Richard G. (Gay) Israel passed away on April 16 after a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 65.
Israel, who served as department head of Health and Exercise Science for 18 years, was a transformational leader, building the department into a model that is respected nationally for outstanding research, teaching and service.
“Gay Israel brought a new vision and a high level of excellence to the Department of Health and Exercise Science,” said Jeff McCubbin, dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences. “His vision transformed the unit to one that is now highly respected and ranked nationwide. However, Gay’s legacy extends beyond CSU. His professional and service contributions to the American College of Sports Medicine were significant. We feel his loss keenly and he will be greatly missed by all of us at CSU.”
Israel completed his Ed.D. in exercise physiology at West Virginia University in 1976, then joined the faculty at Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C., where he founded the Howard University Human Performance Lab. In 1981, he moved to East Carolina University, where he founded that institution’s internationally recognized Human Performance Lab and served as founder and director of the Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factor Identification/Reduction Program.
Israel came to Colorado State University in 1996. Notably, in 2008, he was recognized as a “Centennial Leader” at East Carolina, a very short list of faculty whose influence on ECU’s first century merited such a distinction.
The same commitment to excellence marked his tenure at CSU. His clear vision for teaching, research and outreach programs was instrumental to the shift from an emphasis on sports and physical education to health, wellness and disease prevention. One of his greatest achievements in the research area was building the state-of-the-art Human Performance Clinical/Research Laboratory with a combination of $5 million in private and university funds. The lab, built in three phases, and in current planning for a fourth, is considered one of the jewels of the CSU campus.
In addition, Israel championed a department name change to emphasize health and spearheaded the creation of a Ph.D. program in Human Bioenergetics – one of only a handful in the country. Under his leadership, annual research expenditures climbed from less than $50,000 in 1996 to a peak of more than $2 million annually, with key funders such as the National Institutes of Health and other agencies supporting faculty research. The lab also maintains a prestigious Program of Research and Scholarly Excellence distinction from CSU.
In the outreach area, Israel founded the Heart Disease Prevention Program to assess known risk factors for cardiovascular disease in individuals, including a testing program offered to firefighters and other first responders. The summer Youth Sport Camps, which promote a healthy lifestyle to children, and the annual Homecoming 5K Race experienced rapid growth under his tenure and remain important outreach activities for the university. A hallmark of these programs was Israel’s ability to form relationships with physicians, health care providers, community partners and donors.
Over the years, the popularity of health and exercise science has grown immensely, with more than 1,400 students in the major. Israel supported an environment of academic rigor at all levels, and hired 15 of the current full-time faculty members and several advisers and instructors.
‘A servant’s heart’
“I had the privilege of working closely with Gay for 23 years. He has had a profound influence on me, and on many, both at CSU and nationally,” said Matt Hickey, professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science. “Gay combined rigor, attention to detail and a herculean work ethic with a servant’s heart. He never expected more from colleagues than he was willing to deliver himself, and he set a consistent example for excellence right to his last days.
“While there is so much that I appreciate about Gay, it is perhaps his gift for being a ‘door-opener’ for others as department head that I most admire,” Hickey added. “He had an eye for talent and a consistent willingness to recognize excellence in others. I will miss him dearly.”
Israel passed the torch of department leadership to Barry Braun in 2014. But he retained an active, part-time role in raising support for department priorities. Another one of his many achievements was securing funds in 2013 for the construction of a new teaching facility at the Moby complex. He saw the project come to fruition when the new building was completed and then opened in fall 2015. Featuring a classroom and teaching lab, the new building is providing a home to students in one of the most popular undergraduate majors at CSU.
“In his professional career, Dr. Gay Israel achieved all of the benchmarks we value as academicians, but to understand his legacy, it’s necessary to take a more expansive view,” said Braun. “In every aspect of his life, whether it be with colleagues, students, friends or family, he was relentlessly consistent. If he promised something, he unfailingly delivered. If he started something, he saw it through to the end. If you needed a helping hand or an inspirational story or a kind word, that is exactly what you received. And if what you needed was a kick in the pants, well, you get the idea. Gay had an enormous impact on a broad swath of individuals across a variety of contexts.”
In recognition of his scholarly work, which has been cited more than 2,500 times by his peers, Israel was one of only six people nationally to receive a 2015 Citation Award from the American College of Sports Medicine. Israel served ACSM at both regional and national levels for more than 38 years, including tenures as president of the ACSM Foundation, ACSM vice president and chair of the ACSM Public Information Committee, Strategic Planning Committee and 50th anniversary task force.
In 2015, Israel was presented with the Distinguished Faculty Award from the CSU Alumni Association. In addition, he was selected as an honoree of the College of Health and Human Sciences Legacies Project, which gathers, archives and shares the personal and professional histories of former faculty and staff. For videos and more information on Israel’s distinguished career, see www.legacies.chhs.colostate.edu/gayisrael.
In his acceptance speech for the ACSM award, Israel recounted one of his favorite quotes: “In his classic American tale, A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean, in a moment of high stress when he was searching for the just the right words quipped, ‘I could think of the words but not the sentences they could fit.’”
Israel is survived by his wife, Karan, and two sons Wes (Lauren) and Alex (Megan), and his grandson, Graham.
A service for Israel will be held in Earl, North Carolina, at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 23, at the New Hope Baptist Church, 2621 Blacksburg Rd. A Celebration of Life service will be held at 2 p.m. on May 20 at Faith Evangelical Free Church, 3920 South Shields St. in Fort Collins.
A previously scheduled celebration of his career is still set for Thursday, April 21, from 3:30 to 6 p.m. in the Cherokee Park Ballroom of the Lory Student Center.
Memorial gifts toward an academic scholarship established in Israel’s name are requested in lieu of flowers. The Richard Gay Israel Health and Exercise Science Scholarship was created to support scholarships to health and exercise science students. To honor Israel’s career and contributions, the Higley Foundation and ELF Foundation will match gifts made to this scholarship by Dec. 31, 2016, up to a total of $15,000. Memorial gifts may be made online at giveto.colostate.edu/gayisrael or mailed to the Colorado State University Foundation, 410 University Services Center, Fort Collins, CO 80523-9100, with “Richard Gay Israel HES Scholarship Endowment #72705” in the memo line.
Israel, left, with his daughter-in-law Megan Israel and his grandson Graham.