Beloved former dean dies, but his big, booming laugh lingers in memory

Posted on October 31, 2016 by Jennifer McManamay

The Sweet Briar community was saddened to learn of the death of George Henry Lenz, a former physics professor and academic dean of the College. Lenz, 76, of La Jolla, Calif., died Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, after a three-month battle with cancer.

Lenz came to Sweet Briar in 1971 from the University of Virginia, where he began his teaching career. He served the College until his retirement in 2004. He was named the Whitney-Guion Professor of Physics in 1976 and served as academic dean from 1990 to 2001. A native of South Orange, N.J., he received his Ph.D. in experimental nuclear physics from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

A News & Advance obituary says “colleagues at Sweet Briar describe him as having a fine analytical mind, a strong sense of fairness, a kind supportive nature, and a great sense of humor with a big hearty laugh.”

Pam DeWeese, current dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs, echoed those sentiments.

George Lenz, circa 1977-1978 George Lenz, circa 1977-1978

“George Lenz was an exceptional person,” DeWeese said. “He had just become dean when I arrived at Sweet Briar and, soon thereafter, we were both involved in a complex strategic planning process. I was always impressed with his kindness, thoughtfulness around difficult issues, and good judgment.

“He was an excellent mentor who became a valued friend over the years. It was heartbreaking to hear the news of his illness and passing, but so many of us at Sweet Briar have wonderful memories of him. I can still hear his laugh and see the twinkle in his eye. Rest in peace, George.”

Julia Jackson Nichols Professor of English John Gregory Brown even dedicated his novel “Audubon’s Watch” to Lenz — whose laugh still reverberates in his memory, too.

“George was not merely admired by his colleagues here at Sweet Briar; he was beloved,” Brown said. “He was as generous and kind as he was scholarly, and he had a great booming laugh I can still hear. Most of all, he was a gentleman, a devoted husband and father, and for three decades one of the truly great presences at Sweet Briar.”

Lenz is survived by Ellen, his wife of 55 years, along with their son G. Ehrich Lenz, J.D.; daughter-in-law Marybeth; grandchildren Otto and Adele; daughter Kelly Ann Lenz, M.D.; and son-in-law Nicholas McCrory.

Read the full obituary here. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Sweet Briar physics department and the English/creative writing program or to cancer research at According to his wishes, his ashes will be committed to the sea. A celebration of his life will be held in late spring.