Niemiec joined the Kenyon faculty in 1994 as an assistant professor of psychology, having previously taught at Loyola while completing his doctoral work. He won tenure and promotion to associate professor of psychology at the College in 2000. He had been associate professor of neuroscience since the inception of the program in that field in 2012.
“Andy was committed to fairness,” said longtime colleague Hewlet McFarlane, professor of neuroscience. “Whether it was in dealing with students or faculty and staff members, he always wanted to make sure that whatever we did, our approach was fair for everyone involved. It was a central guiding principle in his life, and I always admired that in him. I will miss him terribly.”
Widely published in professional journals, Niemiec had research interests that ranged from complex sound processing in human and other animal auditory systems to the return of auditory function following trauma and auditory receptor-cell regeneration. He had also been successful in obtaining grants in support of his research, much of which was conducted with Summer Science Scholars and other students.
“Andy’s love and interest in the animal kingdom extended to his classes and scholarship, where he developed a popular course on animal cognition which examined topics like learning, language, and numerical competence in non-human animals,” said Sheryl Hemkin, associate provost, associate professor of chemistry, and a colleague in both neuroscience and scientific computing. “His research also examined sensory processes in animals, and students who talked with me would often tell stories about the first time they heard rats laughing. The animals involved in Andy’s research often became part of his family, literally. As his chinchillas aged, he brought them into his own home, and they quite happily lived to more than twice their expected lifespan.”
One such chinchilla, 22-year-old Sally, was among the long list of adopted animals Niemiec left behind. Several of his friends — led by Darlene Russell of the Bookstore with assistance from Sarah Blick, professor of art history, and Jeanne Griggs, director of the Writing Center — quickly set about finding new homes for the chinchilla and several cats and dogs, most of them aged and infirm but all of them lovingly cared for. Many of them remain in the Kenyon community, with new human companions such as Dane Heuchemer, professor of music; Tim Shutt, professor of humanities; and Tristan Neviska ’13, associate director of young alumni engagement.
“Andy was one of the kindest people I’ve ever known,” said Blick, who was a friend and neighbor of Niemiec in Mount Vernon. “He cared deeply for family — especially his late wife, Lynne — and his pets and his friends. He quietly gave money to animal rescue causes and adopted a number of special-needs animals throughout the years. He loved teaching, and he would spend many hours with students and working on perfecting his lectures and discussion points for students. He was funny and insightful.”
Niemiec’s devotion to animals was coupled with a love for music. He was the founder and director of the Friday Guitar Circle, a faculty, staff and student group that thrived on campus from 1995 to 2011.
“Andy loved the blues in particular,” McFarlane recalled, “and he introduced me to Keb’ Mo’, who has become one of my favorite artists. We had many conversations over the years about music, and we even talked on and off about offering a ‘Neuroscience of Music’ course in our department.”
Niemiec was married to Lynne M. Niemiec (1963-2011) for 30 years. Lynne, who completed her higher education at Kenyon as an art history major in the Class of 2011, died suddenly just weeks before her graduation. (Her degree was awarded posthumously.) Lynne had served for many years as the administrative assistant for the neuroscience program and the psychology department at the College.
Niemiec is survived by his brother, John Niemiec; his sister-in-law, Vicki Niemiec; and three nephews. In addition to his wife, Niemiec was preceded in death by an infant daughter, Kayla Niemiec, in 1993.
“We miss Andy so,” said Robert Bennett, professor emeritus of classics. “I suspect it would drive him nuts to hear this, but may he rest in peace and rise in glory. Andy’s loyalty made him a rare friend.”
An informal memorial gathering, sponsored by a group of Niemiec’s friends and open to all, has been scheduled for Tuesday, June 23, at 10 a.m. at the Event Center in Ariel-Foundation Park in Mount Vernon. The Event Center is a covered space, so the gathering will take place rain or shine. Memories will be shared, and social distancing will be maintained. Questions about the gathering may be addressed to Professor of Physics Tim Sullivan or Kris Sullivan at 740-326-9504.