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Unforgettable – Frank Parker

Posted by on Monday, April 18, 2011 in Spring 2011, Unforgettable.

On December 31, 2010, one of the School of Engineering’s most respected and revered professors retired. After 43 years, Frank Parker is cleaning out his office and moving on to new adventures. Vanderbilt Engineering asked three alumni to share why Frank Parker is unforgettable.

Frank Parker - Distinguished Professor of Environmental and Water Resources, Emeritus Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Emeritus

Integrity: An Example for All

Frank Parker is amazing. Before I tell you why, I will set the stage. I have a bachelor’s in chemical engineering, and as an undergraduate, was never in Dr. Parker’s department. I did spend a couple of weeks in one of his classes during a brief flirtation with graduate school; however, virtually everything I know about him has been because of my involvement in the last 15+ years with the Engineering Alumni Council and the Committee of Visitors.

He is without debate a genius in his field and is very highly honored, credentialed and decorated. I have spent many hours with him alone, and with him and his lovely wife, Elaine. The two are very well-traveled and extremely interesting. Dr. Parker is intriguing professionally and personally. He is a great storyteller, with adventures dating back to World War II. Above all, his integrity is an example for all, and his engineering knowledge and experience are breathtaking.

For whatever reason, he has taken an interest in me over the years, and for that, I am grateful. I am happy at any opportunity to spend time with him, and that time always lifts my spirits and professional ambitions. My business partner of 33 years, Ron Gobbell, and I have our own tradition of asking each other often, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” This is our way of talking seriously, but simultaneously light-heartedly, about the future.

Well, when I grow up, I want to be another Frank Parker.

—Steve Hays, BE’73
Chairman, Gobbell Hays Partners Inc.

Warm, Encouraging and Engaging

I was studying in Caracas, Venezuela, in the mid ’70s, planning to attend graduate school in the U.S. I wrote letters (snail mail of course) to many well-known faculty members in various environmental engineering programs. The majority of my letters were never answered and some schools returned generic materials that had little to do with my inquiries.

One response I received was warm, encouraging and very detailed; it will not take much guesswork to know that it was Frank Parker’s letter. Hence, Vanderbilt jumped to the top of my list of schools.

I know that I lucked out having Frank as my Ph.D. adviser and long-term mentor. He was always warm, caring, witty, interested in what you had just worked out, and treated you not as a student but as a colleague. Frank was active on multiple committees, traveling extensively, and working on various high-level reports dealing with nuclear waste disposal, but when I went to look for him in his office (and could find him behind the multiple book towers on his desk and office floor), he always had time for me. He provided technical guidance, but allowed me to explore topics that interested me, and he enriched my educational experience by engaging in extended discussions far beyond my dissertation topic.

Most important, by being his student I learned from Frank how to conduct good research by being excited about what you are investigating, being rigorous, discussing your findings with colleagues, focusing on the important questions, and being honest about what your findings mean. I seldom left his office without having at least a short chat about something that was not directly related to my research, but about science and policy in general. These interactions have profoundly shaped my academic life and I do my best to pass some of the broader vision and perspectives I learned from Frank on to my students.

When I have visited Vanderbilt either by myself or with my family, we have had the best of times staying at Frank and Elaine’s home. It’s been almost 30 years since I graduated from Vanderbilt, but still today, when I need someone to run something by—like a major professional move—I do call Frank.

I am delighted to have Frank Parker as a mentor and friend.

—Peter Jaffe, MS’80, PhD’81
Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Princeton University

People Are Important to Him

During my Vanderbilt Engineering campus visit in 1990, I spent the typical day meeting faculty, touring facilities and eating pizza with graduate students. Then I walked around campus with a distinguished, white-haired, very personable gentleman named Frank Parker. We talked about Vanderbilt and how it compared to other universities. We talked about life after Vanderbilt and many other things. We talked like colleagues.
Who was this Frank Parker?

Back in my hotel room, I reviewed the school catalog: Distinguished Professor, National Academy member, adviser to several international organizations and countries, and many other important roles. I later learned that the catalog didn’t tell the whole story.

Why was Frank Parker spending so much time with a prospective student? The only answer I ever discerned: That’s Frank, and people are important to him!

This vignette has been consistently repeated throughout our last 20 years. Thanks to Frank, I’ve lived in Europe twice, studied conditions at former Soviet nuclear weapon sites and many in the U.S., and served on IAEA and National Academy panels. I have my job thanks to Frank. The realization that “You’re Frank Parker’s student?!” instantly gives credibility by association.

Even more rewarding is the way that Frank and his wonderful wife, Miss Elaine, have made my family feel part of their family, and how Frank made me feel like a colleague and peer from that very first day.

Thank you, Frank, for being who you are: a wonderful human being.

—Bob Waters, MS’92, PhD’93
Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff
Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, New Mexico