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Popular Psychology Instructor Richard Ely Dead at 63

Colleagues recall his passion, integrity

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“A beloved colleague and an exceptional educator,” Richard Ely had a “remarkable capacity for engaging and inspiring students,” says Michael Lyons, CAS psychology department chair.

Richard Ely, a College of Arts & Sciences instructor in psychology and a leading authority on the acquisition of language in children, died January 7 after a brief illness. He was 63.

Ely (SON’79) was an extraordinarily popular teacher of undergraduates and a beloved mentor to scores of BU students.

“Whether he was lecturing to a class of 200 students or supervising the research of a single individual, he brought to bear his full effort and remarkable capacity for engaging and inspiring students,” says Michael J. Lyons, a CAS psychology professor and department chair. “We have lost a beloved colleague and an exceptional educator.”

Ely’s route to his area of expertise was decidedly unconventional. He received a BA in French from Tufts University, but spent the next decade working as a carpenter and general contractor. During that time, he also earned a BS in nursing at the BU School of Nursing. He then worked as a staff nurse and later head nurse at the Pediatric Emergency Unit at Boston City Hospital, now Boston Medical Center.

After completing a master’s in maternal and child health nursing at Boston College in 1990, Ely embarked on what would become his abiding field of interest—language and child development—earning a PhD from Tufts in 1993, the same year he joined BU’s faculty.

Colleagues were devastated on learning of Ely’s death. Joanne Hebden Palfai, psychology department director of academic affairs, recalls “the most wonderful friend and colleague anyone could imagine,” a person of “tremendous integrity.”

A similar sentiment was voiced by Ely’s former mentor and colleague Jean Berko Gleason, a CAS psychology professor emerita. “He was an immensely principled and caring man. He loved his students, and they loved him.”

Ely taught several popular courses, including Psychology of Personality: Theories and Application and Experimental Psychology: Personality, both of which he was scheduled to teach this semester.

The website www.ratemyprofessors.com reveals the strong bond between Ely and his students. Many undergraduates, reviewing his classes for the site, describe him as “amazing” and “awesome” and several note his sense of humor, as well as his command of the material.

He was renowned for his research into how young children use language to express themselves. At the time of his death, he was studying the ways that personal narratives reflect aspects of personality in children and adults. Ely had also studied the role of language play, quotations, and apologies as related to children.  

“The field has lost someone who really advanced our knowledge of not just language development in young children,” says Berko Gleason, “but how language reveals their developing personalities.”

Admired for his gift for mentoring, Ely was often selected to preside over the psychology department’s convocation ceremony.

In addition to his research, teaching, and mentoring, Ely was an accomplished poet, publishing more than 20 poems in a dozen poetry journals. “His work in each of his fields was characterized by excellence and integrity,” Lyons says.

Ely is survived by his wife, Lynette Tsiang, his son, Gregory, five sisters, and a brother.

A memorial service for Richard Ely will be held on Thursday, February 17, at 1 p.m. at Marsh Chapel, 735 Commonwealth Ave., followed by a reception. Relatives and friends are invited to attend. In lieu of flowers, his family requests that donations in Ely’s memory be made to Oxfam America, 226 Causeway St., fifth floor, Boston, MA 02114, or to Carleton College, One North College St., Northfield, MN 55057.

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

18 Comments

18 Comments on Popular Psychology Instructor Richard Ely Dead at 63

  • Anonymous on 01.18.2011 at 8:40 am

    May God bless him. I never had the honor of knowing him, but from the impressions of his colleagues, family, students, and friends, his heart seemed strong and beautiful.

  • Stacey Milton on 01.18.2011 at 9:15 am

    I took two psychology classes with Prof. Ely; the second simply because I enjoyed his first class so very much. I have remembered these courses fondly for years, and have often found myself recommending his courses to prospective and current students. He was a wonderful professor and will be missed.

    Stacey Milton
    COM’05

  • Pablo F on 01.18.2011 at 9:27 am

    I was shocked when I heard about this. I had Professor Ely over the summer for psych 101, he was phenomenal and I really enjoyed his class. He was a great person and will be missed.

  • Kyle on 01.18.2011 at 9:29 am

    Professor Ely had both a good soul and a strong intellect. He was unlike any other professor I’ve encountered at BU in his ability to interact with and engage students. In a school so large that I write down my ID number more than my name, I really felt that my academic success mattered to him.

    I am sad to hear the news of his passing. The BU Psychology department has lost one of its finest faculty members far too early.

  • Evan Sanders on 01.18.2011 at 10:10 am

    Shocked and saddened

    Dr. Ely was my advisor in college. He was kind, attentive, and helpful, and as an educator he was exemplary. Dr. Ely also wrote my recommendation for graduate school several years after I graduated, so he continued to contribute to my successes after I completed my B.A. I will miss being able to check in with him and wish I’d done so more often. BU has lost a top professor.

  • Pablo F on 01.18.2011 at 10:22 am

    I was shocked when I heard about this. I had Professor Ely over the summer for psych 101, he was phenomenal and I really enjoyed his class. He was a great person and will be missed.

  • Anonymous on 01.18.2011 at 1:39 pm

    Very sad news.

    I graduated in 2001 and never had the pleasure of having him but I remember my classmates raving about him. My heart goes out to his family.

  • Anonymous on 01.18.2011 at 5:14 pm

    God Bless Professor Ely

    I graduated in 2001, and Professor Ely was my mentor. He was a kind, gentle, and wise man who genuinely cared for his students. I will not forget him. He made an impact on me during a critical stage in my life, and I thank him for all the wisdom and kindness that he showed me. God bless him and his family.

  • Anonymous on 01.18.2011 at 10:47 pm

    Prof. Ely was such a great person. From the moment he became my advisor freshman year, he was always supportive and available for advice whenever I needed him. He really took the time to get to know his students; he went above and beyond to help them more than any other professor I had at BU. I always felt like I could approach him about anything. Professors such as Ely are so rarely found at large universities, which is why he is truly unmatched. I and the rest of the student body will miss him tremendously.

  • Anonymous on 01.18.2011 at 11:35 pm

    I have never met with Professor Ely. But I feel that he was a perfect person. I condole with her family and BU community.

  • Hannah on 01.19.2011 at 3:04 pm

    A wonderful mentor

    Dr. Ely was my supervisor for my undergraduate thesis, and he wrote me a letter of recommendation for graduate school, where I am currently. He was a wonderful mentor, and I chose him because he gave me the freedom to design and implement my own study, an opportunity that very few undergraduate psychology students receive. I know the Boston University community will miss him dearly.

  • Lori Ann Perretta on 01.19.2011 at 3:32 pm

    To a true and beloved teacher and friend:

    When I was given a Teaching Fellowship at Boston University, I had no idea that it would be marked by the support and guidance of one of the dearest mentors I have ever had. Your support in my endeavors was so evident and you always went out of your way to be sure things were going well. You loved your work and cared so much for your students. One of the best parts of being your TF was knowing that you wanted each and every student to do well. I will admire you always and will never forget the role you played in my academic life and in my developing career as a psychologist. You put your faith in me and I put mine in you. We were a team. I will miss you so very much, but I will never forget what you’ve done for me. I send my deepest condolences to Lynette, Gregory and Sigy.

  • Beth Devlin on 01.20.2011 at 7:59 pm

    huge loss to BU

    I graduated from BU with my bachelor’s in psychology and took Professor Ely’s course in personality as an undergrad. I loved that course, and thought he was a fantastic professor who made his lectures interesting. Despite the large number of students he had taking his courses–a testament to his popularity–he always seemed to have the time to offer words of encouragement to individual students. While I am extremely shocked and saddened to hear of his untimely death, I am heartened (though not surprised) to hear from all of those individuals whose lives he touched and positively affected. My deepest condolences to his family, colleagues, students, and friends and my sympathy to those who will never get to know what an excellent professor and mentor he was. Beth Wilson Devlin, CAS ’99

  • Anonymous on 01.25.2011 at 9:00 am

    Professor Ely was my instructor for experimental psych of personality. He was such a thoughtful and patient teacher. He also spoke at my psychology commencement so he is inextricably linked in my mind to my time at BU. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.
    ~ Barbra Treston CAS 09

  • Gordon mackenzie on 02.19.2011 at 1:10 pm

    Richard Ely

    I knew him quite well when we attended The Choate School in Wallingford, Conn…we graduated in the class of 1965.

    Richard was totally dedicated to whatever interested him…he was most agressive in persuing excellence.

    We , of Choate, will all miss him.

    Gordon ( another friend who wound up as an educator !)

  • Anand Brahmbhatt on 03.16.2011 at 9:45 pm

    Great, great professor

    I took him for two semesters… incredible professor and he talked about his son and wife in class occasionally. I’m sure he was a great father and husband, too.

  • Anonymous on 03.18.2011 at 7:57 pm

    He was a brilliant and gifted instructor, and a kind and encouraging man. I took his Personality class, which had quite an impact on me… I will graduate with my PhD in Psychology this summer, with “personality” being a major aspect of my research. Thank you, Dr. Ely. You will be missed. -Class of ’03

  • BU Alumna on 11.04.2013 at 6:26 am

    So sad to learn of Dr. Ely’s death. His course was one of my favorites at BU, and I wasn’t even a psych major! He had such a gift for teaching! Charismatic, funny, always exceptionally well-prepared and well-organized… What a loss to the BU community. :(

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