University of Maine engineering students can learn the principles behind today’s electronic and computing devices at a laboratory that will be named in memory of Professor Al Whitney who died last year after teaching at the flagship University for nearly 30 years.
Thanks to gifts from 300 friends, colleagues and former students, the Allison I. Whitney ’62 Electronics Laboratory was dedicated during a ceremony April 29 in the Arthur Hill Auditorium in the Engineering Science and Research Building adjoining Barrows Hall.
The endowment in Professor Whitney’s name supports the purchase of equipment for the lab where electrical and computer engineering students focus on the properties of semiconductors, which are at the heart of devices such as cell phones, video games and computers. The fund also may be used to assist other electrical and computer engineering labs.
Professor Whitney, who retired in the spring of 2006, passed away on March 10, 2007, after battling cancer for two years. He is remembered as an exceptional teacher who was tough but fair, and whose youthful attitude made him a favorite of students and colleagues alike.
“He was far and away the best teacher I had – he made engineering relevant and interesting,” says Ryan Bethel, an electrical engineering alumnus who graduated in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree and in 2007 with a master’s degree.
“He was very personable – you could talk to him about anything. He was a friend, not just a professor,” says Al Blais, who earned an electrical engineering degree in 2001.
Professor Whitney knew that funds were being raised to support the Electronics Lab and he was “excited and happy” about the prospect of having the facility bear his name, says Professor Mohamad Musavi, chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.
“But, he was a very humble person and so his ultimate goal was simply to make sure that the lab where he had spent the majority of his life with his students was going to have the money to be kept updated. He knew that students would benefit from state-of-the-art equipment,” says Professor Musavi, who led the charge to create the endowment.
A graduate of UMaine, Professor Whitney earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering degree in 1962 and a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1964. He taught electrical engineering at the University from 1962 until 1971 when he became the head of electrical engineering at Tibbett’s Industries in Camden. He served as president of the company from 1974 to 1986 and then returned to UMaine to continue teaching.
Professor Whitney had the makings of a great teacher even as a student, according to Carleton Brown, who was one of his professors at UMaine and who encouraged him to go into education.
“He was always searching for a very deep understanding of the material,” says Professor Brown. “He was excited about the subject and I knew that would carry over to his teaching and that he would give that same sense of excitement to his students.”
Later, the two taught a number of courses together and Professor Brown was gratified to see that his instincts had been correct.
“He was such a natural at teaching and interacting with students. He always tried very hard to give others a depth of understanding, not just a bunch of facts and descriptions. He always had his office door open and encouraged students to drop by and chat. And he was a kid at heart. He wore crazy ties and athletic shoes. That endeared him to students.”
Because he had worked in industry, Professor Whitney understood the “real world picture,” says Maurice Richard ’78, a member of UMaine’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Visiting Committee.
Richard, who co-founded his own engineering design company in South Portland, often visited the campus to recruit employees, and counted on Professor Whitney to advise him.
“I really got a sense of how valuable Al was to the engineering program by talking to students who had him as a professor. He knew how to teach the students to survive and do well in their engineering careers. Besides teaching them courses that were very pertinent to the type of work they’d be doing, he also taught them non-technical skills like the importance having a strong work ethic and being able to get along with people.”
UMaine electrical engineering alumnus Ken Bach, who earned his bachelor’s degree in 1963 and master’s degree in 1965, also served on UMaine’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Visiting Committee and often heard students voice their admiration for Professor Whitney.
“I was impressed with the regard students held for Al – he obviously was a revered instructor.”
A classmate of Whitney’s, Bach says the two became fast friends and would meet in the Bear’s Den almost every day for coffee or lunch. They had a good laugh one day when they realized that one of their professors, Walter Creamer, known as a real disciplinarian, had pulled a fast one on them.
“I thought I had blown my electrical engineering final something fierce, and a few days later I went in to Lord Hall to ask the professor what my grade was,” Bach recalls.
“‘Do you mean to say you have the nerve to show your face around Lord Hall?’ Dr. Creamer said to me. I was stunned! But then he opened his grade book carefully and said, ‘you got a C in the final and a B in the course.’ Later, Al told me the same story word for word. Dr. Creamer had done the same thing to him.
“We both had a good laugh and Al and I agreed that Dr. Creamer wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t think we had what it took to succeed as an engineer.”
Image Description: Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Al Whitney '62