Robert Flatt ’69 says he was never a typical engineer. In fact, he wanted to be an English major, but his family disagreed. He had what he called “no mechanical aptitude,” but he liked that Rice allowed him to study engineering theory, which would later prove useful.
“I did have the best lab partners,” he said. “Because I could write the best lab reports.”
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering at Rice and an MBA from Harvard, he spent 31 years working in the oil services industry in marketing and operations. That experience allowed him to live and work all over the globe.
And then, in 1999, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. The experience forced him to examine his life and look for a way forward. That way turned out to be photography.
“I took photography courses from the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies from 2006 to the present after I retired from Cameron,” he said. “You know, it’s never too late to change your major.”
That theme of change is important for Flatt, who recently published his third book of photography, Healing Art: Don’t Let Anything Ruin Your Day, a collection of nature images featuring the flora and fauna from his travels around the world. The photos show slices of life: a bee hovering above a rose, a sunbird in Namibia drinking nectar from a flower, a pair of cranes walking in the Hokkaido, Japan sunset.
“There’s a beauty in nature,” he said. “I want to show people what they can’t see for themselves, and I get to show them pretty things.”
Flatt shoots on a Canon 5D Mark III with a 100-400 millimeter lens and a 1.4 extender. The camera allows him to capture tiny moments in the life of the world around him. And he said that Parkinson’s has made him slow down and develop the patience to wait for those moments. Many of his photographs come from the area around Rice University; he published a book dedicated to the great horned owls that live in the campus trees.
“Rice is a pretty cool place,” he said.
Over the years, he’s kept his connection to the University. In addition to the photography classes he’s taken, Flatt also teaches a class for the Jones School of Business, Management 664: Leading Operational Change.
“It’s how to manage the culture of a company, how to get people engaged and turned on,” he said.
Flatt likes to connect with people, which is one thing he said his teaching and photography allow him to do. His photos hang in the Texas Medical Center, in the Baylor College of Medicine Neurology Clinic, where Flatt is a patient. Several of them also adorn the walls of Picnic, a popular lunch spot near Rice. They also hang in the Jones School at Rice and in several hospitals in the area.
While having Parkinson’s meant that Flatt had to slow down and change course, he insists it won’t stop him. For years, he and his wife Nancy ’69 were active members of the Sierra Club, and would often go hiking and traveling with their children. He credits Nancy, a biochemistry major, with his love of nature.
“We used to go out into nature,” he said. “Now, I sit and let nature come to me.”
Photography, he said, has allowed him to look at the world in a different way, and he insists on one thing: “Life is good.”