Nebraska Engineering Fall, 2005
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Engineering Professor Retires After 50 Years

Don Nelson has accomplished a thing or two in his 50 years with the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Known as the Father of Computing, he co-founded the Department of Computer Science (with Kenneth Smith), served as director of the UNL Computing Center for nine years, was a professor in two departments that are in two different colleges, and started i2rd, a local business that focuses on internet research and development (with Muh-Lin Chen, a former Ph.D. student of his who is now the principal owner).

A professor of electrical engineering and computer science, Nelson is retiring this year. “It’s gone pretty fast,” Nelson said. “When you retire you can get emotional—it’s not something you really want to do, but your time has come. Now I have to look for something else to do, but it’s been 100 percent UNL for a long time.”

Don Nelson in the NU Computing Services Network officeDon Nelson in the NU Computing Services
Network office.

When he graduated from UNL, Nelson went to work at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York. His work there was interrupted because of an ROTC commitment and the Korean War. After serving in the U.S. Air Force, where he was an instructor of special weapons, he returned to Bell Labs. He returned to UNL to work on his Master’s Degree. In 1960, he went to Stanford University to set up his Ph.D., then returned to UNL to teach. In 1963, he became director of the Computing Center. “We had a good group of people there,” he said. “We worked with the Jet Propulsion Lab, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other organizations.”

Nelson’s area of expertise was simulation and use of computers to solve problems. One project on which Nelson and others in the Center worked, involved designing an online bill-drafting system for the Nebraska Legislature that allowed drafters to update legislative bills quickly and efficiently. They received a commendation for their efforts. Nelson believed strongly in building relationships with industry and worked hard to make that happen. It was especially rewarding, he said, because you could see the results immediately. “One company told me about a problem they were having and three days later I came up with a solution. The company had been trying to figure it out for three years.”

Nelson’s acumen doesn’t surprise Khalid Sayood, a professor of electrical engineering. Several years ago the two worked on a project for the Army. “It was very instructive watching him work,” Sayood said. “He’s a very precise person. Everything has to be just so. That quality is very useful.”

While Nelson has thrived on working with industry, what he really loves is teaching—especially at UNL. “Nebraska students are the best,” Nelson said. “They are interested and work hard.”

Students hold him in high esteem as well, said Jerry Hudgins, chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering. “He’s had a strong, positive influence on the people around him—particularly his students,” Hudgins said. “Many compliment him on the impact he’s had on their lives.”

Nelson didn’t teach in the fall, but he might in the spring. See, he has a lot he’d like to pass on—things that aren’t in the books anymore, but still might have value to students as they move from college into real-world careers. For now, he’s “squaring away” his office, trying to get rid of things that have piled up over the years. He’s not sure what he’ll do, but one thing won’t change: his “strong feeling” for the university. “I’m a Nebraskan. I enjoyed my undergrad career. Wherever I went, my knowledge kept me in good standing.” He hopes the University will continue its path to greatness. “I want the citizens of Nebraska to have the best institution—that’s what has driven me over the years.”

—Constance Walter