Prof. Roy Axford retires after 51 years of service to Illinois and the country
A contingent of the Los Alamos National Laboratory “Axford Mafia” traveled to the University of Illinois Urbana campus last April with a clear objective in mind: to thank their mentor, Prof. Roy Axford, and to present him a plaque of recognition.
Los Alamos representatives Scott Ramsey, Brian Temple, and Michael Steinkamp made the presentation during the Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering Honors Banquet. Steinkamp explained to the over 100 NPRE students, faculty and friends that Axford’s 40-plus years of consulting work at Los Alamos, along with the work of generations of his students who joined the lab after graduation, have been instrumental in assuring the viability of the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile.
“We’d like to present Professor Axford with a plaque of recognition for his years of service to the lab and, ultimately, to the nation,” Steincamp said.
While Axford spent many summers from the 1960s to the early 2000s working at the lab and building the web of scientists responsible for the country’s nuclear weapons program, his main career focus has been teaching at the University of Illinois. After 51 years of outstanding service, and after having taught almost every nuclear engineering student who went through the program during that timespan, the illustrious professor has decided to retire.
Department Head Rizwan Uddin said NPRE, the College and the University owe Axford a huge debt of gratitude. “I am very honored to count myself among those who took an “Axford class” (I actually took two),” said Uddin, an NPRE alumnus. “Professor Axford’s lecturing style has ever since been an inspiration, guiding my own.”
Axford tells his own story best in “A Word from Roy Axford,” recorded in 2014. He was the first person in the United States to earn a doctorate in nuclear engineering. His journey from earning his degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (PhD 1958) and helping to design MIT's nuclear reactor, to his faculty positions at Texas A&M, Northwestern University and, since 1966, the University of Illinois, mirrors that of the evolution of nuclear engineering education in this country.
Throughout his journey, Axford has demonstrated a complete mastery of NPRE’s curriculum, much of which he developed, and has been passing that knowledge on to his students. Several have acknowledged and expressed their appreciation for those lessons, as shown in the next few pages. The University of Illinois Urbana campus and the College of Engineering have recognized Axford’s contributions with almost every teaching award available, including:
- ANS at Illinois Student Chapter Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award (1990, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2002, 2008, 2016)
- University of Illinois Graduate and Professional Teaching Award (2011)
- Illinois Student Senate Teaching Excellence Award (2011)
- College of Engineering Teaching Excellence Award (2010)
- Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (2010)
- Rose Award for Teaching Excellence, College of Engineering (2008)
- Student Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, College of Engineering (2004)
- Graduate College Outstanding Mentor Award, University of Illinois (2004)
- Everitt Award for Teaching Excellence, College of Engineering (1985)
- Finalist, Certificate of Recognition, Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (1981)
- Finalist, Certificate of Recognition, Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (1979)
- Distinguished Faculty Membership, Alpha Nu Sigma Society, ANS (1991)
Perhaps the ultimate symbol of students’ admiration manifested itself a few years ago, when the student ANS chapter at Illinois decided to put Axford’s image on T-shirts and sweatshirts. The apparel have been “must-haves” in the wardrobes of alumni and students ever since.
NPRE alumni congratulate Professor Axford
I gained an immense amount of knowledge from Professor Axford related to our field, but what sticks with me the most is what a gentleman he was to those around him. Truly a great person! – Harrison Pappas, BS 08, MS 09, MBA 11
Professor Axford has been my role model in my academic career. I hope I will have the energy and enthusiasm to stay on as long as he did. – Tunc Aldemir, MS 75, PhD 78
He participated by teaching classes at Illinois Power in the middle 1970s as part of an off-campus master’s degree program. I was one of his students and was able to complete the program. He was an excellent teacher to us off-campus students. – Anthony Artman, MS 78
Professor Axford was my neutron interaction theory professor. The class and his use of variational calculus is etched in my mine. I had a math degree as an undergrad at U of I, and he blew me away. I can't do the math anymore, but Professor Axford made a big impression. – Greg Frey, BS 79 (Chemistry), BS 79 (Mathematics), MS 80
Roy was my thesis advisor in 1979 and acquired graduate funding for me from Los Alamos National Laboratories which was instrumental in helping me complete a degree that led to a successful 32-year career as a research engineer. I can’t thank him enough! – Steve Hatch, BS 78, MS 80
Prof. Roy Axford was one of the best instructors I had at the University of Illinois. His command of advanced mathematical techniques in his lectures was dazzling. – Jack De Veaux, MS 79, PhD 83
Professor Axford was my assigned advisor when I was a freshman in NPRE (Nuclear Engineering back then). I remember being intimidated by his stature and historical standing, but his demeanor quickly put me at ease. Professor Axford was always willing to take time to meet with me and help guide my decision making while a student. Although I didn't end up in the NPRE field, I believe that the manner in which he treated me because a model for how I handle my employees today. – Craig Vodnik, BS 92
It was about the 3rd day of an upper division neutronics class. The class was complaining about the homework; specifically, that it was too difficult. Professor Axford calmly turned and reassured the class that "nothing is difficult...only unfamiliar." And it took almost no time for it to sink in. Of course, this was true. – Daniel Kane, BS 82
I took five courses with Dr. Axford. He was an amazing and dedicated teacher, and one of the smartest and kindest people I've interacted with. He also helped me personally as I transitioned to graduate work, something I will never forget. Thanks so much, Dr. Axford! – David Papke, 07; PhD 13 (Neuroscience); MD 16
When I got my undergrad degree, I thought I knew a lot about math. Then I got into one of Dr. Axford's graduate classes. Oh boy, was I wrong! Thanks for the great education, Dr. Axford. – Brian Jelke, BS 89, MS 91
Professor Axford spoke quietly; he did not need books or notes since all the book and notes were in his brain. He would come in the classroom and start writing down on the giant boards with all the equations and theories in preciseness. We students needed just to write it down and then take it back to the dorm and study HARD. The way Professor Axford conducted himself and his teaching set the finest example of a college professor for us all. I wish all students had this experience in college. – Steven Jianxin Wang, PhD 03
Congratulations, Professor Axford! I enjoyed your class even though I had to write as fast as I could to keep up with your rapid writing on the blackboard. You filled one after another until four were filled and then you would erase and start again! Amazing mind for math! – Mark Paradies, BS 78 (Electrical Engineering); MS 85
Professor Axford is the best instructor I've ever had in my entire life. Sure, he could lecture for hours on a complex topic without notes, which is very unusual, but what makes him a great teacher is the clarity of presentation, logical layout of material, depth of answers, and homework/tests to ensure understanding. He was my PhD advisor and mentor and taught me not only the intricacies of Lie group theory but how to do research and learn on my own. He has left many students as his legacy to his long and excellent career. I owe him everything for my professional preparation and development. – Stephen Coggeshall, MMus 84 (Music); MS 82; PhD 84
Professor Axford's reputation of his academic career and his network in the Nuclear navy launched my career on the east coast in power generation nearly 12 years ago. Thank you for everything. – Salmaan Akhtar, BS 05
Professor Axford was interested in working with me (coming from Romania after the fall of communism at the age of 42) as a graduate student for a M.S. on a project with Argonne National Laboratory. During this M.S. I enjoyed the beautiful and clear math of his classes. At the same time Professor Axford helped me to establish in the U.S. as a permanent resident while I was working on my own project for the development of a new structure of light, with broad consequences. The paper on this project, after 20 years of work in my own lab (Agora Laboratory), will be soon published and will have an immense importance. Without the help of Professor Axford, this work and paper would have not been possible. – Corneliu I. Costescu, MS 94, PhD 99