Saturday, December 15, 2012

Dr. Richard H. Gallagher: A tribute

(Note: My late father would have been 85 years old this year. Sadly his life was cut short just before his 70th birthday, on September 30, 1997, after bravely battling a rare form of cancer while at the peak of his career as President of Clarkson University. He was one of the pioneers of modern engineering design analysis.

This tribute was originally written by me just before his passing, and sent to his professional colleagues after he died. I recently discovered that its original web host is now defunct, and wanted to preserve this online for posterity on my own blog.)

My father was, on the surface, one of the most improbable people one could imagine as a pioneer of modern engineering analysis. He was a kid from the Bronx who left home at age 16 to try and join the military, and describes his entry into engineering school as being almost an afterthought following the end of World War II and his Navy enlistment. He later graduated from an engineering program in New York that no longer exists, and was nearly in his forties, supporting a wife and five children, when he earned his doctorate in night school at an institution that had never granted them in his field before.

His accomplishments since then could easily fill the successful careers of several people, and many people who know him from one field are unaware of his accomplishments in others. He progressed from being a practicing engineer, to an industry pioneer of the finite element analysis method, to a distinguished Ivy League teaching career, to becoming a highly successful academic official and university president. In each of these diverse activities, he not only succeeded, but received the highest honors of each field in turn.

Behind the official accolades, however, was a very modest and private person whose personal integrity was absolute. During his retirement from the presidency of Clarkson University, the one comment we heard the most from his colleagues was "Dick is the most solid person I've ever known", and this was as true in his personal life as it was in his career. He never boasted of his achievements off-camera - his work itself gave him pleasure, and it sustained him day and night throughout his entire working life.

He felt that technology was an important means of improving everyone's success in life, and was a tireless proponent of both bringing more women and minorities into the engineering field, as well as helping practicing engineers to become lifelong learners. And even as a young engineer, he saw his field in very global terms. I will never forget, as a young boy, seeing how excited he was about presenting one of his first papers in Stuttgart, Germany -- he put aside finite elements for weeks in a crash effort to learn German, and gave a successful lecture.

From there, our family quickly became used to seeing him travel to Asian universities, behind Iron Curtains, and to every continent on earth as an active member of the FEA fraternity, while he and his wife Terry increasingly became host to a steady stream of international visitors. Early in his life, he developed a habit of purchasing a ceramic mug from each institution he would lecture at, and this massive international collection of beer steins remains a testament to his globetrotting support of the field.

It is a well-known "secret" among Dick's colleagues that all five of his children became engineering graduates, and pursued successful technology careers of their own. What is less known is that this was never his wish. I don't believe that he ever expressed a career preference to any of his children as they grew up, and was in fact a strong proponent of the classic liberal arts education; indeed, he married a cum laude graduate in English who was a published poet and a promising advertising copywriter. At home, he would light up as much talking about world history and popular culture as he ever did about engineering analysis, and we all remember road trips which would stop at every historical site, castle or bridge within range of our route. The fact that each of his offspring chose to pursue technology instead is a testament to how brightly his enthusiasm glowed for his own work, and his wish for at least one of us to become a person of arts and letters stands as one of few goals that he ever failed at.

Sharing the same name as my father, I experience constant reminders of his impact on the engineering field. At times, people mistaking me for him laud the impact of "my" books and papers on their careers; more often, they go out of their way to share what an influence the man and his work has been to them. His efforts literally paved the way for a multi-billion dollar industry, thousands of careers, and millions of lives improved.

In his last commencement speech at Clarkson, which he gave shortly after learning of his illness, he spoke in a strong, clear voice of how we must all have a sense of urgency in our lives, how quickly his own 45 year career had passed, and how the decisions we make early on affect us for the rest of our lives. The decisions that he made in his own life benefited all of us.

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