Remembering Dave Pierce

We are sad to report the passing of Dr. Dave Pierce, following a brief illness. Each summer from 1974 to 1986, and again in 1993, Dr. Pierce taught Astronomy as an Academic Director for the Summer Science Program, enriching the lives of five hundred teenagers and dozens of colleagues with his knowledge, wisdom, and gentle humor.

At a reunion in 2000, he told the gathered alumni, “I think SSP is the best thing I’ve done in my life.” He went on to serve on the Board of Trustees for 11 years, retiring as Chair Emeritus in 2013. In both roles, Dave left an indelible mark on the evolution of SSP’s design and values.

At the 60th Celebration dinner in 2018, Dave described the origins of two of our most beloved traditions – SOTS and alumni reunions – as captured on video.

In 2002, an asteroid was named “6953 Davepierce.” The citation reads: “David A. Pierce has developed and taught college-level astronomy and physics courses for classroom, television and online distribution. He also directed gifted high-school students in observing and computing orbits for minor planets in the Summer Science Program.”

As one of his former TAs wrote, “Designing for student support and success is built into SSP’s distinctive culture that Dave Pierce was so central to creating. All students succeed, because faculty give each individual what they need. Dave showed us how to do that.”

[Photo shows Dave with two students on the last day of SSP ’84.]

SSP’s Trustees have established the Dave Pierce Memorial Endowment Fund. Donations are accepted online or by mail; we will provide his family with the donor list. In addition, there will be an annual guest lecture in Dave’s honor, on a topic in astronomy.

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You’re invited to record your own memories of Dave Pierce below.


  1. Tracy Furutani '79

    When I started teaching at SSP in 1999, I still had my notes from Dave’s lectures in 1979. Of course, there were a lot of spots (LST, HA, you all know the drill) where I had no idea what was going on. He was kind enough to sit down with me and go over a fair amount of material. As I taught the material year after year, I appreciated more and more the order and depth in which he presented the material, always tying it to the orbital determination project.
    Other random recollections: That fishing hat of his he wore on hikes in the hills above Thacher. Those ballroom dance moves on the first floor of the science building at Westmont. Hanging out in the shade on a hot final ceremony morning at Happy Valley. For this and more, thanks Mr. Pierce.

  2. Susan Jerian, '79

    Dr. David Pierce’s life was a consequential life in every sense of the phrase. We are all better for having known him and grateful for being witness to his wonderful ways. Dave was a consistent, clarion voice advocating for SSP students, Teaching Assistants and Faculty. He was the ‘North Star’, reminding everyone what was most important. He loved SSP and every time I saw Dave he would say, “You know, SSP is the most important thing I have done in my life.” And leaving no room for doubt he would add, “I really mean that!” He was encouraging and supportive. And he understood his students and what motivated them, even after they had become accomplished adults. As Polaris comes into view each evening, it reminds me of the gift that Dave gave to so many teenagers during that amazing summer at SSP. Thank you, Dr. Pierce, for leaving an indelible mark on each of us.

  3. Roger Klausler

    I was a Thacher faculty member and Administrative Director of SSP for five of Dave’s many years with the Program. He loved to tease me about being a Spanish teacher working with an astrophysics program who couldn’t explain the phases of the moon.
    I treasure the summers that I spent with Dave on the Thacher campus and on the beach trips and at the SSP anniversary get-togethers.
    Dave expected mature behavior from the students; he told them, “You’re not in high school anymore.” He also formed bonds of collegial equality with the TA’s; you can see that in their remarks here.
    I was a taken aback when Dave posted the first photos of himself in a competitive ballroom dance troupe—not the unassuming, understated Dave that I remember! Dave and Liesel were so fortunate to have found love together.

  4. Steve Dickman SSP '79

    SSP taught me a lot of what I know and it all started with Dave Pierce. Cheerful, erudite, academically demanding, dapper, thoughtful, playful and respectful of anyone and everyone – that was Dave Pierce. I learned how to do the orbit determination from Dave, but more importantly, I got to look at him eye-to-eye and measure myself in a man I instantly and deeply admired.

    “Coniferous bosque.” That was part of a sort of treasure hunt Dave sent us on when we arrived at the Thacher School campus and saw a map drawn on a chalkboard. Bosque? Huh? Language was not supposed to be part of the curriculum at this high-powered astronomy program, but there it was.

    Another element I appreciated about Dave – and it was fulfilling to be able to tell him this during the 60th anniversary celebration in Boulder in 2018 – was that he provided not just academic but also cultural education. In the evenings during SSP ’79, Dave screened Jacob Bronowski’s masterful BBC documentary “The Ascent of Man.” I watched every episode and found a world-view. I shared it recently with my teenagers.

    Coming from the east coast and not knowing much about higher education, I figured that El Camino College, where Dave then taught during the academic year, was a leading light in scholarship and teaching. Little did I know, the leading light was Dave himself.

    RIP Dave Pierce. We all owe you so much.

  5. Leo Connolly

    Leo Connolly (Associate Director 1985, Director 1986-1995)

    I was a student of David Pierce… in 1985. That was a year of a significant transition for SSP, from the era of George Abel and David, as director, to me and faculty who would come to follow. I had a lot to learn from David and as his hundreds of SSP students will attest, and thousands who he taught during the academic year, he was an excellent teacher. He was patient and completely open to questions, and I had a lot of them. What’s the OD? QOD? SOTS? How do you find speakers, TAs? How do I order plates? Students had the Question of the Day; I seemed to have the question by the hour. And David was more than willing to answer them all and fill me in on the many traditions of SSP.

    David and I worked together a lot during SSP. He made it clear from the start that he would teach the OD and I would teach the math. I was more than happy with that arrangement! I would have responsibilities of the telescopes and measuring engines, he, the computers. We shared the astronomy and physics. And let me not leave out the importance of the TAs. Elizabeth Simmons was the head TA in 1985 and had a great working relationship with David from the previous summer, and so together helped me learn SSP. David and I would meet and arrange the curriculum for the coming week, day by day. We coordinated every activity and detail with Roger Klausler, the Administrative Director, the TAs and Jackie Connolly. It was always a team effort. David set the tone for that coordination as a team. I could not have managed without his leadership, experience and guidance.

    David and I worked again together in 1986 and in 1993 when I couldn’t find an associate director and he offered graciously to return for an encore. I couldn’t have been more grateful to him for doing that. Much of what is at the core of SSP today comes from David passing it on through his continued dedication to SSP.

    One last note must be added. David loved volleyball! And he and I really connected when he found out that I liked to play too, although I hadn’t in some years. Those games are memorable to me because we weren’t faculty, TAs, and students on the court, we were all equals trying our best to ace a serve or spike the ball without a net foul. David will always live on with me with those, and many other, memories.

    Thank you David!

  6. Carel Veenhuyzen

    I first met Dr Pierce at SSP at The Thacher School, when I was a graduate TA (I was an SSP student in ’69, and TA in ’75 and ’77).

    As many have said before me, Dave had a special talent for teaching and was deeply committed to the welfare and success of his students. Dave went on to teach at SSP for another 12 years or so. I reconnected with Dave after SSP transitioned to become an educational non-profit run entirely by its alumni. Dave and I served together on the board for several years. Dave provided a unique perspective as a former faculty member, and understood well the student experience at SSP. With his long SSP teaching experience and his thoughtful style, Dave played a significant role over the years in maintaining SSP’s institutional memory.

    The SSP board faced a number of challenges in the early 2000’s. The board oversaw the successful transition from photographic plates and measuring engines to observing with CCD cameras and computational determination of image centroids. Telesopes were upgraded to modern instruments. SSP expanded from one campus in California to multiple campuses, across the US. Diversity of our student population and and outreach to encourage a broad range of applicants became central to the program. Throughout all the changes, Dave was a key contributor to identifying, documenting and maintaining the “secret sauce” underlying the success of SSP over the years.

    It was an honor to work with Dave, and to be able to call him a friend over more than four decades. I will miss him.

  7. Michael Faison

    It was wonderful to meet Dave several times at Ojai and Santa Barbara. A brilliant and caring teacher, a warm person with a great sense of humor, and someone who deeply understood celestial mechanics.

  8. Andrew Lewis '85

    One of the things I remember from Dr. Pierce is how he insisted that we actually understand the concepts we were taught. I remember specifically mentioning stellar magnitude in conversation, and his response was to ask if I knew how it was defined. Since I did not, the history and definition of stellar magnitude soon became a lecture topic for the group. Similar incidents happened with me more than once, where some topic from which I had previously skimmed a superficial understanding became a teachable moment for the entire group, but without singling out or belittling the originator. His passing is sad news.

  9. Forrest Brewer '75

    SSP was a watershed in my childhood — seeing so many other kids with similar interests and drives changed my life. Having some spare time, I wrote some code on the PDP-8 to simulate binary stars but got odd results when I tried trinary systems. Eventually talking to Dr. Pierce, he found a couple papers on the subject and spent hours talking to me about all manner of improvements and ideas for the little project. Later, I realized I had kept him up till the wee hours on a lark. Dr. Pierce was a gentle and caring soul who gave deeply of himself and his time to the people he taught. I can think of fewer greater accolades than his legacy in the students who joined me at SSP ’75 and all the other years he shared with us.

  10. summersc

    via email from Barrie Trinkle ’77 (TA ’82):
    I’m so very sorry about Dave. The old guard is leaving! Not many people can say they introduced astronomy to a couple of generations of astronomers and physicists. Dave was a terrific teacher who managed to be both kind and no-nonsense at the same time. I know he must have been enormously pleased about the way SSP evolved and continues to evolve.

  11. Sam Osofsky '83

    I was very sad to hear of Dave Pierce’s passing. After all these years I have no difficulty finding memories of his kind, friendly, thoughtful and erudite presence throughout SSP’83.

  12. Satomi Okazaki

    I am very sad to learn of Dr. Pierce’s passing. He was so kind to me during my summer at SSP – he gave me the support I needed. He created an environment of learning that was fun and exciting that was new and inspiring to me. Thank you, Dave.

  13. Wendy Beattie

    I was saddened to hear of Professor Pierce’s death. I remember his patience, his kindness, and his backhand– we shared a passion for tennis and played several times over my time in Ojai in 1981.

  14. Kurt Thams, '81

    His warmth.
    His wry grin.
    His ability to point you in a good direction.
    To nudge. To catalyze confidence.
    His laugh.
    Thank you, Dave Pierce, for a broad and durable impact on all of us.

  15. Shubber Ali

    From stardust you came.

    You taught us about the stars.

    To the stars you return.


  16. Nicholas Suntzeff (TA '76,'77)

    Wow. What to say.

    Dave gave a discipline to the academic program that led to its success. It is not easy to keep the students (and TAs) focused on the core education when there is so much fun out there with the science, a new environment, and new relationships. Dave was on top of *everything* in the program during the six weeks. He knew the progress of individual students. He knew the weaknesses of the teaching methods of the TAs and gave us advice. He promoted sports to allow us to work off excess energy and make minds fresh again. He was direct in his criticism and in his support – the sign of an excellent leader. But looking back to 1976 and 1977, what I remember is simply how wonderful it was for me as a TA. Dave’s leadership inspired many students to continue in STEM, and his devotion lives on in the students of the SSP. He was the type of teacher I wanted to be.

  17. summersc

    Memories Collected via Email
    Doug Duncan ’68 (TA ’74-’76)
    Dave Pierce had a profound influence on the SSP over many years. My perspective comes from being a student in ‘68 then returning as a TA in ‘74, Dave’s first year at SSP. In ‘68 SSP was pretty “rough and ready” when it came to how students were treated. If someone struggled, they were mostly on their own. Dave’s vision of SSP was subtly different: it not just about science—it was also about people doing science.

    Dave’s great empathy led him to pay attention to how each student reacted to the stresses built into the program. As a TA, I could see he cared about every SSPer succeeding. He would ask, “How is this student doing? What kind of help does he or she need, and how can we best encourage them?” In the days before the “imposter syndrome” was widely discussed, Dave knew instinctively that most students have times of doubt. (Am I good enough? Everyone else is so smart.) He understood that’s when many students, even gifted ones, give up. But with mentoring and support, they come to realize the benefits of being with other smart people, and see it’s okay to not be #1 in the group. He also knew fun activities help teens feel they belong.

    Thanks, Dave, for helping SSP become all that it is. We love you as much as you loved SSP.

    Hal Schloss ’76
    I am very sad to learn of Dave’s passing.
    I truly enjoyed being his student in ‘76 and as an adult was very happy to become reacquainted with him through SSP reunions and meetings.
    He was a wonderful caring teacher and those of us who were fortunate to be his students are all better off for that.

    Lauren Blum ’76
    He was the gentle teacher while George Abell was wild and crazy (or at least that is my memory). He actually called me earlier this year to thank me for my support of SSP. It was so nice to speak with him. I am saddened by his untimely death.

    Phil Nolan ’76
    Dr. Pierce had a profoundly positive impact on my time at SSP in ‘76. He was an exceptional teacher – he had a great sense of humor, was quick-witted, and … patient. He went out of his way to make all of us feel welcome and included. He was also generous with his time after my experience at SSP sending almost a dozen letters of recommendations to the various colleges to which I applied. These might have seemed little things to him, but they had a huge impact on a rising high school senior.

    Ed Bertschinger ’75 (TA ’79-’82)
    Dave left an indelible mark on hundreds of SSPers and on the program overall. He is one of a few individuals who helped create that famous recipe, the SSP Secret Sauce.

    Helen Shin ’82
    Dave’s guidance and kindness was a wonderful part of my SSP experience.

    Janice Bishop ’81 (TA ’86-’87)
    SSP has lost one of our longest serving members – he was both a long-term instructor and also a long-term Board member.
    He was a memorable instructor, mentor and friend for many of us. I remember fondly the 3 summers I spent at SSP with him, both as a student and a TA. Besides being an excellent teacher, he was a great role model, and a kind person. He also motivated many of us to keep up with him in volleyball, jogging, and several other sports.
    I am grateful to have reconnected with him in recent years through the Board of Trustees.

    Elizabeth Simmons ’80 (TA ’84-’85)
    I was privileged to work with Dave in three separate summers: my summer as a student (‘80) and two summers as a TA (‘84, ‘85). I will always remember him as a brilliant, humorous teacher with a fierce devotion to student learning that made you not want to let him down. And I also remember what an impression he made as a “whole person,” someone with a rich life beyond work; this makes a big difference for a young student thinking about how to construct their own life.

    In the summer of ‘84, he let me use his car to learn to drive a stick-shift… and then let me take it out on my own. That was incredibly kind and trusting of him, especially on those dusty back roads.

    I remember Dave with great affection and admiration.

    Sekhar Chivukula ’78 (TA ’83-’84)
    I echo Elizabeth’s summary of working with Dave – it mirrors my own as a student and TA.

    Dave had a way of being both patient and demanding all at the same time – a trick I have never mastered, but try to emulate.

    Shannon Anderson ’80
    Dave was a powerful influence on my college admission process. I still have the onion skin typed copy of the recommendation letter that he wrote on my behalf and shared with me. He very nearly recruited me to return as a TA, and after running into him at an SSP event he reached out to me decades later to encourage me to accept the nomination for joining the Board. When I got the sad news of his passing I pulled out my SSP ‘80 photo album and found shots of Dave playing in the faculty/staff vs. student softball game, working in the lab with students, and greeting me on stage at our graduation ceremony (with George Abell). I think that is a pretty apt snapshot of Dave’s SSP — a time of hard work, vigorous play, and cheering us on to a bright future. Sweet memories!

    Michael Weiss ’74
    David expressed a joy in seeing young people light up with curiosity — our glimpses of understanding and tentative insights were amplified by his gentle encouragement. There is an old-fashioned word, one with spiritual connotations — “Grace” — that informed how David built trust and bonds of community. His was mentorship in its finest sense.

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