Forest Grove, Oregon
Long after her retirement, Professor Rempfer, a soft-spoken, unassuming, and brilliant physicist, could be found in her laboratory on the PSU campus conducting cutting-edge research in photoelectron microscopy. “Science,” she says, “is a journey into the unknown. Theory tells you the principle of the matter is right: the difficulty comes in proving the theory experimentally. Mother Nature keeps correcting you, but she doesn’t tell you how to fix the error.”
Honored by the endowment of a chair in the physics department in her name, Gert’s journey began in 1912 in Seattle, Washington. She remembers as a youngster being good at math. In high school, in addition to taking classes in math and physics, Gert encountered the marvels of botany with an inspiring teacher. “I was an athletic, out-of-doors girl anyway and loved collecting the specimens. I also loved the organization, the understanding of patterns in nature, I derived from keying out plants.”
After high school Professor Rempfer worked for a year and then enrolled in Forestry College at the University of Washington. At the time, one of the requirements was to attend forestry camp during the spring of the second year. When she discovered that as the only woman, she would not be allowed into the all-male camp, she switched her major to physics, graduated, and continued on for her doctorate while working part-time.
It was during the Depression that Gert enrolled at the University, urged on by her mother who believed that education would help Gert and her three siblings survive the economy. Today she says, “Without an education I don’t know where I’d be.” Her experience made her a firm believer in urban universities where students without a lot of resources have a chance to learn. She feels strongly that higher education should be more affordable and accessible than it has become.
Professor Rempfer’s first academic position was at a prestigious East Coast women’s college from 1939 to 1940, replacing a female physics professor on leave. When a tenure track position opened up in the department, a male was hired. Gert recalls being given a familiar rationale: women should not take jobs away from men, a particular irony in the era because women’s colleges were about the only postsecondary institutions that would hire women.
Gert met her husband, the late Professor of Mathematics Robert Rempfer, when he was at RPI and she was at Russell Sage. Though neither at the time was what Gert calls “domestic minded,” that was the beginning of a collaboration that lasted fifty-eight years. With the advent of WWII, Gert went to the Naval Research Laboratory. She and her husband wed in 1942. Toward the end of the war, both of the Rempfers took positions in industry where they were part of the team that developed the electron microscope.
Looking back, Professor Rempfer strikes a characteristic democratic chord: “World War II was good for women in terms of getting jobs. Rosie the Riveter was a great symbol, representing what an ordinary housewife can do.”
In 1951, with three children, the Rempfers drove west to Ohio where Bob was to teach Math at Antioch College. This was the beginning of what Gert calls the “troublous times”—growing McCarthyism, the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Antioch students were supportive of their liberal faculty, but the administration was not. The Rempfers left to teach at Fisk, a historically black institution, where they stayed for four years, again earning the trust and respect of the students, and the opposition of the administration: this time for supporting racial integration before the Supreme Court ruled segregation illegal. Years later the Fisk Board of Trustees presented the Professors Rempfer with a plaque commending their stands. “You see,” Gert explains with a smile, “some of our former students are on the Board.”
The Rempfers came to Oregon in 1959; Gert taught at Pacific University, her husband taught in the PSU Math Department. In 1961 Gert joined the PSU physics department while working one day a week at Tektronix. For years she has worked with University of Oregon biologist Hayes Griffith on applications of photoelectron microscopy. “The potential of photoelectron imaging for cell biology is exciting,” she says.
Renowned for her research, Professor Rempfer feels strongly about teaching at Portland State. “The students who come here are used to doing things for themselves. They don’t expect to be babied. They hold jobs and want to get their money’s worth from their education. This makes them good students to work with.”
After retirement, Professor Rempfer continued to mentor graduate students, reading drafts of their theses and sharing her knowledge of the field. At the conclusion of her day’s work she would take the bus back to Forest Grove and her beloved farm where into her nineties she was still lifting fifty pound sacks of feed.