‘A legacy of courage and inspiration’

J. Steven Reznick

J. Steven Reznick, professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience in the College of Arts and Sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill, died Tuesday, July 5, after a three-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He was 65.

“This is a tremendous loss for Carolina,” said Kevin M. Guskiewicz, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Just as Steve taught generations of students to be the very best citizens, scholars and psychologists, he taught us all how to handle adversity with strength and grace. He leaves behind a legacy of courage and inspiration.”

During his career, Reznick focused on studying infant cognitive development and early development of autism. His heart followed a wide-ranging path of service that led him back to his home state and alma mater that he loved with equal measure.

After graduating from Carolina in 1973 with a psychology degree, Reznick earned his master’s degree in general psychology at Wake Forest University, then started his doctoral work at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where his research focused on the cognitive development of infants.

That interest would lead him to Harvard, and later Yale, before it brought him back to Carolina in summer 1998.

It was like coming back home, he said. He liked to tell people, “I came back to Chapel Hill for my 25th reunion and just stayed.”

Reznick said he has always thought of himself as a “meliorist,” a person who believes that the world can become a better place. With that belief, Reznick said, comes the obligation to do all that you can to make it better.

And so he did.

Almost from the time he arrived back at Carolina, he began expanding his interests – and service – beyond the bounds of his research lab and classroom.

As a member of the Faculty Athletics Committee, he led the effort to develop a registration priority process that addressed scheduling conflicts for groups ranging from student-athletes to ROTC students to Robertson Scholars.

As president of the Faculty-Staff Recreation Association, he was the driving force behind upgrading the facilities (known as “the Farm”), including replacing the rundown farmhouse that had served as the office with a modern building.

He also served as associate dean for first-year seminars and academic experiences and co-chaired, with admissions director Stephen Farmer, the Enrollment Excellence Task Force.

Even though he had been on disability leave since 2014, Reznick continued conducting research with his students and became a participant in several ongoing projects in which a scientist with ALS brings a unique and valuable perspective.

From left, Steve Reznick, his wife, Donna Kaye, and Chancellor Carol Folt at the Order of the Long Leaf Pine ceremony. (photo by Mark Terry)
From left, Steve Reznick, his wife, Donna Kaye, and Chancellor Carol Folt at the Order of the Long Leaf Pine ceremony. (photo by Mark Terry)

In November, friends and colleagues filled the grand room inside Graham Memorial to celebrate with him as he received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.

As the ceremony began, Farmer remarked how “this beautiful and storied place” was the “perfect place to honor and recognize Steve” because it was named for former UNC president Edward Kidder Graham, who had done so much to “connect what we learn and teach and discover on this campus to the needs of our brothers and sisters far beyond.”

“And so it is right that we are gathered here today in this place to honor a person who embodies this idea.”

When Reznick finally was called to the stage, he noted that everybody who mattered so much to him was there, including the one group that perhaps matters most of all.

“I see a lot of my students here and I will take this as good evidence that the statement you have heard me make might be true: ‘It ain’t what you know, and it ain’t who you know that matters, it’s who knows you and what they think of you.’”

To honor his lifelong commitment to Carolina, the family has requested that donations be made to the J. Steven Reznick Diversity and Psychological Research Fund that will encourage and honor undergraduate students who conduct exemplary research on topics of concern to diverse groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in psychological research. To learn more, go to https://college.unc.edu/2016/07/06/reznick-fund-honors-career-life-of-beloved-professor/.

By Gary Moss, University Gazette