Dr. James Reed Cox, Jr., 88, of Houston, Texas, passed away at his home on June 20, 2020. Dr. Cox (“Jim”) was professor emeritus at the University of Houston, where he served on the chemistry faculty and in various leadership roles over nearly half a century. There he prepared innumerable students to take leading roles in society by inculcating in them a love of learning and attributes of good character as they followed his example. Jim particularly enjoyed mentoring his Ph.D. candidate graduate students and helping his Organic Chemistry students go on to become physicians.
Jim was preceded in death by his parents, James Reed and Flora Baggett Cox, and by a sister Shirley H. Cox. He is survived by brother Dr. Samuel F. Cox (Deborah) of W. Palm Beach, Florida, brother Dr. Edwin B. Cox (Pamela Epperson) of Chapel Hill, N. Carolina, sister Evalynn (“Lynn”) C. Cresswell (Thomas) of Nashville, Tennessee, 13 nieces and nephews, and 20 great-nieces and nephews.
Jim was born in Nashville Tennessee, where he attended public schools and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vanderbilt University, later earning a Master’s Degree there. Jim went on to earn a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Harvard in 1958 and received a Guggenheim Scholarship for post-graduate work in Munich. After initially serving on the faculty at Georgia Tech, he moved to the University of Houston in 1966 and continued there until his retirement in 2002.
Jim was born in the depths of The Great Depression in 1932, the eldest of the five children of James and Flora Cox. Whether it was the attention he received as the first grandchild of both sets of grandparents or his native curiosity and intelligence, Jim was quite precocious and extremely well-read from his earliest years. He also developed a deep love of music and learned to play piano and French horn. His appreciation of music continued all his life. For many years he supported the Houston Symphony, and his home was regularly filled with sounds of classical music.
Jim's outlook on life was strongly influenced by living through the unusual challenges of The Depression and World War II during his formative years. As a child of a Methodist pastor, Jim became accustomed to moving every few years and to living in very modest circumstances befitting a preacher and wife in the 1930’s and ‘40’s.
When his father enlisted as a chaplain in the U.S. Army Air Forces around 1941, the family followed to Fort Benning, Georgia. After basic training, James Sr. was assigned to the Alaskan Command, working out of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The family accompanied Dad to the frigid climes, where they experienced a very different climate, but made wonderful and lasting friendships.
A critical event in Jim's life was falling ill with polio while in college, before the days of the polio vaccines. Poliomyelitis was life altering for Jim. He was admitted to Vanderbilt Hospital for an extended period of time with major paralysis of his left arm and right leg. Although he survived and recovered (after a long period of time), the remaining weakness and atrophy of his left arm prevented him from playing the piano as well as he had before and presented challenges in his everyday life. Even Jim’s voice was altered permanently by the polio.
Jim did not let the physical limitations hinder his academic pursuits. Even so, when he returned to college, he changed his focus from “pre-med” to pursuing a degree in chemistry, in which he excelled. Sheer determination and self-discipline allowed Jim to perform difficult tasks in the laboratory that would have derailed many others. He did not complain about his misfortune or make excuses because of his physical challenges. Nor did Jim allow himself to engage in self-pity or let the permanent consequences of polio hold him back from going anywhere and doing anything he took a mind to do.
And, Jim maintained a great sense of humor throughout his life – even if at times a bit perverse. When people would ask the reason why his arm was so withered, Jim relished their reaction when he told them that he had been attacked by an elephant.
Jim loved plants, especially flowers, and developed an encyclopedic knowledge of a large number of flora, being able to refer to them by their botanical nomenclature as well as their common names. This interest doubtless was learned from his mother, an avid gardener. While in college, Jim began raising African violets in the basement, which evolved into a major project. It isn't clear whether this was intended as a business venture or purely for his enjoyment, but Jim made an investment in such a broad array of fluorescent "gro-lights" that today one might suspect Jim was growing other types of plants for profit!
Gardening – indoors and out – remained a major interest through Jim’s entire life. He especially enjoyed collecting unusual plants and figuring out how to grow them, especially in the intense heat of Houston. Adding to, and maintaining, the plants in his home and yard was a favorite hobby for him.
Jim was a prodigious reader of books, magazines and newspapers. He was knowledgeable on virtually every subject and up to date on the latest news and issues to an extent that was astonishing – and intimidating – to friends and family. This made Jim an unusually interesting and engaging conversationalist on a broad variety of topics.
Jim started and operated several businesses revolving around various aspects of chemistry. One business, Diaprep, was a pioneer in producing solvents for nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy – a relatively new analytical technology at that time. Yet another business made compounds designed to bind to vascular stents and inhibit platelet adhesion that otherwise would produce blood clots and block the stents.
A side-business in which Jim engaged was related to his love of music and fine instruments. For several years, Jim would seek out and find Steinway or other top-tier pianos that were in disrepair. Then, in partnership with a colleague who was an expert in the workings of pianos, together they restored a number of pianos to their prior glory – something in which Jim took particular pride.
Early in his teaching career, Jim developed contacts in Bangladesh, visited there, and recruited a number of top students from Bangladesh to pursue graduate studies at the University of Houston. Besides teaching chemistry and helping to develop curricula, during the Bangladesh liberation war, Jim personally helped a student to escape refugee camp in India and later enroll as a graduate student at UofH .
As a faculty colleague and mentor to students, Jim was deeply respected for his exceptionally high scientific, intellectual, and ethical standards. Everyone who encountered him became not only a more educated citizen, but also a better human being. Those who knew Jim feel that they have lost both a great friend and a treasured asset.
In addition to Jim’s work in the Chemistry Department of the UofH, one of his great pleasures in life was his work with the Altar Guild at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Houston. Jim was fastidious, to say the least, regarding flower preparations and arrangements. And, he scrutinized preliminary drafts of church bulletins in his endeavor that the contents were properly communicative and as error-free as possible. Jim’s participation in the life of Christ Church – as well as his long tenure at UofH – led to many special, close friendships for which he was very grateful.
Jim loved people. His family was very important to him, but so were the friends that he developed through the university and his church and other activities. Jim was very intentional in endeavoring to stay in contact with loved ones, even though his communications with them were not always as frequent as he would hope. He spoke with many friends and family members each of the days before his death.
Though faced with additional physical limitations after a severe side-effect from a prescription drug three years ago (which led to time in the hospital and a rehabilitation center), Jim persevered with his physical therapy and was able to return to, and remain in, his own home, where he passed away in his sleep in the early hours of June 20, 2020. His brilliant mind remained clear and cogent through to the end. It was important to Jim that he maintain a level of independence, which he was able to do by God’s grace. Though Jim will be dearly missed, and life without him will require a major adjustment, we are grateful that he was with us for over 88 years and that his passing was painless and peaceful.
In lieu of flowers, it is requested that those who wish to honor Jim by bequests do so by gifts to Christ Church Cathedral (especially the street ministry or Altar Guild), the scholarship at the University of Houston Department of Chemistry that has been established in Jim’s name, or to a charity of one’s own choosing.