Every century has its “big science” that changes everything, Thomas F. Huff once said, and he believed for the 21st century it would be the life sciences.
As vice provost for life sciences and research at Virginia Commonwealth University since 2001, Mr. Huff led efforts to put the university in the forefront of genomic research. For students, he sought to connect scientific concepts with human-interest stories to show the sequence of life from small molecules to large ecosystems.
Mr. Huff, an immunologist who had worked at VCU since 1985, died suddenly early Sunday of undetermined natural causes. He was 62.
“In so many ways, Tom Huff is everything VCU,” said President Michael Rao, describing him as a role model who embodied all the best characteristics of the university.
“He just had an incredibly great way of bringing people together,” Rao said, but never sought credit for the work he did.
“His legacy will be one that without question will be bigger than any of us will be able to describe,” Rao said.
A graduate of Clemson University with a doctorate in immunology from the University of Louisville, Mr. Huff was the inaugural vice provost for Life Sciences. He oversaw the development of academic programs and research initiatives through the Rice Center for Environmental Life Sciences; the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity; and the Center for Environmental Studies.
“Among the many things Tom did, he trained some people who are now our star faculty,” said Francis L. Macrina, VCU vice president for research and innovation.
He was among Macrina’s first hires 30 years ago when he was chair of microbiology and Mr. Huff “was fresh off a post-doctoral at Johns Hopkins,” where he studied the allergic responses of mast cells.
They were friends as well as colleagues, Macrina said, and his death is “a shock to the VCU community,” which late last semester lost William C. Bosher Jr., executive director of the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute, and poet and professor Claudia Emerson.
“To lose so many great people in such a short time is a devastating loss for our community,” Rao said, but they would want the university to build on their foundation.
Mr. Huff appeared to be in “good health and took good care of himself,” Macrina said.
They shared an interest in photography, he said, but Mr. Huff quickly eclipsed his skills, using a large-format camera to shoot flowers, landscapes and family, and developing the film himself.
“He had a great photographer’s eye but as a scientist he developed an interest in the technological aspects of photography,” Macrina said.
“Tom never did anything halfheartedly,” he said. “He was in for the full gig and just pushed in all directions to satisfy his intellectual curiosity.”
Mr. Huff also served on the board of directors of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden since 2010.
He was an active participant on the board, “lending his scientific expertise, broad experience and rich background with institutions of higher learning to all the work he did on our behalf,” Shane W. Tippett, executive director of Lewis Ginter, said by email.
Mr. Huff worked with the garden on a 2004 agreement with VCU to establish a joint herbarium collection, which is housed in Lewis Ginter’s Kelly Education Center. It holds about 17,000 dried plant specimens compiled by VCU and 4,000 specimens from the garden’s collection that are a resource for researchers, students and artists.
“As with everyone who knew Tom, this has knocked the wind out of us, and we hold his family and friends in our thoughts even as we absorb the loss and grieve personally,” Tippett said.
Mr. Huff is survived by his wife, May Ligon Huff; his daughter, Elizabeth; and his son, Thomas.
The family will receive friends 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 3, at Bliley’s-Central, 3801 Augusta Ave. A memorial service will be held 11 a.m. Wednesday at Eternity Church, 1900 Chamberlayne Ave.