Clemson University’s civil engineers are remembering Robert F. Nowack as a legend who taught students as much about life as he did about statics and dynamics in a career that spanned more than 60 years and helped shape three generations of engineers.
Nowack died on Feb. 4, five days after his 96th birthday, according to friends and a remembrance posted on the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering’s Facebook page.
As the news spread, former students remembered Nowack as a tough professor whose pop quizzes frayed nerves but made them better engineers.
They said Nowack’s quick and sometimes sarcastic sense of humor enlivened his classes. He had nicknames for all his students, and they had one for him, “PB,” which was short for Professor Bob.
Nowack began teaching at Clemson in 1947 and retired in 2008, according to a 2008 IDEAS magazine article about him. He left only because an injury made it difficult for him to walk, friends said.
He remained in the Clemson area and enjoyed hearing from his former students right up to the end of his life, said close friend and former Mays Professor of Transportation Serji Amirkhanian.
“When you die your gravestone has two numbers– when you were born and when you died,” Amirkhanian said. “The dash in the middle is your life. In PB’s case, it was a little shinier than others because of the way he lived.”
Students in Nowack’s class learned study skills they could use in other courses and throughout their lives, friends said. Nowack also took an interest in students’ well-being outside the classroom, they said.
In the early years of his career, Nowack invited some students to his home to teach them social skills and dinner etiquette they could use in job interviews, according to the department’s Facebook announcement. For some students, he provided temporary housing.
Nowack’s longevity allowed him to teach several generations of students from the same families. Some grandparents were able give their grandchildren tips on how to survive his class.
In a few cases, former students went on to become colleagues.
Brad Putman teaches a civil engineering studio class in the same Lowry Hall room where he was once a student in Nowack’s statics class. Putman, who was called “Yankee Boy” by Nowack, remembered him as a grandfather figure with a big heart and a willingness to help his students, even after graduation.
“He knew everybody,” said Putman, who is now associate dean for undergraduate studies in Clemson’s College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences. “He remembered where you sat in class, and he had a nickname for everybody. I can still hear his laugh.” (Read more from Putman here.)
Stephen Csernak, who took dynamics with Nowack in the early 1970s, said that his mother and Nowack were the only ones to ever call him “Stevie.” Csernak said that Nowack took the time to meet his mother, and the two quickly bonded over their shared home state, Pennsylvania.
Years later, Csernak returned to Clemson to teach and serve as undergraduate program coordinator, and Nowack became his colleague.
“I remember talking to my mother and telling her I was going to work with Professor Bob,” Csernak said. “I remember her smiling about that, still remembering him.”
Nowack was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1999 in recognition of his service to his students and the University, according to IDEAS magazine.
Nowack also held the distinction of being named an alumni professor.
“Professor Nowack gifted us a student-centered legacy, which is focused first and foremost on students’ learning,” said Jesus M. de la Garza, chair of the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering. “Such a legacy will forever be part of this department’s fabric.”
Nadim Aziz, the former chair of the civil engineering department and current director of the SC EPSCoR program, said that Nowack is a big part of the department’s history.
“He loved teaching and working with students,” Aziz said. “He touched the lives of countless people who kept coming back to the department to simply thank him, whether they were new graduates or graduated 50 years ago. Of course, he remembered their names and a lot about them.
“PB was a down-to-earth human being who will be remembered as a dear and caring man who devoted his life to educating students not only in matters related to engineering mechanics, but also in life matters. I also think, in his own special way, he did a good job educating many of us in the faculty and staff.”
Nowack was featured in the “Outstanding Teachers” section of the 1976-77 Taps yearbook. That year, the Student Alumni Council selected him to receive the Alumni Master Teacher Award, according to Taps.
“Robert Nowack believes ‘teachers should contribute more outside of class than in the actual classroom,’” the yearbook reported.
A graduate student who was unnamed told the yearbook, “He is the best I have worked for, all the way from first grade. He has an ability to sense intangible needs of people– social and emotional, as well as academic.”
The yearbook reported that Nowack served as faculty advisor to the Tiger Brotherhood, was an active member of the Blue Key National Honor Fraternity and was a member of the Pi Kappa Alpha social fraternity.
“Bob always was in the teaching profession for the students,” said Jim Burati, a civil engineering professor who knew Nowack well. “He never cared about personal recognition or teaching awards, although he received much recognition and received many awards through the years.” (Read more from Burati here.)
As the news reached a larger swath of the Clemson family, condolences and fond memories poured in from members of the civil engineering department’s external advisory board.
“He will definitely be spoken about for a very long time,” board member Michael Mastro said.
John Atz, also a board member, said he took statics and dynamics with Nowack 38 years ago.
“In many regards, he represented the best of the civil engineering department– personal, passionate and supportive,” Atz said.
Board member Skip Lewis called Nowack an icon.
“Of all the professors who taught me, Bob Nowack and Jack McCormac are the ones I most remember, although there are many others who I fondly remember also,” Lewis said. “It’s just that some have that indelible touch that is so very special and lasting. Bob was one of those.”
McCormac added: “My biggest impression of Bob was his complete love for college students. I really think they were what he devoted almost his entire life for. You could find him at almost any time, day or night, fondly talking to them and assisting them anyway he could in their scholastic and personal lives.”
Amirkhanian, who got the nickname “Bro” from Nowack, said they first met in 1983 when Amirkhanian was a Ph.D. student. They later became colleagues with offices next to each other.
“We became one,” Amirkhanian said. “Our ideas were the same. Our views of students and the University were the same. We got along very nicely, so we established a special bond.”
Nowack became part of Amirkhanian’s family, visiting every week for years and serving as surrogate grandfather to his children, he said.
Nowack was in the Navy in World War II and told stories about having close calls with death, Amirkhanian said. Nowack’s wife, Marjorie, died in the late 1970s, friends said. He attended Saint Andrew Catholic Church, Csernak said.
Amirkhanian said that he and his wife, Kathy, moved in with Nowack when falling health made it impossible for him to live alone and having him move elsewhere would have been too stressful.
Even toward the end, they were able to laugh together, Amirkhanian said.
He said Nowack didn’t feel comfortable being in the spotlight and didn’t want a memorial service.
“He felt like we were just doing our jobs,” Amirkhanian said. “He didn’t want people to be upset about this. He decided, as I have, to donate his body to medical school. He’ll still be teaching– at a different level.
“I have a feeling he will have a pop quiz for God tomorrow. Hopefully, God will be ready.”
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