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Historical Spotlight: Daniel C. Fielder Iconic Academic

Atlanta, GA

Written by Roger P. Webb

Near the main entrance to the Van Leer Building are two plaques. The large marble one reads: “In Loving Memory of HELLUVA SOCRATES 1965-1981.” A smaller bronze one reads “In Memory of Dr. Daniel Fielder.” Each encapsulates a bit of the life and career of Daniel C. Fielder, an icon of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Dan loved teaching and brought vigor and enthusiasm to it that few can emulate. He also loved conducting research, but did so on his terms, never seeking funds for his research and never requesting relief time from teaching to pursue it. He published extensively, not for recognition nor for enhancing his citation index, but as a way to share his insights with like-minded folk. His personality quirks set some of Dan’s actions apart from commonly-accepted faculty behavior, but his colleagues and students univer-sally respected, admired, and liked him.

Born in North Kingstown, Rhode Island in 1917, Dan’s education began in the town’s public schools. Undergraduate work followed at the University of Rhode Island where he completed a B.S. in electrical engineering in 1940. After graduation, he went to work at Westinghouse Electric. A year later, the company placed him on loan to the Bureau of Ships in Washington D.C. He remained there until 1946, working on magnetic compass systems for naval vessels. While in Washington, Dan met, diligently courted and, over her mother’s objections, married Mildred Elizabeth “Connie” Margolius.

Dan’s first experience with Georgia Tech was as a graduate student, receiving his M.S.E.E. in 1947. He then spent a year as an instructor of electrical engineering at Syracuse University but returned to Georgia Tech in 1948 as an assistant professor. In 1951 he received the professional degree in electrical engineering from the University of Rhode Island, and six years later completed his Ph.D. at Georgia Tech. He was promoted to associate professor in 1957 and to professor in 1963.

Dan’s career at Georgia Tech spanned more than 50 years. Following his mandatory retirement at age 70, Dan continued his career as Professor Emeritus, teaching a course nearly every term and pursuing his research activities.

As an undergraduate, Aubrey Bush, who became Dan’s faculty colleague, had Dan as his instructor in electromagnetics. He described young Dan as an excellent teacher with an enthusiastic lecturing style and the ability to engage and inspire his students. Another colleague, Erik Verriest, commenting on Dan’s love of teaching, recalled that while riding together to a conference in Charleston, South Carolina, Dan occasionally used the windshield condensation as a blackboard to explain a concept. Erik also remembers Dan’s passion for education, saying Dan gave distinctive meaning to the idea of lifelong learning.

Early in his career, Dan developed some unique work habits. He came to work as soon as 3:00 a.m., did his class preparation and research, taught his courses, and left. Student and colleague interactions were “between-class” encounters. He rarely participated in school social activities. Although his colleagues thought him somewhat reclusive, he was always friendly and professional and was universally well-liked and respected.

On one of his early morning arrivals at Van Leer in 1965, Dan found a litter of nine pups abandoned near the adjacent architecture building. He promptly gathered all nine and took them to his office, spreading newspaper on the floor and establishing a feeding regime. He built a wooden feeding tray which he kept in the faculty lounge to access the refrigerator. The inevitable edict from Ben Dasher, then School director, that the pups must go was undoubtedly hastened by the actions of a few insufficiently occupied graduate students who had begun surreptitiously lacing the puppy pablum with a bit of mild laxative. Dan understood the edict but negotiated the terms, agreeing to find appropriate homes for eight while keeping one. Thus Socrates became ensconced in Dan’s office and School lore.

Socrates was a medium-sized dog (around 75 pounds) of clearly mixed lineage. Hair color and texture and general demeanor suggested substantial input from a collie and a golden retriever. He was eminently trainable, responding well to the “education” to which Dan subjected him. He followed Dan everywhere, ignoring students and others trying to get his attention, and attended all of Dan’s classroom lectures. Dan was an animated lecturer excited about his subject, sometimes excessively so, but Socrates remained calm. There are reports of Socrates walking the aisles in full monitor mode during examinations, but no reports of his detecting misbehavior. As half the “Soc and Doc” team, he earned student affection and for 15 years served as School mascot. When Socrates passed away in 1981, Dan succeeded in getting the marble plaque in his honor installed in front of Van Leer.

While Dan was a School “character,” he was much more than that. He was a man with many skills, talents, and wide-ranging interests. Outside the academic realm, he was a talented woodcarver, fashioning animal likenesses by hand. He drove a late 1940s Buick for years, doing most of the maintenance himself, including fabricating replacement parts in his shop. He was an amateur astronomer, acquiring a sophisticated telescope to observe the heavens. He loved electronic gadgets and was an early and enthusiastic adopter of digital photography.

In the academic arena, Dan was both a talented and highly effective teacher and scholar whose work was characterized by its diversity. He was a life fellow of IEEE, an emeritus member of the Mathematical Association of America and a sustaining member of the Fibonacci Association. Over time he taught most of the courses in the School curriculum but focused mainly on circuits, electromagnetics, and combinatorics. Whatever the course, Dan brought energy and enthusiasm to the classroom that was unparalleled and contagious. He was a man with coincident vocation and avocation.

Dan published some 70 journal articles and more than 20 conference papers. Not surprisingly, a fair percentage of his journal publications were in IEEE Transactions of Education and dealt with his unique insight into conveying specific topics, for example, “A Classroom Reactance Determination Method.”

Another reoccurring theme in Dan’s publications reflected his long-standing interest in number theory and combinatorics. His first paper on this topic was published in 1960, his last in 1999 in the Fibonacci Quarterly. An early adopter of computers as research and development tools, Dan combined his number theory and computer interests to assemble several computers, configure them to do parallel processing, and use them as simulation tools to investigate properties of recursive numerical sequences. A series of papers, co-authored with colleague Cecil Alford, a computer expert, resulted.

Aside from the diversity of topics, two other aspects of Dan’s publications are remarkable: none of his research received external sponsored funding, and his publication style was simply communicative. He was a true academic. He worked on things that interested him, investigated and concluded, and then just shared with others. There was no turf marking, no resume or citation index building—just doing exciting stuff and sharing.

Dan’s post-retirement work habits changed considerably from his semi-reclusive, pre-retirement schedules. He began keeping regular hours, participated actively in School social functions, and became downright gregarious. This change in behavior stemmed from changes at home. Early on, Dan’s wife Connie, the more reclusive of the couple, wanted Dan at home during the day, and Dan adjusted his schedule accordingly.

Shortly after Dan retired in 1988, Connie began having health issues and was happier having Dan at home in the early morning and evenings. To meet her needs, Dan again adjusted his schedule—and the gregarious Dan emerged.

Dan taught his last course in the summer of 2002. In early fall he suffered a series of strokes and died October 4, 2002. He had two last requests. The first was that his estate be used to care for Connie, with any remaining funds after she died donated to the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech. The second was that his remains be cremated and scattered at Georgia Tech.

Dan had managed his money well and left a considerable estate. Linda Newton, a staff associate of Dan, stepped up to ensure that Connie’s post-Dan life was full and enjoyable. When Connie passed away in 2009, sufficient funds remaining in the estate established the Daniel C. Fielder Endowed Professorship.

The ash-scattering request proved a bit more problematic. Such scattering was not feasible for several reasons, and an alternate plan was conceived involving the use of Dan’s ashes to “fertilize” a new tree in front of Van Leer. This new plan encountered several barriers, but after considerable negotiation, gained approval. Dan’s ashes were scattered in the tree root hole before planting. Today, that tree, a robust Ginkgo, stands next to the bronze plaque dedicated to Dan’s memory.

A lingering and unanswerable question remains: are Socrates’ ashes interred beneath the nearby Socrates memorial? Friends of Dan familiar with his loyalty and general proclivities would compute favorable odds. Those less analytical, and likely even the odds-makers, would hope it to be so.

Last revised May 15, 2020