Seated behind the desk in his Hammond Building office, Dr. Eric Walker conveys
the aura of a University president. Even though it is a warm April day, Dr. Walker wears
his blazer. As an undergraduate, I could not help feeling a bit awed in the engineer's
presence. The first question that came to mind was who, if anyone, was most responsible
for launching a remarkable career that has spanned over sixty years, three department head
positions, a deanship, a University presidency, and the chairmanship of the National
Science Foundation Board? When asked this question, Dr. Walker pauses for a moment as he
recalls the thousands of people he has had contact with during his career. "I think
it all started with a small town minister who taught me trigonometry as a teenager,
"he finally replied. "He encouraged me to go to college and pursue a degree in
A Profile of Dr. Eric Walker
The college he chose was Harvard University. Penn State was his second choice, but Harvard offered more financial aid. Dr. Walker worked his way through college earning a B. S. and a Sc.D in electrical engineering, and an M. S. in Business Administration. He left Harvard in 1935 - not the best time for a young engineer to be looking for a job in the industry. The academic world offered an opportunity, and a paycheck. Walker had begun teaching mathematics at Tufts College in 1933. He joined the faculty upon graduation, and in 1938, he was promoted to Head of Electrical Engineering at Tufts.
This was the beginning of an academic career that would culminate, in 1956, with his appointment as President of The Pennsylvania State University.
Dr. Walker describes himself as a man who has always had one foot in industry, and one foot in the academic world. World War II gave him his first chance to experience both worlds, first at Harvard as director of the underwater sound laboratory, next in 1845 when he came to Penn States director of the Ordnance Research Laboratory (ORL). Dr. Walker and his team worked almost exclusively with homing torpedoes, a W.W.II "smart bomb" for the water. The ORL brought with it more than sixty qualified researchers, many of whom stayed after the war.Penn State thrived with this infusion of new talent, and the appearance of Dr. Walker and the ORL can be counted as a major advance in the department's history.
By the war's end, the ORL, and Dr. Walker, had found a home at Penn State. The U. S. Navy continued to fund the laboratory, while Walker became more and more active in the College of Engineering. By 1951, he had been named dean of the College of Engineering, and a few years later became president of the University. At the outset of his tenure he decided that simply changing the name from the Pennsylvania State College to the Pennsylvania State University was not enough. During the next fifteen years, Walker was busy arranging for the addition of new buildings and improving the faculty.
Dr. Walker retired from the presidency in 1970. Since then he has published his memoirs, Now It's My Turn: Engineering My Way, and has served on the board of directors of two corporations.
What is the job of the engineer? Dr. Eric Walker has worked in this field for over sixty years, and during that time he has formulated some answers to that question. He remembers a sign that hung in the electrical engineering department at Harvard. The sign said,
"The job of the engineer is to take a good idea, and, using manpower, money and materials, produce some thing the public wants at a price it is willing to pay."
"For engineers of 1993," says Dr. Walker, " I would change the end of that old quote to read "With due regard for the environment."
The career of our President Emeritus can perhaps be summed up in one word, "service." The University, the EE Department, and the field of electrical engineering as a whole owe a debt of gratitude to that small town preacher who encouraged a young Walker to go to college so many years ago.