“Back in the ′50s, ′60s, ′70s — if you had one African-American in your Ph.D. program per decade, that was probably the norm,” Dr. Orr said. “He was a trailblazer in that respect.”
Dr. Neal worried about that lack of diversity in physics. In 2017, he was interviewed for an American Physical Society video on the issue. “Even though nationwide huge investments have been made by the government and agencies,” he said, “the number of underrepresented children is alarming.”
Dr. Neal started his undergraduate studies at Indiana University when he was just 15, Mrs. Neal said. He went on to receive his doctorate at the University of Michigan.
Earlier in his career he was provost of the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island and dean of research and graduate development at Indiana. He joined the Michigan faculty in 1987 as chairman of the physics department. He was chosen to be interim president of the university in 1996.
As an administrator, “he was unflappable, a remarkably deft politician,” Dr. Orr said.
Dr. Neal was also a leader in his profession. In 2016 he served as president of the American Physical Society, a professional organization of 55,000 members. He sat on the board of the Ford Motor Company for 18 years, retiring in 2014, as well on the council of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Neal is survived by their children, Sharon-Denise Neal, who trained as an archaeologist, and Homer A. Neal Jr., a physicist and staff scientist at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University; and four grandchildren.
Mrs. Neal recalled that when her husband arrived at Indiana at 15, a faculty member told him he would never make it through. Years later, she said, when he returned as a professor, “Homer Neal had the pleasure of tapping that person on the shoulder and saying, ‘Hello, how are you? I’m now on your faculty.’ That’s the kind of person Homer was. He was not a person who carried a grudge.”