Obituary: Walter Maya

Chemistry professor, rocket scientist, passionate musician, family man

Walter Maya died from lung cancer at his home in Claremont December 16, 2018. He was surrounded by family, had been on hospice care and was 89 years old.

Walter was born in New York City on October 25, 1929, and liked to say that his birth triggered the stock market crash. His father, Walter Maya Sr., was a talented graphic artist from Brazil, and his mother, Yetta Kaplan, was a college graduate and first-generation immigrant from the Ukraine.

Walter Sr. developed severe cardiac problems and returned to Brazil in 1935, taking his young son with him. His father once found him mixing all the contents of the medicine cabinet and proclaimed then that he was destined to become a chemist. This proved to be true, but only because the budding scientist failed to kill himself with other experiments, such as the creation of chlorine gas.

Until his death in 1939, Walter Sr. spoke only English with his son, so that Walter Jr. retained both English and his father’s accent, though Portuguese became his second mother tongue.

Orphaned after his father’s death, young Walter’s aunt and uncle took him in and educated him at St. Paul’s, an English-language school in São Paolo. There he played flute in the school orchestra. He continued to play the instrument throughout his life, until his lungs failed.

He returned to the United States in 1948 to pursue his education. He supported himself by working for two years as a houseboy for a state senator and his wife. During this time he attended Pasadena City College, preparing to transfer to UCLA. He did not realize that during the hiatus between institutions he would no longer qualify for a student deferment from the draft. Upon returning from his honeymoon with his first wife, he was drafted into the US Army and sent into combat in the Korean War.

Then five-feet, 10 inches tall and weighing 125 pounds, was assigned to carry and fire mortars. “When the captain of his unit asked for volunteers to type, Walter figured that it was worth stepping forward, as whatever they might want him to do with a typewriter couldn’t kill him any faster than the mortars,” his family shared. He became company clerk, which released him from the front. Although he abhorred the military, he was proud of his service, and especially of the many letters he wrote home for other, less literate servicemen.

On his return from Korea, he attended UCLA, where he earned bachelor’s and doctorate degrees. During these years he studied classical guitar with Theodore Norman, and later taught guitar to others.

After post-doctoral studies and a stint with DuPont, he was hired by Rocketdyne, where he developed rocket fuels. With the conclusion of the Saturn missions, the projects became increasingly military, and he left Rocketdyne.

He taught at Cal Poly Pomona in the chemistry department for 30 years, helping to found the graduate program, serving as union president and in the faculty senate. He also took up backpacking, to which he introduced his four children, and rejoiced in these trips until he was 70.

Mr. Maya cared passionately about unfairness and injustice. He never forgot what it felt like to be poor and helpless, without the social network necessary to make a good life, his family shared. “He felt strongly that people were the most important thing in life,” they added. “His integrity, kindness, and sense of humor shone bright. He always mentioned his army service, to show that a progressive could also be patriotic. He never missed an election.”

He leaves behind his grieving wife of 33 years, Karen Greenbaum-Maya; four children, Lynn Maya of San Jose, California, Leslie Maya Charles of Erie, Colorado, Susan Mueller of Big Bear Lake, California, and Theodore Maya of Los Angeles, and their spouses; and grandchildren, Brianna Charles, Maxwell Maya and Mirabel Maya, who mourn his passing.

Also surviving is previous wife Henryka Maslowski. Former wives Vernett Morrison and Pamela Smith predeceased him.


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