In Remembrance: Peter Guy Roll ’54, ’60PhD Died on November 21 2020

After a short illness, Peter Guy Roll died on November 21, 2020, at the Querencia Plaza in Austin, Texas. He was under the loving care of Hospice Austin and the Plaza skilled nursing staff. Although he did not die from COVID, he passed away without his family around him, like so many others this year.

Peter was a loving and caring son, brother, husband, father, and friend. He was also a talented and dedicated scientist, academic, and musician. His life was devoted to scientific exploration, teaching, making music, and helping others.

Peter was born in Detroit, Michigan, on April 13, 1933, to Everett and Garnette Roll. At age 11, Peter took up playing the French horn, which became a hobby—and occasional job—for most of the rest of his life. Peter graduated from Grosse Pointe High School in 1950 and from Yale University in 1954 with a bachelor's degree in physics.

After spending two years in Pittsburgh working for Westinghouse on the S5W submarine reactor, Peter returned to Yale for graduate studies in physics. When he graduated with his PhD in 1960, Peter took a faculty position at Princeton University where he worked with Robert Dicke on gravitation and cosmology. During the Princeton years, Peter worked on two notable scientific measurements: the Eötvös-Dicke experiment and the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation with Dicke, Peebles, and Wilkinson. Peter left Princeton for the Commission on College Physics in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In this position, he helped to produce a report on “Computers in Physics Education,” thereby setting the path for most of the rest of his academic career. 

A year later, the family moved west again so that Peter could take a position in the physics department at the University of Minnesota. Peter was quickly tagged as “an expert on computers in education.” With this label came appointments to so many university, state, and local committees that he moved across the street from the physics department to academic administration with a portfolio that included computers, radio, television, audio-visual services, and library technology. Although he was now in the administration, he found time to teach a course in musical acoustics as well as do research and dissertation supervision with the Departments of Music and Music Education. In 1984, Peter moved to Northwestern University as vice president for information technology–one of the first generation of chief information officers. 

In 1992, Peter left behind the academic trappings to become executive director of netILLINOIS, a nonprofit service provider for Illinois educational institutions in the early days of the Internet.

Peter met the real love of his life, Nancy, at the First Unitarian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when he was working for Westinghouse. “She chased him for several months until he caught her” (her description), and they were married on August 20, 1955, in the Meadville, Pennsylvania, Unitarian Church. Peter and Nancy had three children: Peggy in 1958, Phillip in 1960, and John in 1964.

When Peter retired in 1995, he and Nancy moved to be nearer Peggy—and farther from snow and ice—when they landed in Sun City Texas, Georgetown, Texas. Although he was now retired, everything continued much as before. Peter promoted the early Internet as the platform for the “community network” in Sun City. He was a founding member of the Sun City Texas Computer Club. He also continued teaching by offering classes in cosmology through the Senior University of Georgetown.

Peter's second love was playing the French horn. Later in life he confessed that he chose to study physics because he wanted to play the French horn better. He eventually related quantum mechanics and the French horn when he learned that the basic physics of brass instruments is the Webster horn equation “which is none other than the Schrödinger equation with a transformation of variables.”

Throughout his life, Peter played with various groups including the New Haven Symphony, Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis and a Minnesota faculty music group known as “Crotchets and Quavers.” His children vividly remember his nightly practice sessions as well as the “family band” at Christmas, which under different personnel and instrumentation continues, lovingly, to this day. He continued with the French horn while at Northwestern, playing with the North Shore Concert Band under John Paynter. During retirement, Peter performed with the Austin Civic Orchestra as well as several other local groups.

Peter and Nancy made their last move to Querencia in 2010; a community that would serve them well. Shortly after moving to Querencia, Nancy developed the ailment that would take her life three years later. During this time, Peter was her devoted caregiver, first in their apartment and then in nursing care.

After Nancy passed, Peter continued to find fulfillment by helping those in his Querencia community. He was always happiest serving the needs of others, culminating in the Querencia “current events group” where a diverse set of residents would meet for lively discussions. Gathering weekly topics for this group was one of the highlights of the last years.

Peter is survived by his children, Peggy Roll of Austin, Texas; John Roll (Mary Hovden) of Crystal, Minnesota; daughter-in-law Mari Roll of Los Angeles, California; two grandchildren: Kari Roll of Robbinsdale, Minnesota, and Michael Roll of Crystal, Minnesota; two step-grandchildren: Dylan Ricards (Sheila Akbar) and Zakary Ricards, and one step-great-grandchild, Isa Ricards, all of Los Angeles; and his brother, David L. Roll (Nancy) of Washington, DC.

His wife, Nancy Lucille Michener Roll, preceded him in death at the Querencia Plaza on January 21, 2014, after 58 years of marriage. His eldest son, Phillip Roll, his sister, Mary Brown, and his parents also preceded him in death.

A celebration of Peter’s life will be held at a later date. Memorial donations may be made to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, the Austin Symphony or musical group of the donor’s choice, or the Sigma Xi Scientific Research Honor Society.

—Submitted by the family.

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