Paul D. Coleman Physics Center opens at Susquehanna University
Jamie Hutchinson, ECE ILLINOIS
- Named in honor of ECE Emeritus Professor Paul D. Coleman, the new physics center serves undergraduate students at Susquehanna University, Coleman's alma mater.
- Coleman's former students at ECE contributed to the center in 2008 to mark his 90th birthday.
- Coleman founded the Electro-Physics Laboratory in ECE in 1951, overseeing the work of nearly 50 doctoral and 75 master's students in 37 years on the faculty.
Thanks to a big dose of Illini generosity, students at tiny Susquehanna University in Central Pennsylvania can now get a taste of the hands-on, facilities-rich education long enjoyed by science and engineering students at mighty U of I. This fall, Susquehanna dedicated the Paul D. Coleman Physics Center, made possible by donations from family, friends, and former students of ECE Professor Emeritus Paul D. Coleman, a Susquehanna alumnus who served on the ECE Illinois faculty for 37 years.
Coleman’s son Peter initiated the fundraising effort to honor his father on the occasion of the latter’s ninetieth birthday in 2008. The facility opened this fall along with other renovations to Susquehanna’s Fisher Hall, which houses several departments in addition to the new physics center. On October 26, officials from Susquehanna, including university president Jay Lemons, hosted a dinner and celebration in Coleman’s honor at the Urbana Golf and Country Club.
For Lemons, the gift to his university was testament to the extraordinary loyalty established between an ECE Illinois faculty member and his students. “These very proud Illinois alumni,” he said, “made a space in their hearts for Paul’s beloved alma mater.” Coleman’s former students, thirteen of whom have won ECE’s Distinguished Alumni Award, have contributed generously to U of I over the years and have been active in Illinois alumni affairs.
In his remarks, Coleman cited the importance of science education in maintaining U.S. preeminence in the world. “Even a small place like Susquehanna can make a big impact by training good high school physics teachers and by feeding the PhD programs of bigger places like MIT or Illinois,” he said.
Coleman acknowledged the assistance of his own physics professor at Susquehanna, Professor Paul Overbo, who set Coleman on a course for graduate work at Penn State and MIT. At Illinois, Coleman founded the Electro-Physics Laboratory in ECE in 1951. He oversaw the work of nearly 50 doctoral and 75 master’s students during his time on the faculty.
One of Coleman’s students who went on to make a big impact is Carl Johnson (PhD ’69), who co-founded II-VI, Inc., a major international provider of engineered materials and optoelectronic components. “Paul taught me to engage rather than avoid tough problems, to work hard, smart, and longer than expected,” said Johnson. And from Coleman he also learned the lessons “that vigorous debate often draws out the best ideas, and that being passionate about technology is both fun and rewarding.”
ECE alumnus Jack Baird (BSEE ’58, MSEE ’59, PhD ’63) began working in Coleman’s laboratory as a sophomore and continued through his doctorate. “Paul was very demanding,” recalled Baird, “to the extent that some students thought he was hell on wheels and were delighted to finish. But I thought the world of him.” Baird went into teaching and research at U of I and the University of Colorado before switching to the private sector, where he headed up a successful electronics company based in Boulder.
Alumnus Bill Kunz (BSEE ’60, MSEE ’61, PhD ’64), who is now retired and refers to himself jokingly as “Portola Valley California’s best saxophone player,” also remembers Coleman’s tough demands with fondness. “He kept giving me new projects before I could get my graduate degrees. He would say, ‘You haven’t put in enough blood.’ If a vacuum system broke down and had to be fixed on the weekend, you did it. Our slogan was, ‘Give your all for Uncle Paul.’“
Alumnus Glenn Sherman (BSEE ’68, MSEE ’70, PhD ’72), now president and CEO of Moving Image Technologies in Fountain Valley, CA, recalled that Coleman’s competitive edge was as sharp outside the lab as in. Golf outings with the professor always had money at stake, despite the relative poverty of his students. “I never saw anybody play so hard for a dime!” recalled Sherman. “He also led a lunchtime bridge game, where I learned to play bridge. Cutthroat bridge, I might add—very aggressive bidding and play.”
Relationships like these don’t end when students graduate and teachers retire, and that is why the Paul D. Coleman Physics Center at Susquehanna U. exists today. As Johnson put it, “By helping with this center’s establishment, I can thank, recognize, and honor Paul for his large contributions to my education and my life.”