Engineering Professors Kenneth R. Lawless and Walter D. Pilkey Leave Lasting Legacies

September 07, 2007

Sept. 7, 2007 — The University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science family lost two of its own in August with the deaths of Professor Emeritus Kenneth R. Lawless on Aug. 24 and Professor Walter D. Pilkey on Aug. 27. Each man had a significant impact upon the University and leaves behind a legacy that includes a love of teaching and research, a broad range of interests and an abiding commitment to family and friends.

Lawless earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Virginia in 1951, then spent a year conducting research at the Institute of Technology in Trondheim, Norway, on a Fulbright Fellowship. He found his way back to U.Va. in 1952 to join the faculty of the Engineering School and remained here for the next 40 years. 

During his long tenure at U.Va., Lawless was instrumental in founding the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and worked to lead the department to national and international prominence during the 10 years he served as chair.

“Ken was the perfect blend of educator, academic researcher and scholar,” said Richard P. Gangloff, professor and current chair of the Materials Science and Engineering Department. “His love of learning and enthusiastic interest in teaching attracted faculty and students alike. A brilliant scientist with an infectious interest in the natural world, he won great respect in his area of research.”

Internationally recognized in the fields of electron microscopy and oxidation, Lawless garnered many professional honors, including an appointment as fellow and subsequent election as president of the Virginia Academy of Sciences. He also served as treasurer of the Microscopy Society of America. In addition, he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the Raven Society.

A man of varied interests, Lawless was widely known as an ornithologist, field botanist and nature photographer. He was a member of the Virginia Native Plant Society, presented lectures at the National Arboretum and the Nature Conservancy and conducted nature walks throughout Central Virginia. He was also a music lover and talented singer, performing locally with the University Singers, the Oratorio Society and the Chancel Choir at First United Methodist Church.

Pilkey, the Morse Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, was equally accomplished. A leader in the field of computational mechanics, he was the founding director of the Automobile Safety Laboratory, now the Center for Applied Biomechanics.

“Walt had an innate ability to see the potential in both people and projects. His vision, drive and perseverance were keys to taking the Auto Safety Lab from inception to the world-class lab it is today,” said Jeff R. Crandall, the center's current director. "He was my teacher, my mentor and my role model. I am honored to have had the opportunity to learn from him and to follow in his footsteps."

Pilkey earned his Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and was engaged in engineering programs in Korea, Taiwan, China, Turkey, India, Russia, Afghanistan and Germany before arriving at U.Va.'s Engineering School in 1969. He was scheduled to retire in May 2008.

Pilkey was editor-in-chief of five engineering journals, several of which he initiated. He edited or authored 30 books and published hundreds of professional papers. His research areas included structural mechanics and shock and vibration system optimization. The latter area led to studies related to crash safety for cars, planes and trains, and studies of airbags, helmets and seats to mitigate injuries.

An avid mountain climber, skier, hiker, swimmer and runner, Pilkey found enjoyment in the everyday. “When he found out he was sick, he just continued his routine of meeting with students, publishing papers, writing books and spending time with family and friends,” Crandall said. "Most of us can envision any number of changes we would make in our lives if we knew our time was limited. In comparison, Walt didn’t see the need to change a thing. He already had his perfect life."

Lawless and Pilkey helped to shape the Engineering School into what it is today, said Dean James. H. Aylor. “Ken and Walt each left their mark on this institution through their scholarship and the programs and research areas they started and built,” he said. “The Engineering School is a far better institution for their presence here. They will both be greatly missed.”