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Engineering suite named to honor ‘Doc’ Newell

June 29, 2011
Darrell E. “Doc” Newell

Darrell E. “Doc” Newell

When pressed, Darrell “Doc” Newell would admit that things like mechanical engineering or industrial technology were important.

But to his mind, electrical engineering was always first among equals.

Therefore, it was appropriate that family, friends and former colleagues gathered Saturday, June 11 to see the Electrical Engineering Suite in the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology named in honor of Newell, who died on Christmas Day 2010 at the age of 84.

It was a fitting tribute, his former colleagues said, for without Newell there is a chance that the department, and perhaps even the entire college, would never have existed.

“Doc was one of those who did the hard work of laying the foundations of the college. He was a highly committed individual who considered the needs of others above his own needs,” said Dean Promod Vohra.

Newell came to NIU in 1969, working part time as an associate professor in the Industry and Technology Department. Within a year, he had devoted himself to teaching full time and started lobbying for the creation of a college of engineering at NIU.

It seemed like a logical idea to him, because there were no other public engineering programs in the northern part of the state. Others were less convinced, and Newell and colleagues had to convince bureaucracy at several levels of the need for such a college.

“Doc” Darrell and Betty Newell Electrical Engineering SuiteAs part of his effort to help create the college, Newell developed the original curriculum for the electrical engineering at NIU. It included a heavy emphasis on practice-based  knowledge, a trait that remains one of the hallmarks of all programs within the college to this day.

“He knew that we had to be different, and his vision was utilitarian,” recalled Alan Genis, one of Newell’s students who ultimately followed in his footsteps and taught in the college. “People who came through the program had to know how to work with their hands.”

The college was finally approved in 1985, and Newell was named the first chair of the Electrical Engineering Department. He also served as the right hand man for the college’s first dean, Romualdus Kasuba, and later as interim associate dean.

Throughout it all, he continued to teach, officially retiring in 2000, but teaching occasional classes for several more years. Vohra maintained an active connection to him through his life and knew thatNewell was proud of all that has been accomplished at CEET.

Betty Newell and Promod Vohra

Betty Newell and Promod Vohra

“Education is all that he thought of,” said Newell’s wife, Betty. “His mother was a teacher, and education was the most importing thing in his life.”

Over the years, he taught more than 2,000 students, many of whom shared memories of Newell after his death.

Their notes included inside jokes about his penchant for wearing mechanics’ overalls while teaching; his habit of jingling the keys in his pocket; and his ability to leave students racing to keep up as he filled multiple blackboards with equations without ever once consulting his notes.

One student upon whom he made a particular impression was Vohra, who he recruited as a graduate student before a graduate program even existed. It was also Newell who put Vohra in front of a class for the first time and, seeing his knack for teaching, encouraged him to pursue education as a career.

“I valued his counsel and advice. Doc always touched you in a positive way, and when you spoke with him, he connected with you,” Vohra said at the dedication ceremonies. “For him, there was nothing bigger than electrical engineering, and our hope is that by naming this suite after him, his legacy will live on forever.”

To further honor Newell’s contributions to the college, CEET is encouraging donations to the Doc and Betty Newell Scholarship fund through the NIU Foundation.