HUNTSVILLE Ala. – A biology department chairman gunned down at a faculty meeting was remembered Thursday as a father figure who cared deeply about his students, the kind of professor who kept his office door open in case they needed to talk about personal problems.
Mourners hugged and cried Thursday at a memorial service for Dr. Gopi K. Podila, 52, slain last week at the University of Alabama in Huntsville along with two colleagues.
Fellow professor Amy Bishop remains jailed, accused of killing them and wounding three others. Police have not released a motive, but colleagues say she was unhappy about being denied tenure. Podila, however, had supported her tenure application.
Students said he supported them too. Former student Joy Agee recalled that Podila helped her overcome her anxiety about a speech to a community group by showing up in the audience.
“He told me if I got nervous during the speech to just look at him and just talk to him,” she said.
At Thursday’s memorial, a long line of mourners moved slowly from the funeral home lobby, down a hallway and before an open casket in the sanctuary. A private service was to be held later.
A campus memorial service will be held Friday evening, and services for slain biology professors Dr. Adriel Johnson and Dr. Maria Ragland Davis are set for Friday and Saturday.
Professor Frank Leahy and staff assistant Stephanie Monticciolo remained hospitalized in critical condition Thursday. Another faculty member, Luis Cruz-Vera, was shot in the chest and has been released.
The shooting decimated the biology department of 14 members: six were killed or wounded, one is jailed, and the rest are dealing with the shock and loss of colleagues.
“Our department has pretty much been cut in half,” said Leland Cseke, a faculty member. “It’s devastating.”
Remaining department members have been meeting in small groups, trying to help each other cope with the loss, said one of them, John Shriver.
At a school respected for its academics, and a department recognized for its work in a city of NASA engineers and other high-tech industries, the shooting left students without teachers, and administrators trying to regroup.
Podila began working at UAH in 2001 and did research involving plant biology and work that can be used in the development of biofuels. He was admired for his ability to not only run the department and “keep everybody happy,” Shriver said, but also to continue doing important research, travel overseas on behalf of the department and still teach.
Davis had industry experience that set her apart from other faculty members who had more academic backgrounds, said another professor, Dr. Joseph Ng.
“The students just loved her. She always had a very nice demeanor, and she was always there for the students,” he said.
Johnson was known for his sense of humor, and students “flocked to him” because of his willingness to open up to them, said Florence Holland, an administrator at Auburn University who knew and worked with him.
A mentor for minority students, Johnson started at UAH in 1989 and was involved with the school’s Minority Graduate Student Association.
“He was always trying to encourage underrepresented groups to go into math and science and engineering,” Holland said. “Some people, when they get to a certain level of success, are like, ‘I have mine, you get yours,’ but Dr. Johnson wasn’t like that. He was very willing to work with students and just overall passionate about that.”
Then there was Podila, whose friends recalled his homemade pizzas and his penchant for singing and dancing. They said he had become even more caring as the years went by, and they felt cheated he was taken from them.
Trisha Collins, a former student, said he talked her through difficult years in her personal life.
“It’s amazing how when people believe in you, it causes you to believe in yourself,” she said in a statement.