I’ve been writing all kinds of stories for USC Viterbi for six years now. Stories about impactful research and major awards. About new hires and new grants. Stories about life at USC Viterbi and even stories about beloved colleagues who have passed away. I like to think I’ve come to understand this school and its vision for engineering rather well. One thing I can tell you about this place is that the people here take care of each other.
And arguably no one — I mean, no one — has taken care of more people at USC Viterbi than George Bekey.
Bekey, 94, professor emeritus of computer science, electrical engineering and biomedical engineering, is considered one of the fathers of modern robotics. A professor for half a century, he co-founded the school’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, holds the title of University Professor, and is otherwise decked out in all kinds of honors and titles.
“There is no fact in my professional and academic life that I am prouder of than my association with my advisor, Professor George A. Bekey.”
– Arvin Agah, Ph.D. CS ’94. Dean of the University of Kansas School of Engineering
Yet his greatest impact was on the lives of his students.
“It’s not that I chose my students,” said Bekey. “They chose me. I always felt our relationships went beyond my office and the lab.”
Now, thanks to generous gifts from some of those very people, a fellowship has been established in Professor Bekey’s name to support a new generation of Ph.D. students.
But to understand the true depth of his impact and how it has reverberated through the decades, let’s go back to the year 1970. That’s when Bob Sclabassi, Ph.D. EE ’71, was a 27-year-old doctoral student in the USC electrical and computer engineering department. Today, he is the CEO of Computational Diagnostics, which provides care to patients through its intraoperative neurophysiological monitoring services. Back then, he and his wife were raising four children under the age of 6 while Bob split his time between school and a job with Space Technology Laboratories.
“The most important thing that shaped where I am today was George,” said Sclabassi. That’s a strong statement coming from a man with an engineering Ph.D. and a medical degree, who has served on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon, UCLA and the University of Pittsburgh, and who is the CEO of his own company. Bekey wasn’t even Sclabassi’s adviser! What could he have possibly done to play such a major role in this man’s professional trajectory?
Well, it’s quite simple really: Bekey truly saw him and cared for him.
At the time, Sclabassi was struggling with the types of challenges that many young graduate students face. Getting through a rigorous education with limited time, resources and support. For Sclabassi, like so many other students, time had simply run out.
“Although I didn’t share it outwardly, I was beginning to accept that my education would probably come to an end earlier than expected,” Sclabassi said. “Any student who has been in that situation can understand the feeling of seeing the vision you had for your future disappear but being powerless to stop it.”
That’s when Bekey stepped in.
Although the two didn’t work together, Bekey had taught a few of Sclabassi’s classes and knew him from his job at Space Technology Laboratories, where Bekey worked as a consultant. One day, out of the blue, Sclabassi got a call from Bekey asking him if he would be interested in a fellowship that he knew would soon be available. Of course, Sclabassi replied.
“Without that fellowship, I would never have been able to pursue and complete my Ph.D. I wouldn’t be where I am now. It’s as simple as that,” Sclabassi said.
Sclabassi had never complained about his situation. He didn’t — consciously at least — show the stress he was under to provide for his family while also working for something better. But Bekey noticed. Bekey didn’t simply interact with Sclabassi around campus or work, he saw him. He put himself in Sclabassi’s shoes and understood what he was going through. And he decided to do something about it. Not because he wanted to keep a talented student at USC or strengthen some particular area of the school, but because it was the right thing to do. From one person to another.
Although Sclabassi’s story is special, it’s not unique. And that’s exactly what makes Bekey’s contributions so impactful. It’s the reason why there’s a global network of his former students and mentees who refer to themselves as the “Bekey Tribe,” unofficially founded in 1984 when Bekey and his wife, Shirley, began inviting students to their home for dinners.
In 2020, with the generous support of Sclabassi and other tribe members, USC Viterbi established a Ph.D. fellowship fund in Bekey’s honor so that a new generation of doctoral students could benefit. As part of that process, USC Viterbi compiled a list of quotes from Bekey’s tribe to highlight how many people he has helped along the way. At the time, it was thought this would be a nice addition to the fellowship to share with the community. No one had any idea that it would quickly grow into pages and pages of loving stories from his former students all over the world.
Indeed, to include all those quotes and anecdotes here would turn this story into a novel. But several still stand out.
Ayanna Howard, Ph.D. EE ’99, now serves as dean of the College of Engineering at Ohio State University. “During one of my first graduate robotics classes at USC, Dr. Bekey began to discuss robot locomotion and the gait patterns of animals,” said Howard. “At one point, he jumped onto the table and, with great enthusiasm, simulated the walking pattern for a quadrupedal robot mimicking cat locomotion. I was hooked. Here was this famous, larger-than-life leader in robotics, and he cared enough, without hesitation, to inspire us using nontraditional methods.”
Of course, Bekey was only in his 60s at the time. Still not nearly old enough to stop jumping up on desks in front of a classroom full of graduate students.
Another former student turned dean is Arvin Agah, Ph.D. CS ’94. When asked to provide some insight into his relationship with his adviser, Agah, dean of engineering at the University of Kansas, went back and looked at his dissertation. “I had not looked at my dissertation in some time, but when I did, I opened the acknowledgment section and saw that I had written, ‘There is no fact in my professional and academic life that I am prouder of than my association with my advisor, Professor George A. Bekey,’” he said. “It is amazing that after nearly a quarter of a century, that statement still holds true.”
Gaurav Sukhatme, Ph.D. CS ’97, is Executive Vice Dean of Engineering and Fletcher Jones Foundation Endowed Chair in Computer Science. “I could not have asked for a kinder or wiser mentor, and in running my own research group I have from time to time asked myself, ‘WWGD?’ (What would George do?),” he said.
Bekey is not just inspiring and supportive; he has always been immensely resourceful, as Michael Merritt, Ph.D. ENG ’67, can attest. Back in the 1960s, Bekey was working hard to convince the university to agree to construct a new hybrid computational lab. He knew this lab would be instrumental in elevating USC’s engineering school to another level, but it required a new IBM 360-44 mainframe computer. These $1 million computers were selling fast, and, at a lunch meeting between Bekey, Merritt and an IBM sales rep, Merritt recalls to this day how Bekey got the job done.
“Just before signing the tab, he asked if a letter of intent would help ensure that a 360-44 would be available. The salesperson assured him that, yes, a letter of intent would be extremely helpful, and encouraged us to push USC to release one as soon as possible,” said Merritt.
“George immediately picked up a paper napkin, wrote out a letter of intent for a $1 million computer and handed it to the IBM sales rep. Whether he had the authority to issue that letter on his own is unclear. But it was a prime example of his resourcefulness, creativity and ability to get things done, even under the most rigorous conditions.”
That “napkin of intent” guaranteed USC a strong position in IBM’s delivery hierarchy. The hybrid lab was later approved and an order was issued for the 360-44.
“When I heard some of these other stories from his students, what struck me was how the things he did for everyone were so simple. An invite to dinner, jumping up on tables to inspire students, consoling people after difficult meetings. None of these things are hard to do if you truly care deeply about people and think about them,” Sclabassi said. “Each one of these stories reminded me of my own experience with George.”
In 2015, Bekey wrote a book, “A Remarkable Trajectory,” a five-year project that traced the second half of the history of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. During that time, and thanks in large part to Bekey himself, the school grew from a regional powerhouse to an elite global institution.
But an equally remarkable trajectory is the one he set Bob Sclabassi and those 43 tribe members on over the decades.
Years later, Bekey’s book played an instrumental and unforeseen role in establishing the George Bekey Fellowship Award. During an unrelated meeting with USC Viterbi leadership, Sclabassi was shown “A Remarkable Trajectory.” To the surprise of everyone, he informed the USC Viterbi staff members that George Bekey had changed his life. That chance meeting was one of the moments that helped set the stage for what would eventually become the fellowship we celebrate today.
In 2021, 10 Ph.D. students received the inaugural fellowship to support their research. Bekey, too humble to realize how deeply he affected so many people’s lives, was surprised at the outpouring of love.
“I cared about my students as people,” he said. “I looked at them as fellow seekers in the research journey. They were partners in the search to make meaningful discoveries.”
Published on July 28th, 2022
Last updated on August 12th, 2022