An Element of Humor

The Department of Chemistry’s annual homage to a beloved professor is a laughing matter.


By Shelley Catalano

Stony Brook University has been privileged to be home to some of the greatest minds in their respected fields. And while many of those professors are remembered with a building or lecture series named in their honor, there is perhaps no more fitting a tribute to the late Professor Patrick Herley than the telling of the annual joke during the Department of Chemistry’s convocation celebration each May.

Professor Patrick Herley was always smiling and equally determined to make others smile through his joke telling and exuberant personality.

Professor Patrick Herley was always smiling and equally determined to make others smile through his joke telling and exuberant personality.

Herley was a legendary character, known for his incredible sense of humor, enthusiasm for teaching and many accomplishments in his field of study, which centered on hydrides, hydrogen storage and the decomposition of inorganic materials. As a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering from 1971 to his passing in November 2000, he inspired generations of students and colleagues, including those in his affiliated department, Chemistry.

He was the principal founder and director of the engineering chemistry major (which is housed in Chemistry). Every year he would take to the dais at Chemistry’s convocation ceremony to bestow the degree on his students. And he, of course, began his remarks with a joke.

“Professor Herley always believed that no occasion was too formal or too serious for telling a joke,” explained his good friend and Chemistry colleague, Distinguished Teaching Professor Joseph Lauher.

As fate would have it, several months before his death, Herley was in London with Lauher. As they were strolling through the city, they saw several memorial statues, which inspired a conversation about how they would like to be remembered one day. Lauher recalled Herley immediately said he would like for there to be a statue of him on campus where students could put in a quarter, pull an outstretched arm and the statue would tell them a joke.   

When his friend passed away, Lauher decided to do Herley one better. For more than 20 years, he has created the jokes that are given in Herley’s honor, having told all of them save one (a year he was on sabbatical but he still wrote the joke). He takes his responsibility fairly seriously, spending weeks looking for the right shaggy dog story (a long-winded anecdote, a style Herley favored) to adapt to make an unsuspecting colleague the punchline. No one on the convocation dais is safe. And while a joke has only been repeated once, several professors have been repeat targets, including Professor Trevor Sears, the subject of one of Lauher’s favorite jokes (see sidebar). 

carlos simmerling

Distinguished Teaching Professor Joseph Lauher tells the Pat Herley Memorial Joke during the 2019 chemistry convocation. The joke, a repeat of the first joke told in 2001, featured Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus Robert Kerber and an adventure with a visit to the vet and an expensive “cat” scan. It was told again to honor Kerber, who passed away in February 2019.

Even a pandemic could not stop the joke as Lauher kept the tradition going during last year’s virtual convocation by telling his shortest story to date.

“For most students, graduation is their last official experience at Stony Brook,” said Lauher. “We all want that final Stony Brook experience to be joyous and fun. Professor Herley knew that and brought his joy and fun to the ceremony. We are all so pleased that many years later the fun lives on.”


Are you a chemistry major who remembers the Pat Herley Memorial Joke from your convocation? Or are you a graduate from another department that has its own special tradition? Send us an email ( and let us know.

Trevor in the Sahara

The 2015 “Commencement Joke” presented by Joseph Lauher in Honor of the Late Professor Patrick J. Herley

I have been giving these jokes for a long time and I don’t really have one today, but Trevor has insisted that I must say something so instead of a joke I thought I would tell you about an adventure Trevor himself had when he was a graduate student at the University of Southampton.  

Back then Trevor was completely mad about his Lotus roadster from the late 1960s. It was painted green in a proper English way and Trevor was most proud of it.

One summer Trevor made a rather rash decision and decided to take the car on a drive across the Sahara Desert. 

All went well on the first half of the trip, except for a minor incident involving the Lotus and a rather disrespectful camel.  Let’s just say the green finish was not so green anymore. 

But on the third day the worst thing happened. There was a tremendous sandstorm and Trevor took a wrong turn and lost his way. He found himself on a rocky road and before he knew it a rock had punctured the radiator of the Lotus.

Now Trevor realized that he was in a “bit of a pickle” and without water he was not going to last long. Luckily he remembered passing some sort of restaurant about 20 miles or so back. It was about the time the sandstorm had begun.  

Walking 20 miles along a rocky road in the middle of the Sahara Desert is no mean feat for any man, but Trevor was young, strong and determined to make it.

Just as he was about to give up he came upon a tent and a roadside vendor. Much to his surprise the vendor was selling nothing but men’s ties.  Trevor was desperate and pleaded with the man for some water. But the man only replied, “I have no water, but I can sell you a very nice tie for only five pounds. “

“But I need water,” said Trevor. “I remember a restaurant. Is it nearby?”  

“Oh yes,” said the old man, “it is just a couple of more miles down the road.  They will have all the water you need.  Are you sure you won’t buy a tie?”

Muttering to himself, Trevor didn’t even reply, but struggled away over the hill toward the restaurant.

A couple hours later he staggered back. “Your brother won’t let me in without a tie.”

Shelley Catalano is the Managing Editor of Stony Brook University Magazine

Photos courtesy the Department of Chemistry