UWM loses a devoted and beloved dean

By Laura Otto
UWM Report
December 21, 2020

Over and over in his 30-year career at UWM, Ron Perez was asked to accomplish necessary tasks that weren’t always glamorous, yet he dove in with enthusiasm, relished his colleagues and never said no.

Friends and colleagues remember him as the go-to administrator with an unwavering commitment to UWM, a talented engineer who was devoted to STEM education, and a playful spirit who loved sports, sweets and going to Disney World.

Perez, dean of the Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health, passed away on Dec. 16 after several months of illness. He was 59.

“Ron was such a people person,” said Michael Laiosa, associate professor of environmental health sciences and Zilber faculty chair. “He was put in a leadership position on so many campus initiatives because, at the end of the day, he always put others before himself.”

Many roles at UWM

He served the campus in a wide range of roles, beginning as an assistant professor in the College of Engineering & Applied Science. He later served as an associate dean in the college and, from 2007-2008, interim dean.

In 2014, Provost Johannes Britz asked Perez if he would take on the duties of associate dean at Zilber because he was so competent in the similar position at Engineering & Applied Science. Perez split his time between duties as associate dean in both schools for a year before taking the reins as Zilber’s interim dean in 2015. He was named Zilber dean in 2018.

“He was so successful that, two years after becoming interim dean, the faculty came to me and requested that he become their permanent dean,” said Britz. “It’s the first time in my years at UWM that has ever happened.”

Perez approached his profession with loyalty and passion, colleagues said.

“He performed each of the 50% appointments as if they were 100% appointments,” said Paula Rhyner, professor emeritus of health sciences who worked Perez on the UWM Restructuring Team that integrated the Waukesha and Washington County campuses with UWM in 2018. “And, during the two years we were on the transition team together, he was the one also driving to Madison to represent UWM. I don’t know how he did it – and he always did it pleasantly, taking time to foster relationships with people.”

Born in Dominican Republic

Born and raised in the Dominican Republic, Perez earned his engineering bachelor’s degree cum laude from the Universidad Catolica Madre y Maestra. He moved to the U.S. to attend graduate school at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Perez had multiple job offers when starting his academic career in 1990, but he chose UWM because he liked the city and the fact that it had an NBA basketball team and a major league baseball team, said Anoop Dhingra, associate professor of mechanical engineering who joined the faculty at about the same time as Perez.

“He always had a soft spot for the Miami Dolphins,” Dhingra said. “But he later became a diehard Packers fan and would sit in freezing cold weather at Lambeau to watch the games.”

As an engineering faculty member, Perez often kept office hours for his students that began at 8 a.m. and ended at 7 p.m. five days a week. He also regularly traveled to South American countries to recruit students to study at the College of Engineering & Applied Science. Then, once they arrived, Perez would check on them to see if they had settled in comfortably.

A scholar of control theory and its applications in building control, renewable energy and robotics, Perez consulted with industries such as A.O. Smith, Harley-Davidson and E.R. Wagner Manufacturing.

‘Nobody who didn’t like him’

In 2017, the deans of the College of Nursing, the Zilber School and College of Health Sciences formed the Partners for Health program to increase collaboration and resource-sharing among the schools. While creating that project, Perez worked closely with nursing dean Kim Litwack and then-health sciences dean Ron Cisler. “We became known as ‘Ron, Ron and Rhonda’ because of our camaraderie,” Litwack said.

“There’s nobody who didn’t like him, and there was nobody that he disliked,” Rhyner said. “We laughed all the time, but he was also very professional and an effective leader.”

Those who worked with Perez regularly said he had his endearing quirks.

He never drank coffee, Litwack said, but he’d want to meet at coffee shops that he knew had good hot chocolate and would give him extra whipped cream.

He also had a knack for putting people around him at ease by cracking self-deprecating jokes. And he wasn’t afraid to give up a little dignity for that purpose. At a Zilber 1980s punk rock-themed holiday party in 2018, Perez surprised everyone by attending in costume although no one else was. Shabnam Nikravan, a master’s student who had just begun working in the dean’s office, described his get-up as “outrageous and amazing.”

“He walked in with a spiky black wig – think Garth from Wayne’s World – a heavy metal T-shirt tucked into his khakis, and fake tattoos down both arms,” she said. “Any nerves I had about working under the dean of my school went away real fast.”

Supporting students

During his tenure at Zilber, Perez was especially proud of two accomplishments, said Laiosa. One was obtaining a significant gift for student scholarships and continued support of the school from the Zilber Family Foundation. He also convinced the faculty and the university to offer a bachelor’s degree in public health, which launched in spring of 2019.

“He viewed the degree program as a gateway for many students who might not be interested in medicine, nursing or other traditional biomedical careers to become leaders in protecting the health of our population,” Laiosa said.

Perez delivered service in droves: He was on the Chancellor’s Committee for Hispanic Serving Initiatives and had just begun as the inaugural special assistant to the chancellor for strategic cultural change. He taught in the College of Engineering & Applied Science’s Center for Continuing Education and in the TRIO Pre-College Summer Program. He sat on dozens of task forces, committees in the faculty senate and was a member of the University Committee.

“There’s no one person who can replace him,” said Britz. “You’d need multiple ‘Rons’ to accomplish all that he did. Not many people have that skill set.”

‘Thanks a million’

To acknowledge the contributions of others, Perez would always end his emails with “thanks a million,” remembered Rhyner.

“I would bet that there are thousands of emails that Ron sent to colleagues, students and community partners that either began or ended with “thanks a million!” she said. “If I could talk with him now, I would say, ‘Rest in peace, my friend, and thanks a million!’”

Perez is survived by his wife, Christine, and daughter, Kennedy, a student at UW-Madison.

A service honoring Perez’s life will livestreamed at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 29. A link to the livestream will be available in the obit on the Feerick Funeral Home website that morning. A public visitation will then take place at the funeral home from 2 to 5 p.m.

The family is in the process of establishing the Ron Perez Legacy Fund, which will provide scholarships for underrepresented students at UW-Milwaukee. In lieu of flowers, a memorial donation in Perez’s name may be made to the scholarship fund. The donation may be made out to Christine Perez, and can be mailed to the Feerick Funeral Home. The donation will then be deposited into the Ron Perez Legacy Fund.