Phillip "Phil" Certain

September 21, 1943 ~ August 11, 2020 (age 76) 76 Years Old


Phillip Robinson (“Phil”) Certain, age 76, died August 11, 2020, at Agrace Hospice in Fitchburg, WI, after living gallantly with progressive supranuclear palsy for several years. He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Melinda, and their three children, Andrew (Margaret) of Seattle, Heather (Dale Murray) of Madison, and Laura (Benjamin Goldstein) of Salt Lake City, and by grandchildren Graham Certain, Malcolm Certain, and Luisita Murray. He is also survived by his four siblings, Alan (Nancy), Neal (Sue), Robert (Robbie), and Glennell Cottrill (Don Cottrill), his sister-in-law Ernestine Whitman (Howard Niblock), sister-in-law Genie Certain, and many nephews and nieces.  He was preceded in death by his parents, Glenn and Myrtle Certain, and parents-in-law, Tate and Luisita Whitman.

Phil Certain was born September 21, 1943, in Savannah, GA, the second of five children. He graduated from Groves High School in Garden City, GA, in 1960. That spring he was chosen by the Georgia Department of Commerce to be one of 21 students in the state to take a week’s bus tour as part of their Student Teacher Achievement Recognition program. Also on the tour was his future wife, Melinda Whitman.  In the fall they both entered Emory University in Atlanta, GA, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Phil and Melinda married in 1964. After receiving BA and MS degrees from Emory, they moved to Madison, WI, to pursue graduate degrees. Phil received his PhD in physical chemistry in 1969 and joined the University of Wisconsin chemistry faculty in 1970.

Phil’s career at UW-Madison included teaching undergraduate and graduate students and doing research as part of the Theoretical Chemistry Institute. He published many papers and was the recipient of Guggenheim and Fulbright-Hayes Fellowships. He was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His UW career also included the administrative positions of Chair of Chemistry, Associate Vice Chancellor, Acting Vice Chancellor, Associate Dean and Dean of the College of Letters and Science. In 1993 he became Dean of L & S and served in that role until his retirement from the university in 2004. In all of his positions he was devoted to the principles of excellence, diversity, fairness, and respect.

Phil and Melinda have been active members of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Madison since they joined in 1968, and Phil served in many different ways, including as Moderator and as Treasurer. In retirement Phil took great pleasure actively supporting his (and Melinda’s) passion for opera by serving as member and President of the Madison Opera Board of Trustees.  Phil also served on the Board of Trustees of Edgewood College.  Phil was very interested in food and loved cooking for family and friends.  Above all else he valued relationships with people and happily traveled to be with those he cared about, whether it was to Appleton or Atlanta, or to England, Germany, Israel, or many other places.

Phil will be remembered with great love as the best life partner anyone could have, a wonderful dad, dad-in-law, and granddad, and a warm, wise, and generous friend and colleague. We will all miss him greatly.

A memorial service will be held virtually on Sunday, September 6th at 2pm and can be viewed at


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