The family and friends of a former Clemson University dean are remembering him as an “engineer at heart” whose influence reached the heights of academia and industry and far into the solar system.
Lyle C. Wilcox, 86, died Oct. 5 but not before leaving a deep imprint on his loved ones and Clemson engineering. As dean for most of the 1970s, he created new partnerships with industry, helped computerize engineering research and began new programs to reach out to women and minorities.
Wilcox was at Clemson for 15 years starting in 1965, serving as professor, department chair, associate dean and dean. After Clemson, he went on to hold several positions, including one with the U.S. Department of Energy that gave him the opportunity to work on nuclear reactors that went into the Galileo spacecraft, family said.
What made Wilcox happiest was his students, said family, including daughter Victoria Kelley.
“He was an engineer at heart– he loved his engineering students,” she said. “He loved his engineering team. He wanted to teach them the future.”
Wilcox joined Clemson as Draper Professor in the summer of 1965 and a year later became head of the electrical engineering department at 34 years old, according to minutes of a June 1966 Board of Trustees meeting.
He was promoted again, this time to associate dean, in 1970. He became dean of what was then the College of Engineering in 1973 and remained in the job until 1980, when he left to become president of the University of Southern Colorado.
Mike Wilcox said his father’s passion for engineering also had a deep impact on his family.
“I’m an electrical engineer. My daughter is an electrical engineer. My son is a mechanical engineer,” he said. “He was a great influence on us– to do our best, to pursue something challenging.”
Shannon Levandowski, an associate clinical professor at Texas Woman’s University, said she grew up knowing that one day she would be like her grandfather. She serves in several leadership positions at the university and in national organizations.
“That is absolutely a reflection of aspiring to be like my grandpa,” said Levandowski, who received her Bachelor of Arts in early childhood education from Clemson in 1999. “I know that I always made him proud because I always pushed that bar for myself to get there.”
Enrollment boomed on Wilcox’s watch, increasing 100 percent from 1974-80, according to the 1989 book “Clemson University College of Engineering: One Hundred Years of Progress” by Laura L. Benjamin.
He brought together business, government and educational programs into collaborative projects, which drew considerable grant support and national recognition, according to a memorial page on Clemson’s website.
Wilcox initiated several projects with Greenwood Mills at a time when textiles formed the bedrock of the state economy, said John Gowdy, who was hired at Clemson by Wilcox and remains active at the university as professor emeritus.
“He was very interested in helping them,” Gowdy said. “That was his passion– get problems from state industry and turn that into research for faculty and thesis dissertations for graduate students.”
Wilcox was instrumental in creating a computer lab– the Instructional Systems Development Laboratory– that was housed in the Rhodes Engineering Research Center.
“One of his main contributions was to accelerate the use of computers in engineering education and engineering research,” Gowdy said. “He developed computing resources and expertise that supported research throughout the college.”
Among those remembering Wilcox’s impact was Bill Barnett, who had Wilcox as a Ph.D. advisor. Wilcox later hired Barnett at Clemson as a faculty member.
“Lyle Wilcox made a major contribution to Clemson University and especially the College of Engineering by the introduction and nurturing of computing,” Barnett wrote. “He introduced mini-computers followed by microprocessors and then on to today’s personal computers. The electrical engineering department changed to the electrical and computer engineering department and now there is the College of Engineering, Computing, and Applied Sciences. Lyle was at the beginning of that transformation.”
Wilcox tasked Professor Robert W. Snelshire with finding a way to recruit minority students, according to the Benjamin book. Snelshire began summer workshops for black high school sophomores that drew 60 participants in 1978, the inaugural year, she wrote.
“The program was very successful,” Benjamin wrote. “Nearly all of the students who attended the first workshops in 1978 were freshmen in college in 1981, with about two-thirds majoring in engineering. One-third of the students went to Clemson.”
Similar workshops were offered to female high school sophomores during the summers of 1979 and 1980, Benjamin wrote. Female enrollment boomed with Wilcox at the helm, going from 17 of 1,100 engineering students in 1973 to 257 of 2,450 in 1979, she wrote.
Also during Wilcox’s tenure, the college launched an Engineering Open House, a dual-degree program and the McQueen Quattlebaum Engineering Faculty Achievement Award, which is still given each year. Gowdy was the first recipient.
Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said that Wilcox has left a lasting legacy.
“We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” Gramopadhye said. “His impact is still felt in the college and by the students he helped prepare for success. I offer my deepest condolences to his loved ones for their loss. I hope they will find comfort in knowing that he made a difference at Clemson and beyond.”
As a professor, Wilcox taught and conducted research in areas that were just beginning to emerge, including digital computation, solid-state electronics, smart manufacturing and bioengineering, according to the memorial page.
After Clemson, Wilcox held several high-profile jobs in academia and industry. They included president of The Wilcox Group, vice chancellor for instructional technology at State College and University Systems of West Virginia, chairman of the West Virginia Science and Technology Advisory Council, provost at James Madison University, vice president at Facet/Purolator Products Co., senior vice president at Telex Corporation and deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Energy.
Wilcox is is survived by his children– Michael, Laura and Victoria– five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife Pat, and brothers Ray and Harry.
The family is asking that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Dr. Lyle and Pat Wilcox Scholarship Fund: https://cualumni.clemson.edu/remember/lyle-wilcox
You can read more memories about Wilcox and his impact on Clemson in a letter from Thomas Drake to Wilcox’s son, Mike Wilcox here.
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