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John Hooper: Innovator and Catalyst

Atlanta, GA
John Hooper

John Hooper

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Written by Roger Webb and David Hertling.

 

Innovator and catalyst is the right descriptor for John Hooper. Low-key and self-effacing could be added. John built a smoldering fire by inaugurating the Microelectronics Research Center, and then brought gasoline to the fire by overseeing the design and construction of the Pettit Microelectronics Research Building enabling Georgia Tech to successfully recruit outstanding microelectronics faculty.  The resulting $110 million research enterprise, currently operated under the auspices of the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology (IEN), speaks for itself.  But it is important that John’s contribution be recognized as he would never “toot his own horn”.                       

In the early 1980s, there was increasing concern in the technical community and associated business community about the growing penetration by Japanese companies into the U.S. electronics/computer marketplace. In order to help combat what some feared might eventually become Japanese dominance of that marketplace, a group of U.S. companies formed a consortium to create and fund a research enterprise, which came to be known as the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC).

The next step in establishing MCC was to choose a location, and a bidding process ensued. Georgia Tech, the City of Atlanta, and the State of Georgia collaborated on creating a bid to locate MCC in Atlanta. Austin, Texas won the bidding process and MCC was located there. Quite surprisingly, given the fairly recent focus on microelectronics research at Georgia Tech, the Atlanta bid came in second and the report describing the selection process gave significant attribution to Georgia Tech for enabling the strong showing by Atlanta. Andrew Young, then Mayor of Atlanta, publicly declared that Austin "bought" the MCC. While that was probably just "sour grapes,” one has only to look at the subsequent growth of the electronics/computer industry in Austin to know that Austin enjoyed enormous returns on whatever was invested. MCC may not have been directly responsible for the growth, but establishment of MCC brought attention to the issue, spurring technical development in general. Locating MCC in Austin enhanced the visibility of the city and ultimately resulted in major companies such as Applied Materials, Samsung, and many others, establishing facilities in Austin. MCC was ultimately dissolved and no longer exists, but the results remain.

Fortunately, in the MCC bidding game, like in horseshoes, “close” had value. The strong showing of the Atlanta bid and the role of Georgia Tech in enabling that result attracted the attention of political, business, and academic leadership, and ultimately resulted in the state ponying up $15 million to build the Pettit Microelectronics Building. This enabled Georgia Tech to eventually become a major player in microelectronics research. It can easily be argued that the subsequent Marcus Nanotechnology Building, as well as other associated laboratories around campus, are a direct result of coming “close” on MCC. The more important part of the story, however, is that by establishing first class research facilities, Georgia Tech has been able to attract the top-notch faculty and graduate students necessary to effectively utilize the facilities.

While the role of “close” on MCC in enabling the emergence of Georgia Tech as a leader in microelectronics research may seem to be a bit happenstance, it was actually anything but. There were two people at Georgia Tech who were primarily responsible for this evolution, President Joseph Pettit and Professor John Hooper. Pettit’s role in transitioning Georgia Tech into a major graduate research institution is well documented. Having been at Stanford and participated in the Stanford research development, which was a major catalyst for “Silicon Valley,” he set about emulating the Stanford model. Pettit’s encouragement and support of initializing the microelectronics research center, MRC, and naming John Hooper as the founding director was critical. The MRC was primary in creating the MCC proposal. Pettit recognized the importance of “close” and had the stature to use it as leverage to secure funding to create a physical home for MRC—the Pettit Microelectronics Research Building.

Hooper’s role in Georgia Tech’s research evolution is less well documented. Having accepted Pettit’s invitation to become the founding director of the MRC, he became the man on the ground working to create the functioning entity. Hooper shared Pettit’s vision, but vision is one thing and implementing realization of the vision quite another, and a job for which John Hooper was uniquely suited.

John Hooper received the degrees of B.S.E.E. and B.S. in Business Administration from Kansas State College in 1954. Later that year, he came to Georgia Tech as a graduate student and received the M.S.E.E. degree in 1955. He did a master’s thesis related to modeling of electric power transmission lines, a traditional electrical engineering field and not at all relevant to his later work. He then spent two years in the U.S. Army, returning to Georgia Tech to pursue a Ph.D. in 1957. The same year, he married Mary Anne, whom he had known since they were children. In 1958, he joined the electrical engineering faculty as an instructor.

He completed his Ph.D. in 1961. His thesis advisor was Earl McDaniel, then an electrical engineering professor, later transferring to the School of Physics. The thesis was in the emerging field known as physical electronics, a field which laid much of the foundation for microelectronics. After completion of his Ph.D., John was promoted to assistant professor and then rose rapidly though the professorial ranks to become Regents’ Professor in 1971. In 1972, he began a stint with the University System of Georgia Chancellor’s Office, eventually becoming vice chancellor of the university system. In 1979, he returned to Georgia Tech as Regents’ Professor. Following President Pettit’s death, John served as acting vice president for academic affairs from 1986 to 1987.

In 1988, John retired from Georgia Tech. Post retirement, he first established and operated a small cattle ranch in Jasper, Georgia, which he later sold. He and Mary Anne then moved to Texas to be closer to their children and their families. They established a ranch near Ft. Worth, where they still live and run a stocker cattle operation.

 

Early Years

John was born June 9, 1931 in Clarendon, Arkansas but grew up in nearby Hazen, a small town about 45 miles east of Little Rock. When John was born, Hazen had a population of around 800. The latest census says about 1,600. He was the son of John Word Hooper and Caroline Rosina Hooper. John’s father was well liked and respected, holding elected public office in Clarendon. Unfortunately, he passed away the year John was born. So John never knew his father and was raised by his mother, who by all accounts was a truly remarkable woman. She ran for and was elected to the office her husband had held, owned and operated a small business, and provided a positive and nurturing home in a rural environment. Both the mother and environment contributed to the shaping of John’s character. He was a good student, aspired to and was encouraged to pursue higher education. He also liked and adapted to the rural environment, owning a horse and becoming comfortable working with livestock. The result was a man who had a remarkably successful academic career, but who remained faithful to his roots, sustaining his avocation and subsequent vocation as a cattle rancher.

John had an older sister, Mary Caroline and a younger sister, Merlyn. Mary Caroline settled in Las Vegas, Nevada with her husband and four children and died there in 1995. Ultimately, John’s mother and Merlyn left Arkansas and headed west, living for a time in Colorado and Nevada before finally settling in 1962 in Fredonia, Arizona, a small town (population 1,300) near the border with Utah. She was employed there as a home economics teacher from 1962 until retiring in 1972. She also was a volunteer in the (totally volunteer) Fredonia public library. Following her retirement from the school system, she trained to achieve certification as a librarian and was employed as the town librarian from 1972 to 1984. VeRene Tait, town historian of Fredonia, remembers John’s mother fondly saying, “she was a woman with an adventurous mind and spirit and impeccable integrity who was well-liked and respected by all in the community.” John’s mother passed away in Fredonia in 1994 and is buried there. Merlyn still resides in Fredonia.

 

Academic Career

John Hooper is a medium-sized fellow, well put together, with broad hands and shoulders. Those who knew him best at Georgia Tech describe John as competent, self-confident but self-effacing, personable, and thoughtful, not given to idle chatter, and a keeper of his own counsel. Such a description perhaps brings more to mind a cattle rancher than a college professor or perhaps the dichotomy is—one who does versus one who professes. He was well-liked and respected, not only for his character but also for his wide-ranging intellect. He still has a particular interest in matters related to energy efficiency, converting his pick-up truck to run on natural gas and designing, building, and living in a ‘bermed’ house long before Al Gore invented climate change. John put together a splendid academic career consisting of three distinct phases, his early academic career, his sojourn in the chancellor’s office, and his program development phase after returning to Georgia Tech.

The success of John’s early academic career is perhaps best appreciated by noting that his transition from beginning assistant professor to Regents’ Professor took only 10 years; certainly a minimum time trajectory, perhaps a Georgia Tech record. He was an active and well-received classroom instructor. He ran a successful research program aimed at characterizing electronic properties of materials. This program was continuously funded by Oak Ridge National Labs and NASA, and continued even after John left to join the Chancellor’s Office. For many years, this program was the only funded research activity in the School of Electrical Engineering (as the School was then known).

Five outstanding graduate students, supported by this program, earned Ph.D.s under John’s guidance. The first of these was Carl Lineberger who finished his Ph.D. in 1965 and went on to become Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of Colorado, where he is still active. Lineberger was elected to the National Academy of Science. Frank Bacon graduated in 1968 and enjoyed a successful career at Sandia National Laboratory. Robert Feeney and Marshall Pace finished their Ph.D.s in 1970. Upon graduation, Feeney joined the Georgia Tech School of Electrical Engineering faculty, becoming an active collaborator in the ongoing research program and managing the program after John joined the Chancellor’s Office. Feeney retired from Georgia Tech in 2004 and presently resides in Powder Springs, Georgia. Marshall Pace had a distinguished faculty career at the University of Tennessee, retiring in 2007 and passing away in 2017. James Majure, Ph.D. 1971, had a successful career in the private sector and became an entrepreneur. He retired from the company he founded, Majure Data, Inc. and subsequently passed away in 2012. The other element of John’s success as a faculty member was active participation in service activities. Most noteworthy of these activities is that he chaired the presidential search committee that found Joseph Pettit.

In 1971, then chancellor of the University System of Georgia, George Simpson, asked John to join him as associate vice chancellor. John accepted and remained at the Chancellor’s Office until 1979. While accomplishments in such a position are not documentable in the same sense as faculty accomplishments, there is no doubt that John contributed as he was promoted to vice chancellor, the position he held when he left. Chancellor Simpson stepped down as chancellor in 1979, and John returned to Georgia Tech as Regent’s Professor of Electrical Engineering.

Upon his return to Georgia Tech, John accepted Pettit’s request to initiate and become the founding director of the Microelectronics Research Center (initially known by the acronym MRC, later changed to MiRC to distinguish it from the subsequently formed Manufacturing Research Center). Two issues had to be resolved before the center could be formed: where to locate it physically and where to locate it organizationally. The School of Electrical Engineering agreed to house the MRC on the first floor of the Van Leer Building in space formerly utilized as a large rotating machines laboratory, which was no longer integral to the electrical engineering curriculum. Rotating machines, power panels, and other equipment were removed; walls were erected to create a few offices; and the remaining 4,000 square feet became the initial MRC laboratory. While the size was more than adequate, it was hardly an ideal microelectronics environment, with no facilities to manage chemical waste products and a ventilation system unable to even approach “clean.” But better a “dry” lab than no lab, so MRC set up shop in Van Leer in 1981.

The issue of organizational location was resolved by John’s insistence that the MRC be the first “ecumenical” research center at Georgia Tech. Knowing a successful MRC would be inherently multi-disciplinary; wishing to encourage that; and wanting to avoid the internecine skirmishes over space and equipment utilization, and overhead revenue distribution that would inevitably result were MRC to be the provenance of a school or college, John insisted that MRC report directly to the President’s Office, specifically to the research vice president.

Thus, the MRC was initiated with two employees, John and a secretarial assistant (other staff would be added subsequently as facility operation and maintenance became necessary). No faculty would be on MRC payroll. Faculty participants would pay for use of MRC facilities out of research revenues. John viewed his role to be that of a facilitator rather than a manager. In actuality, John’s role in MRC initiation and development is much better described by the word “catalyst” than either “facilitator” or “manager.” He had not only to create a functional laboratory facility, but also to engage relevant faculty to utilize the facility. John did all of that and his ecumenical model not only succeeded but persisted. The present incarnation of the MRC, the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology (IEN), operates on the ecumenical model, as do most of the interdisciplinary research institutes that comprise Georgia Tech’s present formal research structure. Indeed, the fact that Georgia Tech is well known as a place where interdisciplinary research flourishes is largely attributable to the persistence of John’s “ecumenical model.”

The Microelectronics Research Center creation was formally announced in a memorandum by Pettit in November 1981. The memo introduced John Hooper as the founding director and defined the “ecumenical” organizational model reporting directly to the vice president for research. Acquisition of research equipment and tools, enabled by donations and some Georgia Tech funding, began in earnest. It should be noted that the laboratory needed was not at all like the laboratory John had utilized in his earlier research program. The focus of the MRC lab needed to be circuit design and fabrication and not just characterization of material properties. The physical limitations of the laboratory space, which precluded utilization of some of the more elaborate fabrication tools, made development of the lab even more challenging. Working with potential lab user faculty, John proceeded to assemble a functional laboratory. Various computer systems to assist in design and layout processes were obtained, and equipment for characterization of electronic properties of materials was added. A Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE) tool was obtained, enabling small-scale device fabrication of various types of devices, absent elaborate chemical processing and ventilation facilities. Faculty participation grew, validating the “ecumenical” model.

By the time the MCC opportunity arose in 1983, there were some 30 faculty actively participating in MRC, and the aggregate external funding for microelectronics research had grown to around $2 million annually. The MRC had become the campus center for microelectronics research, attracting faculty participants from several schools in the College of Engineering, the College of Sciences and Liberal Studies (now known as the College of Sciences), and the Georgia Tech Research Institute. Cross-fertilization was occurring and truly multidisciplinary research was flourishing. Thus, the Atlanta MCC bid, in which John Hooper played a major role, could unabashedly document a robust microelectronics research program operating under the aegis of MRC, documentation which undoubtedly contributed to the strong showing of the Atlanta bid. President Pettit then launched his “close” campaign, which resulted in a landmark commitment by the state to support the developing microelectronics program at Georgia Tech.

John Hooper together with a strong supporting cast consisting primarily of John’s electrical engineering faculty colleagues, Bob Feeney, David Hertling, and Jay Schlag, began planning in earnest to build a state-of-the-art research facility. In 1985, a defining article by the Metropolitan Atlanta Business Report titled, “Tech Plans of $30 Million Expansion of Microelectronics Research Program,” chronicled the extended and potential importance of the state commitment. The State committed $15 million with an additional $15 million raised from private sources. Tom Stelson, then vice president for research, stated that, “The size of the state’s grant makes it possible to not only erect the building, but to fill it using the largest equipment allocation we’ve ever had,” adding that “the new facility will propel Georgia Tech to the very top ranks of university microelectronics research.”

John Hooper added, “The microelectronics center has brought this institution to the threshold of national prominence in microelectronics.” In practice, the result of this grant was that the building was planned, groundbreaking occurred in early 1986, and the new facility was erected and opened for business in late 1988. For its time, it was indeed a remarkable facility, consisting of 48,000 square feet of usable space, encompassing 6,100 square feet of clean room space, 10,500 square feet of laboratory space, 55 offices for faculty and staff, and 120 carrels for graduate student occupancy. Unfortunately, President Pettit did not survive to see this realization, having passed away in September 1986. John Hooper was asked to serve as acting vice president for academic affairs following Pettit’s death, serving in that capacity from 1986 to 1987, with attendant reduction of his MRC activities.

Shortly after assuming office, the incoming Georgia Tech President, John Patrick Crecine, issued a memorandum to the Georgia Tech community entitled “John Hooper,” dated November 3, 1987. Crecine thanked John for his service as acting vice president, made laudatory references to John’s service in creating the Microelectronics Research Center, and announced that John had agreed to undertake creating a research activity focused on high-temperature superconductivity. A perhaps premature announcement by researchers at the University of Utah stated they had developed a material which exhibited superconductivity (conduction of electric current without losses) at room temperatures. This announcement elicited great excitement and research universities, including Georgia Tech, were anxious to join the fray. In typical Hooper fashion, John declared that the superconductivity activity was properly the purview of MRC, assembled a group of MRC participants with interest and relevant expertise, with their help created a proposal to the Board of Regents to fund activity, and submitted the proposal (which ultimately was not funded undoubtedly because of doubts that had arisen regarding the validity of the Utah claim). John then announced his imminent retirement bequeathing the project to whomever succeeded him as MRC director. John retired in 1988 at age 57.

The microelectronics research building was formally dedicated January 17, 1990 and was officially and appropriately named the Joseph M. Pettit Microelectronics Research Building. Both in conception and early inception, the facility was very much a “field of dreams” endeavor, an expectation that was ultimately more than fulfilled. But, in 1990, there were far too few relevant faculty members at Georgia Tech to fully utilize (and occupy) the facility. Consequently, significant numbers of faculty and students without relevance to MRC were allocated space in the building, and predictably there was some administrative carping about building an “albatross.”

The first, and one of the most significant, “field of dreams” faculty additions resulting from the Pettit Building was Ajeet Rohatgi, who actually joined Georgia Tech when the Pettit Building was still a gleam in John Hooper’s eye. Ajeet had a successful program in photovoltaics research and development at the Westinghouse Research Labs in Pittsburgh, but was considering moving to academia. He accepted an offer of a faculty position by Demetrius Paris, then the director of the School of Electrical Engineering, and came to Georgia Tech in 1984. He was assigned laboratory space in the MRC area of Van Leer, modified the space to accommodate silicon processing, and proceeded to develop one of the premier photovoltaic research programs in the world. Ultimately, Ajeet occupied space in Pettit as well as Van Leer. His research program, continuously funded for decades by the Department of Energy, set records for silicon solar cell efficiency which still stand, and ultimately produced intellectual property that was commercialized. Ajeet’s research program continues apace.

When asked why he came to Georgia Tech, the answer was simple and straightforward — John Hooper. Ajeet says that he was being courted by both Georgia Tech and North Carolina State University and was leaning strongly toward N.C. State. N.C. State had an established photovoltaics research program with attendant laboratory infrastructure. Georgia Tech had no ongoing PV program and only the promise of forthcoming laboratory facilities. John Hooper entered the fray, arguing that rather than joining an ongoing operation with established facilities, Ajeet would perhaps be better off joining an entrepreneurial organization and utilize the promised laboratory resources to “roll his own.” That proved to be the winning argument. Ajeet joined Georgia Tech, remains glad that he did, and gives full attribution to John Hooper, not only for recruiting him but also providing generous support and guidance once he arrived.

The endowed faculty chair funds initially supplied by the state in connection with the research building were sufficiently augmented by funds from the Georgia Research Alliance and by the Georgia Tech Foundation to create two endowed chairs both aptly named Joseph Pettit Endowed Chair in Microelectronics in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (as the School was renamed in 1993). Two outstanding and well-known individuals were recruited, Rao Tummala and Jim Meindl, both of whom are members of the National Academy of Engineering. Tummala and Meindl arrived almost simultaneously, bringing immediate visibility, and set about developing outstanding research programs.

Tummala, who had been a research fellow at IBM, quickly established Georgia Tech’s first National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center, in the area of electronic packaging. The Packaging Research Center was hugely successful, has been sustained even after the NSF support timed out, and today runs a successful industry consortium with 30-40 member companies. Jim Meindl, who was provost at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute before coming to Georgia Tech and had previously directed the microelectronics program at Stanford, became the director of the Microelectronics Research Center and later the founding director of its successor, the Nanotechnology Research Center, later being named the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology (IEN). He established a successful SRC-funded Center for Interconnect Focus Technology, ensured that Georgia Tech would be a node of the NSF-funded National Nanotechnology Network (NNIN), and was instrumental in developing the Marcus Nanotechnology Building, which is the home base for IEN. Jim Meindl retired from Georgia Tech in 2013 and passed away in June 2020. Rao Tummala retired in 2019, but still works part-time in the School of ECE.

The “field of dreams” scenario continued with young faculty such as Mark Allen (EE ‘89), Gary May (ECE ’91), and Mark Prauznitz (ChE ‘95) joining. Senior faculty such as Dennis Hess (ChE ‘95), Walter de Heer (Physics ‘98), and Russell Dupuis (ECE ‘03) joined as well. By the early 2000s, the Pettit Building was fully occupied by faculty and graduate students actively engaged in microelectronics research. Faculty participants in the Microelectronics Research Center had grown to 96, with an aggregate funded research income of approximately $50 million. In fact, the Pettit facility was saturated and it became necessary to retrofit space in adjacent buildings such as Van Leer and Bunger Henry to accommodate the growth.

Consequently, Wayne Clough, then president of Georgia Tech, presented to the Board of Regents much the same “field of dreams” argument that Joseph Pettit had employed 20 years earlier, and received a commitment of $35 million to build a new facility. The $35 million was matched by a donation from Bernie Marcus, a founder of Home Depot, and design of the new facility, ultimately named the Marcus Nanotechnology Building, began in earnest. The Marcus Building would add 12,580 square feet of faculty and student office spaces, 14,250 square feet of research laboratories, and nearly 30,000 square feet of cleanroom space. Additionally, unlike the Pettit Building, the Marcus Building would enable working with both inorganic and organic materials in order to facilitate biotechnology related-research.

Groundbreaking for the Marcus Nanotechnology Building occurred in August 2006 and the facility opened for business in April 2009. And they continue to come. The Marcus Building became the headquarters of the Microelectronics Research Center reformulated as the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology, (IEN). The IEN has purview over the facilities in Marcus and Pettit, as well as the related facilities in Van Leer, Bunger-Henry, and the Manufacturing Research Center Building. An additional microelectronics research facility was added at the Georgia Tech Lorraine campus in Metz, France, which adds 5,000 square feet of cleanroom space to the mix.  An appreciation of what the humble beginnings of the Microelectronics Research Center in 1981 has become is obtained by noting that the number of faculty participants in IEN is now more than 200 and Georgia Tech research awards with a total funded amount approaching $300M have benefited from the micro/nanofabrication and characterization core facilities in 2019. IEN is now established as a site and coordinating office for the $81 million NSF-funded National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI), a network of 16 nanotechnology fabrication and characterization centers across the U.S.

In a remarkably candid interview published in the June 1988 issue of Tech Topics, John reminisced a bit. He noted that he has known his wife Mary Anne since he was “almost four,” adding that together they missed by one day being a perfect model for planned parenthood by producing their first child, Christie, on August 15, 1958, and their second, Jeffrey, two years later on August 14, 1960. He remarked on the entrepreneurial culture of Georgia Tech, saying, “If you are willing to jump in, there is always an opportunity to contribute.” When asked to comment on the fact that over his career he had served in every academic rank, John, in a statement extreme in self-effacement even for John, said that it proves that if you live long enough, you can do most things. But most faculty who hang around don’t become Regents’ Professor, even fewer accomplishing the minimum time transition from beginning assistant professor to that rank. Being plucked from academia to serve in a leadership position in the Chancellor’s Office is not a result of longevity. And, most certainly, creating an enterprise destined to become a cornerstone for Georgia Tech’s rise to becoming one of the foremost research institutions denotes much more than endurance.

If asked to comment on his role in developing the enterprise now known as the IEN, John would almost certainly deflect most of the credit to President Pettit. Pettit certainly deserved full attribution for his role in transforming Georgia Tech into a graduate research institution and for having the vision that led to the creation of the MRC. But he operated from his base as president of Georgia Tech. John Hooper, operating from his base as a faculty member, implemented the realization of the vision by developing the MRC and its initial laboratory, defining the structure ensuring its multidisciplinary status, engaging relevant faculty participants, and leading the design and development of the Pettit Building. By implementing the realization of the dream, John created his own unique secure and enduring legacy.  When asked what he would do after leaving Georgia Tech, John simply said he would pursue opportunities in the private sector, leading some to speculate as to why John elected to take what many viewed as early retirement. As usual, John kept his own counsel, and it is likely that he just decided his work at Georgia Tech was done and it was time to go raise cattle.

Last revised October 7, 2020