Sterling Hall bombing: 40 years later, family members celebrate physicist's life

Sterling Hall bombing: 40 years later, family members celebrate physicist's life

A dedicated scientist to the end


This story first appeared in the Sunday edition of the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper.

Every few years in mid-to-late August, it's always the same.

The reporters knock on the door or call, asking, "How do you feel now?"

It's been that way for 40 years. Ever since Robert Fassnacht, then a 33-year-old physics researcher with a young wife and three children, happened to be working late in UW-Madison's Sterling Hall and was killed by a blast that rocked the countryside 30 miles distant.

On Aug. 24, 1970, four young men, angry about the war in Vietnam, drove up to Sterling Hall in the middle of the night to bomb the Army Mathematics Research Center on the building's upper floors. They parked their Econoline van and lit a fuse, not thinking anyone was inside.

Neither a soldier nor a radical, Fassnacht was caught in the crossfire.

The Fassnacht family remained in Madison after the bombing, but for the most part they don't talk publicly about it in an attempt to move on with their lives.

But recently, their daughter Heidi, who was a baby in 1970, began to do some research about her father's life. As she combed newspaper clips, she noticed little information about him. He was a headline, the unnamed researcher who was killed, a martyr.

Heidi granted an interview request on the condition that the story be about her father and that perhaps, there could be some good to come from the retelling.

A scientist from the start

People say Bob Fassnacht, by all accounts a brilliant scientist, may have been on the verge of a scientific breakthrough when he was killed.

Robert Earl Fassnacht was born on Jan. 14, 1937 in South Bend, Ind. Growing up in a two-story bungalow with a soaring evergreen tree in the front yard, he and his younger sister Carol had an idyllic, Beaver Cleaver childhood.

Fassnachts' parents were educated at Purdue University: mother Bernita was a hospital dietitian; father Walter Gerard, a chief metallurgist.

Fassnacht played tennis, piano and organ, was a crossing guard and practiced rifle shooting in a range his dad made in the basement.

Smart and self-motivated, Bob was something of a mechanical savant, once building a harpsichord. That made it tough for sister Carol, 4 1/2 years younger.

"I was a good student but nothing like Bob," she said. "Unfortunately, I had to follow him all through school with many of the same teachers."

Bob was part of a physics club in school with other "serious science students" and built a Van de Graaff generator, an electrostatic ball that makes your hair stand on end. He was named Outstanding Boy Scientist in Indiana in 1955.

Portrait of a young man

Fassnacht's sister, now Carol Humphrey, flew to Madison last week from Arizona to visit Heidi and other members of the family.

The two planned to take a road trip to South Bend to visit the Fassnachts' childhood home.

Wednesday, they thumbed through yellowing newspaper clips of the Sterling Hall bombing with headlines such as "Friends Recall a Dedicated Physicist."

In the one public photo of Fassnacht — which has by now been reprinted hundreds of times — he looks the part of a scientist, with big glasses, a conservative haircut and a soft, half-smile.

It might be his senior high school portrait, or maybe from college, Carol can't remember now.

"Good-looking young man," Carol said.

The two are protective of family photos, and if they have others, they don't want to share them.

"It looks like him, as far as I can tell," Heidi said.

"You mean you don't remember?" Carol asked, a little wryly.

"No, I don't," Heidi said.

"I do," Carol said.

A young family

Fassnacht earned his bachelor's degree at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, then won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to UW-Madison for his doctorate in physics.

He was a very serious student, but had a good sense of humor. Rather than practical jokes, he enjoyed puns and was good at twisting words cleverly.

A quiet man, he is consistently described as caring, a good friend, and someone with integrity.

His sister recalls that Fassnacht wasn't in favor of the war in Vietnam, but he didn't like the violent civil disobedience going on in Madison either.

Fassnacht met his wife, Stephanie, in the physics department, where she also was a student and considered the department beauty, according to the book "Rads." Stephanie, who lives in Madison, declined to comment for the article.

They had a son, Christopher, and twin daughters. The day of the bombing, Heidi and Karin were 1-year-olds. It was Chris' third birthday.

Verge of a breakthrough?

At UW-Madison, Fassnacht was consumed by his work on superconductivity, studying how to conduct electricity without resistance. The idea, which some say was nearly an obsession for Fassnacht, was to find a material that would transmit power more efficiently and without the loss of energy in the process. The cutting-edge science had the potential to revolutionize power transmission and transportation, including high-speed train travel.

It was the nature of his research that kept Fassnacht working late in Sterling Hall the night of the bombing. The work required a device called a Dewar flask, which uses liquid helium to cool down the material being studied. That cooling process takes a long time and requires patience and time on the part of the researcher.

Researchers who knew him believed Fassnacht may have been on the verge of an important discovery, perhaps another reason for his late-night work.

Norbert Sutter, the security guard on duty that night, stopped by to remind Fassnacht to turn off his lights and equipment. It was around 3:30 a.m. and Sutter recalled seeing Fassnacht at the desk in his lab, scribbling furiously in his laboratory notebook.

No one knows what he was writing. All his notes were destroyed in the blast that came moments later.

Celebration of a life

Since that moment, it's been difficult to move beyond Fassnacht's death in the lab to the story of his life and work before the explosion.

Despite still-raw wounds, Heidi has searched for a way to make something good out of the experience. She hopes perhaps the 40th anniversary will present an opportunity to talk about non-violent communication, or just be an opportunity to celebrate a life.

"We've been celebrating in some ways his death, and I think there's something to be said for celebrating his life and who he was," she said.

But in case you're wondering, the Fassnachts would like you to know they're doing just fine. Christopher is an astronomer in California, and Heidi and Karin live in Wisconsin.

"I think people want to know that the Fassnacht family is OK," Carol said. "And without getting into anything, we're fine, you know, we're fine."

Contact Deborah Ziff at or 608-252-6234 and Ron Seely at or 608-252-6131.


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Related to this story

The bombing of Sterling Hall on the UW-Madison campus in the early morning hours of Aug. 24, 1970 has a peculiar hold on Madison even 40 years later, in part because of the many lives that were changed by the blast - most notably the lives of Robert Fassnacht, the researcher killed in the explosion, and his family. Here's a look at what has happened to others involved in that history-changing moment.

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