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Tom Brewer: Master of Laboratory Management and Deadpan Humor

Atlanta, GA

Written by Dr. Roger Webb and Dr. David Hertling.

Tom Brewer served as the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering instructional laboratory manager from 1981 until his retirement in December 2018.  He worked with five successive school chairs and had a variety of different titles. Still, his enduring function was to manage the labs, dispensing wry and insightful “Brewerisms” all along the way.

Over the 37 years of his tenure, he interacted with and influenced more Georgia Tech undergraduate students than any other member of the instructional staff—not only ECE students, but students from the other engineering schools in electrical engineering service courses. Some who took his classes came to experience his unique instructional skills, and legendary sense of humor divulged through verbal asides delivered with little inflection and absent any hint of a smile or even a twinkling of an eye. However, they were always funny, pointed, and, in a broad sense, educational.

Announcement of his retirement precipitated appreciative responses from many of these students: “Holy s---, what a sad day. What an absolute legend”; “I pity future students for missing the opportunity to learn from this man”; “Dr. Brewer is a ‘helluva instructor,’ and I’m glad I got to learn from someone who is himself, and an institution within the Institute.”

But even his most ardent admirers probably do not appreciate the full extent of Tom’s impact.  As a laboratory manager, he was responsible for oversight of all lab instructors (primarily graduate teaching assistants), maintenance and upgrading of lab equipment and facilities, and currency and validity of instructional materials and manuals in light of curriculum changes. The net effect of his adept management is the establishment of a genuinely viable and vital component of the Georgia Tech educational experience. The impact of his style is a continual source of mirth. The good news is that Tom has not fully retired, but continues on a part-time basis to lend his skill, wisdom, and humor to the School.

Tom was born and raised in the small town of Crossville, Tennessee, which advertised itself as ‘The Top Town for Miles Around.”  Tom verifies this self-accolade by noting that it is also the only town for miles around.  His father and mother operated a small department store in Crossville and successfully raised three children, Tom, and his brother and sister. After graduation from Crossville High School, Tom enrolled in Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, Tennessee, graduating in 1965 with the B.S.E.E. degree. He was employed at NASA Houston for a year and then returned to Tennessee Tech, where he completed his M.S.E.E. degree in 1968. Tom enrolled in the electrical engineering doctoral program at Georgia Tech in 1973 and completed his Ph.D. in 1979, doing his Ph.D. thesis under Professor Aubrey Bush. He supported his graduate program studies at Georgia Tech by serving as a graduate teaching assistant (GTA).

Before Tom’s appointment as laboratory manager, the individual labs were the purview of the faculty member assigned to teach the associated lecture course, assignments which varied from term to term. There were no stand-alone laboratory classes. Maintenance of lab equipment and facilities fell to Russ Beason, the lead School technician who had many other responsibilities and was not directly involved with laboratory instruction. The laboratory program operation was thus spotty at best.

In the context of his service as a GTA, Tom and Russ became acquainted and mutually appreciative. As Tom’s graduation neared, Russ learned that Tom was not anxious to seek employment in industry or the government labs, was not enamored of a faculty career with attendant tenure falderal, and that he thoroughly enjoyed his experiences as a laboratory instructor. To his everlasting credit, Russ initiated discussions which ultimately led Demetrius Paris, then school director, to offer Tom a position as a laboratory manager. In accepting the offer, Tom also took the responsibility to define the job, with there being no precedence and little guidance.

As with students, Tom found ready acceptance among the faculty and technical staff. Those faculty who previously had laboratory responsibilities were especially appreciative not only for being freed from lab management duties, but also because the laboratories became truly functional, assuming their proper role in the instructional program. Over time, and as a result of their mutual participation in laboratory operations, Tom and two others established long-term lasting friendships, the other two being Marshall Leach and John Pomakian. A more disparate, tripartite friendship would be hard to imagine.

Marshall Leach was a professor, renowned for his expertise in audio engineering, who had developed an audio engineering program at Georgia Tech and a truly superb audio laboratory. Countless alumni probably still enjoy Leach designed/student implemented audio systems in their homes. He was an amiable person with a ready smile and genteel southern mannerisms. Marshall died prematurely in 2010.

John Pomakian was of Armenian descent, grew up in Lebanon, immigrated to the United States, got a technical degree from DeKalb Technical College, and was hired at Georgia Tech as an electronics technician by Ben Dasher. John was industrious and very good at keeping lab equipment maintained. He had an intense, somewhat volatile personality, eventually developing severe paranoia and had to take early retirement when the paranoia affected his ability to deal with others. Both Tom and Marshall continued to look after John, post-retirement, bailing him out of paranoia-induced difficulties. John passed away in 2006.

Tom was the only source of comic relief amongst the three, but as distinctly different in demeanor and appearance as either of his colleagues. His presence and countenance, with the high waist britches and dour expression, are more than faintly reminiscent of the pitchfork guy in the famous painting American Gothic by Grant Wood. One cannot be around Tom for long without coming away with admiration for his immense vocabulary, clever and humorous utilization of that, and a vague sense that the appearance and countenance are a well-executed camouflage of a gleeful and sensitive soul who is chuckling to himself all the while.

Inevitably, Tom’s wry humor escaped the bounds of the School. He wrote short pieces that appeared regularly in the campus daily. When it was announced that the Van Leer parking lot would be replaced by grass to contribute to the ‘greening’ of the campus, Tom opined that the same result could be obtained more directly and effectively by requiring all cars inhabiting the lot be painted green. His letters to the editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution were published and enjoyed by subscribers. During the period when it was feared that the Japanese would dominate U.S. electronics and automotive markets, Tom wrote a humorous letter-to-the-editor, pointing out that rather than denigrate Japan for invading our markets, we should applaud them for being about the only country on the planet without their hand in our pocket. He created hilarious YouTube videos, not bothering to disguise the Georgia Tech connections, which in today’s politically correct climate would incur the wrath if not the vengeance of the protocol police. But through all these excursions, he remained on task managing the School laboratory program.

Significant contributions are often made by people who do things their own way and are not in it to accumulate accolades. The statement of the student who felt it a privilege to learn from someone who is himself provides a fitting and appropriate description of Tom Brewer. Tom created an enduring legacy and will help it grow both by continuing to contribute and by having trained his successor, Allen Robinson. He also bequeathed to his many acquaintances and admirers, an unending stream of “Brewerisms,’ which will continue to evoke laughter and fond memories. Anyone with the opportunity to meet Tom and share a laugh should do so, recognizing that half the laughter will be a deadpan concealed imperceptible chuckle.

Additional Photos

Marshall Leach and Tom Brewer

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Last revised May 15, 2020