Remembering Professor Jack Wilson

Jack Wilson

Professor jack wilson is a loved professor of mechanical engineering

Professor Emeritus Jack Wilson passed away on May 1, 2019.  If you were a mechanical engineering student between 1985 and 2001, you likely had him for one of the many courses he taught, mostly in the thermal sciences area.  If you did, you’d remember him as one of the most generous and kindest people you ever met. We agree.  

He was my department head, my colleague, my role model and my friend.

— Saeed Niku

Wilson grew up on a dairy farm in Michigan and served in the U.S. Army before studying agricultural engineering at Michigan State University (MSU).  He worked as a design and experimental engineer at the Oliver Corp. in South Bend, Indiana, before returning to MSU for graduate school.  He taught at the University of Georgia before coming to Cal Poly in 1976. 

Wilson was originally hired as the head of the Agricultural Engineering Department.  In 1985, he joined the Mechanical Engineering Department as head.  

According to Ray Gordon, professor emeritus, “I was just finishing up my term as department head, and we approached Jack to replace me.  Jack said he’d do it for one year as long as he could stay in mechanical engineering as a faculty member.”  And stay he did — for the next 16 years.  

“Jack was a magnificent teacher,” said Gordon.  A natural leader, he also served as chair of the Cal Poly Academic Senate in the early 1990s.

Professor Jim Widmann, mechanical engineering chair, remembers Wilson as being very soft spoken, generous and always willing to listen,  “We shared a common origin from Michigan, which we liked to chat about. He had good common sense Midwestern values and attitudes. I definitely liked talking to him.”

Saeed Niku, a mechanical engineering professor, agreed. “I remember him as a kind, fun, classy gentleman,” he said.  “He was one of the first faculty to bring a big stereo to his office to play classical music. He was my department head, my colleague, my role model and my friend.” 

Melinda Keller, a mechanical engineering lecturer, said, “Dr. Wilson was my ME 236 professor and later my senior project advisor. He helped me succeed with my project, even though it was not his area of expertise.” Keller, who earned a bachelor’s and master’s in mechanical engineering from Cal Poly, added, “He let me know it was OK not to know things, and that good problem solving skills and project management were more important than knowing the solutions ahead of time.”

“He taught me how to cut scope and focus, how to ask questions and lead someone to answers —  even when you don’t know those answers yourself! He was excited to learn alongside me and to provide insight when he could. He had so much experience in so many things that he patiently used to help his students along their paths.”

Professor Jim LoCascio remembers Wilson as a wonderful human being with a smile that would brighten anyone’s day. “He served as our department chair and had the best interest of the students, faculty and department in all the decisions he made,” he said.   

“I will always remember the stories that Jack told about growing up on a farm in Michigan during the Depression,” recalls LoCascio.  “I especially remember him talking about using newspaper in the family home for insulation.  How he and his siblings would share a bed to stay warm in the winter.  I really enjoyed watching his loving smile when he would explain that his wife, Joanne, had a lead foot when she got behind the wheel.  The Wilsons would bring their disabled daughter to Mechanical Engineering Department functions, and you could see the loving care they gave their child.”

We’ll miss you, Jack. 

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