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Ross Figgins: Professor, writer, multi-talent

Ross Figgins, professor emeritus at Cal Poly Pomona, died peacefully March 26, 2016 at his home in Claremont. His wife Jenny was with him.

He was born March 10, 1936 in Plainfield, New Jersey, the only child of Fred Figgins and Frances McAlvanah Figgins. The family moved to the San Fernando Valley after World War II. As a young teen, Ross worked sometimes in his dad’s neon-sign business, the first of many jobs. When his dad’s partner came in one day, he looked up at a tall ladder and said, “Who’s that up there?” “That’s Ross,” his dad said. “Give him a raise,” said the partner.

Mr. Figgins earned a bachelor’s degree at Valley State College (now CSU-Northridge), where he and four friends founded Beta Sigma Pi, which became Zeta Xi chapter of Sigma Chi fraternity. Ross was founding president. After graduation he joined the US Army Reserve. He loved flying and earned his pilot’s license at age 18. He flew for Civil Air Patrol search and rescue.

He earned one master’s degree at Northridge, another master’s degree at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and a PhD from the University of Southern California. He taught for 30 years at Cal Poly Pomona in English and communication arts, earned promotion to full professor and retired in 1996. At Cal Poly he was a member of the Institute for Advanced Systems Studies.

He is author of several textbooks and was a field editor for John Wiley & Sons. He grew bonsai, edited a union newspaper at Cal Poly, collected legends in Mexico, built some houses with his longtime friend and business partner Jim Shepard in Oregon and, for a time, wrote a regular column, “Doc’s Corner,” for a magazine called All About Beer. The column’s title reflected his theory that conversations were always best if one sat at a corner of the bar. With Mr. Shepard, a builder-contractor, Mr. Figgins became fairly skilled at most of the building trades. Jim said, “He learned everything so quickly—everything except accounting. He just didn’t take to accounting.”

He met his wife, Jenny Gilsdorf Figgins, at a professional conference. They married in 1985. Because she was a tenured professor at Arizona State University, they had a commuter marriage until Jenny found a tenure-track position at Cal State Long Beach. They would spend every other weekend together, each making the LA to Phoenix trip one weekend a month. Starting in 1989 they got to live in the same state, town and house.

Mr. Figgins was a good cook. Ms. Gilsdorf Figgins remembers being greeted with the delectable aroma of lobster Newburg at the end of one of her drives to California. Ross had some of his recipes published in Sunset Magazine. His book on beer lore and beer recipes, Beer, Man Food, Man Cooking, and Beer, came out in 2009; Sketching the Wind, a book of his haiku and his ink sketches, was published in 2014. Mr. Figgins studied Zen in the 1970s and over the years published nearly 2000 haiku in poetry journals including Modern Haiku, Blithe Spirit and Frogpond. Working as a draftsman as a youngster led him into sketching, and after retirement he began developing his talent for painting in acrylics. He was into computers in the earliest days of personal computers. The first one he owned was an Osborne.

He liked cats—not fancy cats, just cats. Over the decades he had a black male, Voodoo, a part-Siamese named Cybele, two brother cats called Guinness and Harp, a tall orange Maine Coon named Marcus Aurelius and, most recently, two boys named Smithwick and Butterbeer. They lived long happy lives and a couple of them drank a little beer.

Mr. Figgins was a collector of Asian art and a savvy philatelist. He enjoyed jazz of the classic cool school—Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Paul Desmond, Bill Evans and others. He enjoyed tai chi and reading fiction. He liked book collecting, especially modern first editions. As a kid he collected all of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He developed an extensive signed collection of Ray Bradbury’s novels, poems, plays and short fiction. Mr. Bradbury and Ross would sometimes enjoy a beer together when the author was giving a talk in the area.

Mr. Figgins placed strong emphasis on gentlemanly behavior. He had a kindly wit and a keen sense of whimsy and the ridiculous. Ross and Jenny traveled widely. They enjoyed trips to many US, Canadian and Mexican destinations, visits to many countries in Europe, a Panama Canal cruise and memorable travels in New Zealand, China, Russia, Japan and Egypt. He was a lifelong member of the Elks.

Jenny asked Ross one day how he would describe himself. “Industrious,” he said. “And loyal.” Others would offer many more and less modest descriptors. Mr. Figgins as a teacher inspired many people over the years. He knew a lot about a wide array of topics, and he’d tell you, if you were interested, but he wasn’t one to insist on being heard. He was himself an empathetic listener. His wife, his stepkids and his friends listened to him and admired and loved him. So did many others. He was unique in the world. Most people say what’s been said before. Not many people can say a new thing. Ross could and did, often.

He is survived by his wife, two stepsons, Robert Gilsdorf (Leolyn Bischel) and Dan Gilsdorf (Stacy), and his stepdaughter Wendy Weiss. Ross’s first wife, Jacque Weiss, died in 1982.

No service will be held. In lieu of flowers, those wishing to do so can make a contribution to a charity of their choosing.

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