Lembit Uno Lilleleht, 89, died peacefully on Thursday, June 6th, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Lembit, also known as “Vanaisa” to his grandchildren, was born in Pärnu, Estonia, on March 9th, 1930, to Paul and Juuli (Jensen) Lilienblatt (in 1935, the family name was changed to Lilleleht).
While his father was fighting to preserve Estonian independence, Lembit, his sisters, and mother lived as displaced persons during the waning years of WWII.
Arriving in the United States via Boston Harbor on May 15th, 1949, Lembit attempted his first American economic transaction. Entering a hash-house styled diner, and in the best English he could muster, Lembit ordered a watercress sandwich.
Confusion prevailed until Lembit realized his English was still heavily accented and that high tea was not observed on this particular waterfront. This informal education was soon succeeded by a host of formal achievements, with Lembit earning a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering degree with Honors and Distinction from the University of Delaware (BChE; graduating first in his class; 1953), a Master of Science in Engineering from Princeton University (MSE; 1955), and a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Illinois (specializing in fluid mechanics; 1962).
At the U of I, Lembit met his future wife, Karen Van Doren, who was completing her Master of Arts in English (1960). They married August 20th, 1960, and moved to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where Lembit began his academic career as an Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Alberta.
In 1966, Lembit and Karen moved to Charlottesville, VA, where Lembit served thirty years as an Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University, retiring as Professor Emeritus. Over the course of his career, Lembit taught almost every chemical and general engineering-science course offered, directed 49 projects and/or theses of students receiving Master’s degrees, and the dissertations of 6 PhD candidates.
Lembit authored or co-authored three books, 47 refereed publications, and lectured at numerous universities at home and abroad. Presenting at conferences as nearby as Waynesboro, VA, and distant as Beijing, China, Lembit was truly a citizen of the world.
In addition to his academic duties, in the 1970s, he and his colleagues formed the Associated Environmental Consultants, a partnership providing instructional materials and short course instruction on air pollution and renewable energy to established and emerging nation organizations. This work continues to this day.
In the early 1980s, Lembit began his space research, working with Goddard Space Flight Center scientists investigating interstellar gases and the possible linkages between cosmic dust and the formation of planetoids and new stars. One of his personal career highlights came as he was developing experiments for the International Space Station. Part of the training involved taking flights in NASA’s KC-135 aircraft, during which weightlessness was achieved. Life would never be the same again.
On earth and in Charlottesville, Lembit and Karen raised their two children, worked for the Democratic Party (for many decades an endeavor requiring a practically permanent stiff upper lip), low income housing, as well as in their seven acre garden-in-the-forest.
Always a builder, and with a workshop that was never quite large enough and assistants (from children to grad students) who always needed a bit more instruction, Lembit constructed everything from polling machines (to help familiarize people who had never voted with the process), to playhouses (one of which is now his daughter’s home office in Seattle), to fluid transfer and solar energy storage devices.
Lembit was preceded in death by his sister, Leida Part. He is survived by: his wife, Karen, of Ivy, VA; sister Koidula Tõõtsov (Lakewood, NJ); children, Erica Lilleleht (Associate Professor of Psychology at Seattle University) and Mark Lilleleht (Assistant Director of Awards, Institute for Regional & International Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison).
He is also survived by his son-in-law, John B. Huber (Seattle, WA), and grandchildren, Thea Lilleleht Huber (Seattle), and Owen Strother Lilleleht (Madison, WI).
Lembit is also survived by his nieces and nephews: Harri Part, Helle Mai Gawrylewski, Katrin Pillion, Martin Tõõtsov, and Peeter Tõõtsov.
The family is grateful for the care Lembit received at the University of Virginia Medical Center’s Neurology ICU, and at Hospice of the Piedmont.
At his request, no memorial service will be held. Lembit was a generous and constant contributor to a variety of environmental, political, and social causes.
In lieu of flowers, please consider making a contribution in Lembit’s memory to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Doctors Without Borders, the Environmental Defense Fund, or an organization of your choice.
Puhaku ta rahus.