John S. Risley

March 3, 1942April 5, 2013

John S. Risley, 71, passed away at home on April 5, 2013 after battling a rare and aggressive form of cancer for 6 months. He was born on March 3, 1942 in Seattle, WA to Henry M. Risley, chemist for U.S. Food and Drug and Helen S. Risley, musician and piano teacher. He graduated from the University of Washington in 1965 after taking a year off from college to travel Europe and Egypt by motor scooter and train. After graduation he married Dellaine Anderson and began 8 years of graduate school, earning his PhD in atomic physics. John stayed at the UW for 2 years of post doc work. By now he had 3 young children and the family moved to Lincoln, NE for 6 months as a Visiting Assistant Professor.

In 1976 the family moved to Raleigh, NC to begin his career as a Physics Professor at NCSU where he taught and did research for more than 30 years. After finishing his exploration of the atom, John switched to Physics Education Research, wanting to understand how students learn physics and what changes in teaching might help them learn better. He recognized very early that technology was becoming available and would eventually be used in education and he designed a way for computers to be used in the classroom for teaching. This research eventually led him to found WebAssign, an online homework and assessment tool, and a spin-off company was born. In 2003, WebAssign moved to Centennial Campus as a private company which now employs about 200 people. John always gave credit for the success of WebAssign to his years at NCSU and the outstanding support and freedom to follow his dreams. He was widely published and received numerous national and international awards and was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In addition to his passion for education and work, John loved to travel the world, attend classical symphonies, garden, remodel the family home, and ride horseback. He loved formal dress, especially his tux, but he was just as comfortable teaching in shorts. Most of all, he loved to spend time with his family. When the children grew up, they became his best friends and he enjoyed many trips with them and their families and having them visit the home he loved. He was a complex person with high standards. He gave his children, students and employees freedom to think and to act, but he expected them to strive for the best and be honest in all they did.

John is survived by his devoted wife of nearly 48 years, brother Robert Risley of Oakland, CA; daughter Renelle Risley and her partner Marguerite Conti and grandchildren Mandelyn, Zachary and Zoe of Seattle, WA; son Jim Risley and wife Shannon Risley and grandchildren Stetler and Ashlyn of Wilmington, NC; son Steve Risley and wife Kathy Risley and grandchildren Andy, Desha and Lainey of Wilmington, NC. He was predeceased by his parents and grandson Jacob Risley.

There will be a private burial on April 18 at Raleigh Memorial Park followed by a celebration of John’s life at the Hunt Library Auditorium on Centennial Campus at 5:30. A reception will follow at the WebAssign office: 1791 Varsity Drive, Suite 200, Raleigh NC. Parking is free after 5pm in the Oval West Deck and Partners 1 lot.

By John’s request, if you are considering a memorial gift, in lieu of flowers he suggested gifts may be made to “PAMS Foundation “( NCSU Physical and Mathematical Sciences Foundation ) for the Risley Endowment (memo line) which will support the Department of Physics. Mail to NCSU PAMS Foundation, Campus Box 8201, Raleigh NC 27695-8201.


  • Celebration of Life Thursday, April 18, 2013

John S. Risley

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Bob and Susan McIntosh

April 18, 2013

Our love to Dellaine and family. Our love and prayers are with you.

Lewis Strong

April 16, 2013

My condolences to Dr. Risley's family, he will be missed. We worked together for years on a number of projects involving the Bureau of Mines building. I knew he could be trusted to cooperate in making the best of sometimes difficult situations.

Paula Engelhardt

April 15, 2013

John was my second mentor at NC State. He was an important part of my life and career in Physics Education. I still remember him coming into Bureau of Mines and saying, "There she is," as if he was expecting to find me at my desk on a Sunday morning. His smile and energy will be missed beyond what words can express.

Lisa Grable

April 11, 2013

John was such a strong part of the physics department. He will also leave a legacy with the American Assoc. of Physics Teachers. I remember his great joy when he made full professor. I also remember his love of azaleas. He touched so many and he will be missed.