Lembit Uno Lilleleht, 89, a longtime associate professor and revered colleague in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Virginia, died peacefully on Thursday, June 6, 2019, in Charlottesville.

Lilleleht, who was named professor emeritus after his retirement in May 1995, was known especially for his contributions to the department’s undergraduate program. Over the course of his career, he taught almost every chemical and general engineering science course offered, according to an obituary published in The Daily Progress. In addition, he directed 49 projects or theses for master’s students and the dissertations of six Ph.D. candidates.

Lilleleht’s daughter Erica, who wrote the obituary, recalled her father’s devotion to his students. “My memory is that so much centered around the students. Dad was all about teaching, anywhere and everywhere. And, as befits an engineer, so much of his approach centered on teaching through doing,” she said.

He also authored or co-authored three books and 47 refereed publications, and lectured at numerous universities at home and abroad. Writing in the obituary, Erica Lilleleht said that, “Presenting at conferences as nearby as Waynesboro, Virginia, and as distant as Beijing, China, he was truly a citizen of the world.”

Professor Emeritus John Gainer said he and “Lem,” as Lilleleht was known to his colleagues, arrived on the same winter day in 1966 as new UVA Engineering faculty.

“He had previous teaching experience at the University of Alberta, while I came from industry,” Gainer said. “The department was small, never more than seven faculty. To offer comprehensive undergraduate and graduate programs, everyone had to teach, do research, and participate on various academic committees. Lem was an integral part of this endeavor. It is my opinion, and I think that it would also be held by many former students, that the department prospered tremendously during those years.”

Lilleleht had taught for six years at Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada. He worked from 1954 to 1957 at E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, developing new or improved processes for the syntheses of polymeric materials. But these stops came after a long personal story that began in Pärnu, Estonia, where he was born on March 9, 1930, to Paul and Juuli Jensen Lilienblatt (the family name was changed to Lilleleht in 1935).

By the end of World War II, he, his sisters Leida and Koidi and his mother had become “displaced persons” living in Germany and seeking to emigrate to the United States rather than return to Soviet-occupied Estonia. The Seabrook Farms Company in New Jersey sponsored the family’s move to the U.S. and they arrived there to work in 1949, Lilleleht wrote in an essay several years ago.

He started college that fall, earning his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering with honors and distinction from the University of Delaware in 1953. An M.S. from Princeton University followed in 1955, and he completed his Ph.D. in chemical engineering in 1962 at the University of Illinois, where he specialized in fluid mechanics. At UVA, his research would focus on several areas, including solar energy applications.

He also met his wife, Karen Van Doren, at Illinois. The couple raised two children, Erica, an associate professor of psychology at Seattle University, and Mark Lilleleht, assistant director of awards, Institute for Regional and International Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

While at UVA in the 1970s, Lilleleht and his colleagues formed Associated Environmental Consultants, a partnership providing instructional materials and short course instruction on air pollution and renewable energy to established and emerging nation organizations, according to The Daily Progress obituary.

His research shifted in the 1980s as he joined with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center scientists investigating interstellar gases and the possible linkages between cosmic dust and the formation of planetoids and new stars. One of his personal career highlights came as he was developing experiments for the International Space Station, according to his daughter Erica, who wrote in his obituary that, “Part of the training involved taking flights in NASA’s KC-135 aircraft, during which weightlessness was achieved. Life would never be the same again.”

Lilleleht was a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the American Chemical Society, American Society for Engineering Education and Sigma Xi, among other organizations.

As much as his work meant to him, he was a devoted father and husband first, Erica Lilleleht said. “He was always there for us, always ate dinner with us, went to our sports and extracurricular activities, put us to bed when we were little — regaling us with stories of his childhood — and then stayed up as late as he needed to get his academic work done.”

Among his many interests — which included supporting the Democratic Party, working to improve low-income housing, and building everything from children’s playhouses to fluid transfer and solar energy storage devices — he also followed UVA basketball. “His final winter was made more exciting and pleasurable by watching the men’s team win the NCAA championship,” Erica Lilleleht said.

Lilleleht is survived by his wife, Karen, of Ivy; sister Koidula Tootsov of Lakewood, N.J.; children, Erica and Mark; son-in-law, John B. Huber of Seattle; and grandchildren, Thea Lilleleht Huber of Seattle and Owen Strother Lilleleht of Madison, Wis.

No memorial service will be held. Click here for more information.

Snapshot of Lembit Lilleleht

Lembit Uno Lilleleht, professor emeritus of chemical engineering at the University of Virginia, has died at 89.