March 18, 2009

“He was Mr. Tufts Engineering”

Memorial service will take place on March 27 for former dean Frederick C. Nelson

A memorial service will be held on Friday, March 27, at 3 p.m. in Goddard Chapel for Frederick C. Nelson, E54, professor of mechanical engineering emeritus and a former dean of Tufts School of Engineering.

He died of melanoma on January 7 at age 76. He had just put the finishing touches on his final book, An Introduction to Rotordynamics, which will be published later this year.

Frederick C. Nelson in 1986. “He was an excellent teacher who was admired by his colleagues and his students for his honesty, his forthrightness and his work ethic,” said Jim O’Leary, professor of mechanical engineering emeritus.

“He was Mr. Tufts Engineering, let’s be very honest,” Jordan Birger, E43, a longtime engineering overseer, told the Boston Globe.

Nelson modernized the engineering school and its curriculum during his tenure as dean from 1980 to 1994, renovating Bray Lab for the mechanical engineers, replacing the environmental labs for the civil engineers, revamping Halligan Hall for the electrical engineers and moving the chemical engineering department into the new Science and Technology Center. He also was involved in establishing technology centers in electro-optics and biotechnology, which gave the school a national reputation in research. After he left the dean’s post, alumni funded the construction of the Nelson Auditorium in Anderson Hall in his honor.

“He really moved the School of Engineering from more of a focus on purely undergraduate education to a much more national profile,” Linda M. Abriola, the school’s current dean, told the Globe. “And he was always dedicated to undergraduates; he was devoted to teaching.”

“He was a very, very nice person,” Jim O’Leary, professor of mechanical engineering emeritus, told the Globe. “I never heard him raise his voice, and he was like that with everyone. He was an excellent teacher who was admired by his colleagues and his students for his honesty, his forthrightness and his work ethic.”

Nelson’s research interests encompassed acoustics, vibration, shock mechanics, and rotordynamics, a specialized branch of applied mechanics that analyzes the behavior of rotating structures such as jet engines, automobile engines, and computer disk storage. He wrote or co-authored more than 50 articles in professional publications and was a consultant to more than a dozen companies.

His long affiliation with Tufts University began when he joined the faculty in 1955, while he was pursuing his Ph.D. in applied mechanics at Harvard University. He was fond of telling the story about the challenge of finishing a lecture at Tufts at 10 a.m., and then driving to Cambridge for a 10:10 a.m. class at Harvard. The feat became known among the engineering faculty as “the Fred Nelson speed-driving record.”

Nelson was named chair of the department of mechanical engineering in 1969 and professor of mechanical engineering in 1971. After his 14-year tenure as dean, he returned to the mechanical engineering faculty, retiring in 2007.

He spent a semester in England at the Institute for Sound and Vibration Research at the University of Southampton, two terms in France as a visiting professor at the Institut National des Sciences Appliquées de Lyon (INSA), and one term as a research scholar at Harvard University. He established and administered the student exchange program between Tufts and INSA, which continues to this day and has resulted in more than 50 Tufts students studying engineering in France for a year.

Nelson was a fellow of the Acoustical Society of America, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was a recipient of the Centennial Medal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the King Seijong Medal of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, the Anniversary Medal of INSA de Lyon, the Distinguished Service Medal of Tufts University, and the Career Achievement Award of the mechanical engineering department at Tufts.

His daughter, Karen, told the Globe: “He really loved students, and he learned from them, too. He always wanted to know what was in the minds of his students, as well as his children and grandchildren. To him, what was important in life was happiness and being happy with what you do—finding your niche,” she said. “He would say, ‘What do you think, in your soul, that you need to do? If you find that, you will be happy.’ ”

Besides his daughter, he leaves his wife, Delia; a son, Jeffrey; another daughter, Christine DeFilippo; four grandchildren; and his brother, the Rev. Roger Nelson. Another son, Richard, died in 2001 of cystic fibrosis.

Memorial donations may be made to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Massachusetts–Rhode Island Chapter, 220 North Main St., Suite 104, Natick, MA 01760.

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