Fly-fishing, friendship and how a philanthropist’s $1M gift will help build Maine’s future

headshot of dennis paustenbach
Dennis Paustenbach, poses for a portrait at the Roux Institute on Dec. 10, 2022. Photo by Tim Greenway for Northeastern University

PORTLAND, Maine—Less than 24 hours after Dennis Paustenbach met his new neighbor David Roux in Woodside, California, he was casting a fly rod for the first time.

Roux and Paustenbach talked about fly-fishing at the introductory dinner about 30 years ago, and Paustenbach said the only fishing he knew was as a kid in rural Ohio tossing a line with a worm on a hook in an attempt to catch small bass. 

So Roux, an avid fly fisherman, asked him if he would like to learn how to cast. If you’re interested, Roux told Paustenbach, meet at 8 a.m. at the soccer field. Apparently, Paustenbach was interested.

“Dave said, ‘You have a Ph.D. but you don’t know how to fly fish?’ I said I had no clue,” Paustenbach says. “So he says, ‘I’m going to teach you how to cast.’ And that’s what he did. So I met him there and he taught me how to cast.” 

About two weeks later, the two flew across the country to go fly-fishing for brook trout in northwestern Maine near the Canadian border. The fly-fishing novice and Roux went to Big Island Camps and his love of fly-fishing was born in a rowboat on the pond. 

“We grew to know one another quite well on that fishing trip and, since then, we have fished in a number of areas around the world. Fly-fishing was a genuinely special gift that he gave me,” Paustenbach says of his longtime friend.

Paustenbach was dedicated and intuitive, and immediately proved to be adept, Roux says. Fly-fishing is a bit of a gearhead sport, he says, and “Dennis is kind of the ultimate gearhead.”  However, beyond the technical execution, Roux says, fly-fishing is an excuse to hang out with friends.  

“Casting in and of itself is not that much fun, but the fishing part, being out on the water, being with friends, catching fish, that’s a blast,” Roux says. “I think it’s not so much about the fishing as the people you fish with and the place where fish live, you know, beautiful, natural venues.” 

Over the years the friends—both successful businessmen—have gone fly-fishing countless times and often talked about the Maine economy and how the region would be bolstered by a graduate school focused on advanced computing and entrepreneurship. 

In January of 2020, Northeastern partnered with Dave and Barbara Roux to launch a graduate education and research campus in Portland, Maine: The Roux Institute at Northeastern University, designed to educate generations of talent for the digital and life sciences sectors, and drive sustained economic growth in Portland, the state of Maine and northern New England.  

“[The Roux Institute at Northeastern] was the best thing to happen to Maine since the building of schooners,” says Paustenbach, a scientist, entrepreneur and philanthropist. 

Proud of the Roux Institute and what it represents to the region, Paustenbach has committed to funding a visiting professorship at Northeastern’s Roux Institute. Paustenbach has made a $1 million planned gift that would be funded through his estate. 

Paustenbach said the Roux Institute is revitalizing the regional economy and its “graduates should completely change the future of Maine.”

“The impact of the Roux Institute on Portland and all of New England will be breathtaking. And it won’t take long,” says Paustenbach, a toxicologist and industrial hygienist who founded ChemRisk, a human and ecological risk assessment firm that became one of the largest such consulting companies in the U.S.  

“Because it is not fair to ask a handful of visionaries, like the Rouxs, to fund what should be a community problem-solving effort, others of us with lesser resources need to do our part. This donation is simply intended to help in a very small way to accelerate what they have begun,” Paustenbach says. “Having a number of visiting professorships allows highly talented faculty to come to the Roux to see, firsthand, what is happening and whether they want to be part of its future.”

Maine has welcomed the Roux Institute, Paustenbach says, and students are embracing the mission. Through the Roux Institute the region will be involved with AI, data sciences, digital engineering, advanced computational tools, and genomic medicine that will be the “economic engine of the 21st century.”

Paustenbach says Northeastern’s experiential learning model works well with David and Barbara Roux’s desire to address the economic challenges in Maine at the Roux Institute from a practical business approach.

“When you assemble this much talent with these kinds of students and when the faculty want to make a difference, all housed in an energetic and dynamic environment, only good things happen. This is the foundation for creativity and for lighting the fires which establish the entrepreneurial spirit,” Paustenbach says.

“What the Roux Institute has shown is that persons with vision and financial resources, and a desire to help the common man, can create a sea change that will improve the lives of more than one million persons, who, just five years ago, did not have a genuine opportunity to break out of the vicious circle.”

Paustenbach knows the importance of seizing opportunity. Born in Tarentum, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh and raised in the rural Akron, Ohio, area, then later in Strasburg, Ohio, which adjoins Amish communities, Paustenbach went on to earn several degrees, including a Ph.D., before founding ChemRisk. He attended a high school aimed at educating “farmers to become farmers,” where only six students in the graduating class of 50 applied to four-year colleges.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, Paustenbach went to work as a process chemical engineer at Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company in Indianapolis. There, he was instrumental in building its industrial hygiene and occupational health engineering programs during the early years of the occupational and environmental health movement, shortly after the federal government started the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

Paustenbach then earned a master’s degree in industrial hygiene and toxicology from the University of Michigan and returned to Eli Lilly. He was lecturing at Purdue University and was offered a chance to join the faculty and earn a Ph.D. in environmental toxicology, which he completed in 1982. After a stint as manager of industrial toxicology at Stauffer Chemical in Connecticut, Paustenbach was lured to Silicon Valley. He became the manager of industrial toxicology at Syntex Pharmaceuticals in Palo Alto, California, which is known for developing the birth control pill. 

Occupational health and environmental remediation rose to the spotlight in the 1980s, and Paustenbach was on the vanguard of risk assessment. He had gained expertise on how chemicals were regulated and authored many articles on the topic.

In 1985, Paustenbach started the consulting firm ChemRisk. He entered a joint venture with McLaren/Hart Engineering in Sacramento where he turned ChemRisk into a nationally recognized consulting firm in industrial hygiene and toxicology. 

“I was like the one-eyed man in the land of the blind,” Paustenbach says humbly. “I happened to know something nobody else did. And one thing led to another, but it was nice to be on the forefront.” 

ChemRisk had several offices across the country, including one in the Stroudwater Crossing building in Portland, as well as Australia. 

He joined Exponent in 1995 and then re-established ChemRisk as an independent firm in 2004. He sold the firm to Cardno, an Australian company, in 2013 and remained as president until 2019, when he left and started Paustenbach and Associates, in Jackson, Wyoming, which employs 17 people.

In addition to fly-fishing, Paustenbach enjoys golfing and downhill skiing. He also has a passion for American antique furniture and folk art. He wrote a series of papers and a book about pie safe, or pie chest, a cupboard used to store pies and food before ice boxes that was an important piece of American furniture in the 18th and 19th century. 

Though his main residence and business office is in Wyoming, Paustenbach is active in Maine. During his many vacations in Maine over the years Paustenbach occasionally attended the Sunday services of a Shaker community in Gray, Maine. Paustenbach says this was the last active Shaker community in America, down from about 14 communities in 1840.  He was the national campaign chairman for raising money for the Shakers of Sabbathday Lake in Gray, Maine. He is also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor.

Paustenbach, who owns a home in Cape Elizabeth, Maine—and has owned others in the Portland area over the last 30 years—says he and his family love Maine, the ocean and the bright sunshine. The region has meant so much to him, he says, he is happy to be able to fund the visiting professorship at Northeastern’s Roux Institute.

“Maine is magical. It quickly held a special spot for me. The ocean was special. The bright winter days are a dramatic change from the cloudy skies of the Midwest. It is phenomenal. The sky’s so good. There’s a blue sky and it’s invigorating,” he says.

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