The death of Rick Maas has been a shock to many people. It’s always a shock when vital people die, and Rick’s was the fourth such death to touch my life in as many months. I can accept the fact that death comes to us all, and I understand that we have no idea when. But when a mother has to bury her son, when kids not yet done with schooling are left without a father, when a community loses a champion who’s still in his prime, still fighting the good fight, still doing the good work — those situations seem particularly unfair. And for those who are left behind, it’s profoundly sad. Yet it’s also true that what is simply is, and we’re left to accept it (or not) as best we can.
I’ve known Rick for 17 years — as his student, his employee, his colleague and his friend. But what I learned or remembered in the last five days of his life is how incredibly important to me he was, is and will be. His teaching blew my mind open, and his tutelage aimed my heart toward service to our world. So when I had an opportunity to be present, to maybe help him or his family in a time of crisis, there was nowhere else I could be.
Rick’s achievements really are amazing. The Environmental Quality Institute, which he founded, does excellent research with global implications. Both here in Asheville and around the world, he has promoted good ideas and stood in the way of bad ones. But this piece isn’t about all that; it’s a tribute to Rick Maas the transformer of people’s lives.
In the summer of 1988, I came back to Asheville. I was 27 years old and had a degree in public policy — plus a vague notion that I wanted to be a high-school science teacher. But for that I needed science courses, so that fall, I signed up for two taught by Dr. Richard Maas at UNCA: Hydrology and Introduction to Environmental Studies. And somehow, by the end of that semester, I was an environmental-studies major and an employee of the nascent Environmental Quality Institute.
I’ve been trying to remember exactly how that transformation occurred. I remember being blown away by his lectures, because even as I was learning the gory details of the environmental crisis that humanity now faces, I was infused with Rick’s faith that we could do something about it. He had vision, and through some alchemy I still don’t really understand, his mission became mine as well. Part of that magic was the depth of his belief in people; I think there were times when he believed in my abilities more than I did.
I remember several meetings where I was stuck on some project Rick had given me to do. I’d go into his cluttered office and explain my problem; he often had the solution or at least suggestions about what to do next. But somehow, even when he didn’t have an answer, he could convince me that solving the problem was a vital and exciting challenge that lay completely within my capabilities.
With his encouragement, I was usually able to work things out. And once I started working for Rick, there was no shortage of things to be done. His vision was so clear to him that it seemed completely real, even if it existed only in the realm of possibilities. At times, it was frustrating when all the pieces didn’t come together the way Rick had envisioned. But that, too, proved useful: It taught me persistence and flexibility.
So here’s my analogy about Rick Maas’ life and death. I think Rick would like it; it’s scientifically accurate without getting bogged down in the minutiae. It’s a big idea that I think captures Rick’s big-picture nature.
In trying to make sense of his death to an old friend who’d just heard about Rick’s illness, I found myself saying, “The hottest stars burn up the fastest.” And the more I think about it, the more absolutely perfect the metaphor seems. He was bright, energetic and had a large gravitational field.
Rick Maas was one of the smartest men I’ve ever met. He had an incredible breadth of knowledge — physics, chemistry, mathematics, geology. Perhaps more importantly, he also had an amazing ability to explain difficult concepts to less-scientific minds. Just recently, for example, he explained some concepts of quantum mechanics and atomic structure to me in a way that I could actually grasp. He deeply understood the implications of his knowledge and could communicate both what he knew and its broader significance.
Rick also had a phenomenal amount of energy. He positively radiated it, and this had a way of pulling you in before you knew it. In the classroom, he could lecture nonstop for hours, writing it all on the chalkboard as he went. Almost all his classes included field experience, and sometimes, simply keeping up with him was a challenge.
I called him a couple of weeks ago, on what I later learned was the day before he went into the hospital. He didn’t sound good. When I asked him how he was, he said he was tired. I didn’t really believe him; in 17 years, I don’t think I’d ever heard the man say that. His energy could be all-pervasive. And like the sun’s, his was an energy that helped things grow, that could be absorbed and reradiated.
Rick also had this amazing capacity to pull people into his gravitational field, just as he completely changed the course of my own life. Much of my career has been tied to his, and some of the best projects I’ve worked on were either his ideas or were deeply influenced by him.
For instance, Rick was the founding board chair of the Clean Air Community Trust. But within a few days of when the funding finally became available to hire staff for the organization, I ran into Rick at the bank; two weeks later, I was the group’s first director. That’s how it worked. And that brings me to my final point in this grand metaphor.
When a large star dies, it leaves a black hole. But though it’s no longer visible, no longer shining its light in the world, a black hole nonetheless continues to exert its gravitational pull, influencing the space and bodies around it.
There’s a big hole where Rick Maas was in this world. I grieve his loss and will continue to do so, along with many others. But I know that the force of his life will be felt long after his death. It will compel people — including some who never met him — to continue the good work. And I will be both an agent of his force rippling through the world and one more person who takes solace in it.
A passion for a healthier world
Rick Maas helped improve our water and air in many ways. Here’s a partial list of his accomplishments:
• doctorate in environmental chemistry from UNC-Chapel Hill.
• chair, UNCA Department of Environmental Studies.
• founder and co-director of UNCA’s Environmental Quality Institute. As one of the nation’s largest repositories of lead-contamination data, the EQI created programs, reports and testimony that have helped reduce lead intake from drinking water and food. Other projects have included monitoring and helping reduce arsenic exposure from pressure-treated lumber, and mercury exposure from fish consumption.
• founding member of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, which led the fight against tapping the French Broad River as a new drinking-water source for Asheville.
• member of the Asheville-Buncombe Water Authority, and the first scientist and water-quality specialist appointed to the Authority. After the 1988 bond referendum in which voters defeated the plan to tap the French Broad River as a drinking-water source, Maas and others helped lead the search for an alternate source, ultimately settling on the more protected Mills River.
• board member of the Metropolitan Sewerage District, where he opposed a plan to incinerate sewage sludge and successfully led MSD to develop a program for composting sewage sludge.
• board member of the WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency, appointed to help address growing concerns that the air agency was not enforcing its own regulations.
• frequent consultant to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
• author of more than 40 publications and 150 technical reports.
• taught many classes in air- and water-pollution control, alternative energy and environmental management.