Clyde Kimball: A Life of Science

Clyde Kimball
Clyde Kimball

For five decades, physicist Clyde Kimball – a man of big ideas, immutable passion and abundant kindness – was a fixture on the Northern Illinois University campus.

An NIU distinguished research professor, he is credited with cementing the university’s collaborative ties with Argonne National Laboratory, attracting tens of millions of dollars in funding for research at NIU and co-founding the university’s Institute for Nano Science, Engineering, and Technology (InSET), serving as its first director.

In recent decades – with his wire-rimmed eyeglasses and Telly Savalas-like dome – he cut the striking figure of a scientist.

“Even after retiring from teaching, Clyde continued to conduct research and was more active than most people in the prime of life,” says Chris McCord, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Kimball, 87, died unexpectedly June 3, in Corvallis, Ore., where he had moved with his wife, Joan Truckenbrod.

His life and scientific contributions will be celebrated in a symposium honoring his legacy from 3 to 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 2, in the Altgeld Auditorium. Titled “Clyde Kimball: A Life of Science,” the event is open to the public, but an RSVP would be appreciated to ellena@niu.edu.

The keynote speakers will be NIU adjunct professor Stanislaw Kolesnik and associate physics professor Dennis Brown, who will both talk about Kimball’s scholarship; professor Laurence Lurio, chair of physics, who will discuss Kimball’s contributions to NIU; and Ercan Alp, a visiting professor at NIU and senior scientist at Argonne who worked closely with Kimball and will speak about the national impact and future direction of Kimball’s research.

Laurence Lurio
Laurence Lurio

A reception will follow the talks. Information on parking and a guest book for those unable to attend can be found on the event website, where a video of the talks will be posted the following week. Additionally, a scholarship in Kimball’s name has been established to be awarded to NIU physics students.

“Clyde was not only an exceptional scientist, he was an extraordinary person,” said friend and former colleague Cara Carlson, now a business administrative associate with Northern Illinois University Press. “His goal was to make NIU a leading scientific institution – he truly loved working at the university and cherished the friends he made while on his journey.”

Always upbeat, Kimball encouraged colleagues and students to strive for greatness, often giving out inspirational gifts or informational books. Carlson recalls once going out for coffee with him, when a student graciously offered his seat to the professor. Kimball later went up to the counter, purchased a $20 gift certificate and handed it to the student, saying, “People like you will change the world,” Carlson recalled.

She was recipient of his generosity as well.

“It was Clyde who inspired me to get my master’s degree,” Carlson says. “He said, ‘Cara, you have so much more talent than you realize. You are going places.’ ”

Logo of Argonne National LaboratoryA native of Laurium, Mich., Kimball graduated from Michigan Technological University with a B.S. and an M.S. in engineering physics. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from St. Louis University in 1959, having performed his dissertation research at Argonne National Laboratory. He served as a radiation officer in the U.S. Army at Dugway Proving Ground attached to the 101st Airborne Division, as a staff scientist for Ford Motor Company and North American Aviation and in many research consulting posts at Argonne.

He joined the NIU Department of Physics in the fall of 1964, while continuing professional linkages with the federal laboratory.

Over the years, he taught almost all departmental undergraduate and graduate courses, formally supervising more than 30 research students. He supported hundreds more from his research grants. He was named among the university’s inaugural group of Presidential Research Professors in 1982 and elevated to Distinguished Research Professor in 1986.

Pat Burnett, head of the Engineering Department at Edmonds Community College near Seattle, came to NIU in the late 1990s to pursue a master’s degree in physics. He enrolled in an advanced course taught by Kimball and later co-taught a class with his professor.

“When we would prepare for the class, we would sit in his office and talk about movies, music, science, poetry and, every now and again, physics,” Burnett recalls. “Clyde never lectured to me; he only asked me questions, shared a few stories and listened to my stories. I realized that I was not only exploring the physics textbooks and the demonstrations of Newton and Galileo, I was exploring who I was and how I fit into this world.”

Kimball was well known for mentoring junior faculty as well.

Susan Mini
Susan Mini

Former NIU physics chair Susan Mini, now vice provost for resource planning, met Kimball while she was a graduate student at Argonne. Later, he lobbied on her behalf when she applied to join the NIU faculty.

“It was a tough time for physicists after the Cold War had ended, and Clyde was instrumental in supporting me,” Mini says. “He also helped get my research career started.”

Mini says Kimball was adept at brainstorming and putting the people in place to bring concepts to reality. “He would have these great wonderful big-picture ideas,” Mini says.

During his NIU career, Kimball developed inter- and intra-college collaborations and conceived numerous initiatives and partnerships with Argonne, including the creation of jointly appointed Distinguished Graduate Fellowships in nanoscience and engineering. He was instrumental in having NIU partner with other institutions in the Consortium for Advanced Radiation Sources (CARS) and for a number of years served as chair of the consortium’s Board of Governors. He also served on the Executive Committee for the Basic Energy Sciences Synchrotron Research Center.

Additionally, Kimball published nearly 300 scholarly research articles, served as science adviser to the president of NIU and worked twice as a program director at the National Science Foundation, providing vital guidance at the national level while building important recognition for NIU.

“The NSF experience gave Clyde a broad understanding of the funding agencies and really helped the university in many ways,” says physicist Gerald Blazey, interim vice president of NIU’s Division of Research and Innovation Partnerships. “He showed a lot of initiative and brought some big ideas to NIU.”

Despite retiring from teaching in 2000, Kimball remained active on campus. In recent years, he worked with computer science chair Nicholas Karonis to spearhead NIU’s high-performance computing initiative.

“Working with Clyde was exhilarating,” Karonis says. “He embodied an extraordinary balance between vision and pragmatism. And he inspired us to set our sights beyond our imaginations by reminding us how much we can achieve when we work together.”

Clyde Kimball and Nicholas Karonis with NIU’s computer cluster in 2012.
Clyde Kimball and Nicholas Karonis with NIU’s computer cluster in 2012.
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