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Remembering Dr. Roy Axford

5/7/2021

Phillip Kisubika

Remembering Dr. Roy Axford

After the March 2021 passing of Dr. Roy Axford, we asked alumni, faculty, and staff to share their favorite memories of Prof. Axford. Here are some of them.

If you would like to add to this, email your memory to nuclear@illinois.edu (If you're an alumnus, please include your degree and year of graduation).

My sincere condolences to the immediate and extended family members of Professor Roy Axford. Prof. Axford was my NPRE doctoral thesis supervisor from 1998 to 2001. I first got to know him in 1995, when I started taking graduate-level courses in nuclear engineering that he taught. 

I soon began to realize how excellent he was as a teacher/instructor, particularly with subject material that involved much high-level applied mathematics.  Thus, every course that he taught, including special topics courses, were ones that I wanted to enroll in.  I was always amazed and astounded by his memory, and his capacity to lecture for hours non-stop using nothing but his brain and a piece of chalk.  The longest I remember him  lecturing non-stop was nearly 3 hours.

Later, I had both the honor and privilege to serve as his teaching assistant for several undergraduate and graduate courses.  In most cases, textbooks were somewhat optional or supplementary.  In many ways, his lecture notes were far better than what one could find in any textbook.

Professor Axford had a very calm, gentle and considerate disposition, which was quite valuable to me as a teaching professor, and as a thesis supervisor. I was very grateful to have him as my doctoral thesis advisor.  For me, his approach was more “hands off”, but he would provide assistance and guidance as needed.  I am reminded of an idea or approach to things that he recommended…along the lines of “if you don’t understand things at first, that’s okay…just go and spend more time thinking about the problem”.  So, Professor Axford certainly encouraged me to spend the time to ponder and think about a problem…rather than rushing to find a solution immediately.  That has been very good advice. 

I will certainly miss Professor Axford, and I am very thankful for his service as a teacher, instructor, and a mentor. – Blair P. Bromley, PhD '01, M.Sc. (Aerospace) '98

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He was a fine human being, an exceptional educator, and a sharp intellect. He set a high bar for me. – Glenn A. Carlson, JD, PhD UIUC: BSNucE '79, MSME '83, MSNucE '83

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Dr. Axford was and still is my favorite professor from my college days. He was so smart, but he never berated any student for asking less than intelligent questions. He is the only person I know who could walk into a classroom, without notes, and start deriving equations 4-blackboards long for hours on end. Wow. Not only was Dr. Axford extremely intelligent and gracious to his students, but he was kind, patient, and thoughtful. For years after graduating, he continued to remember me on my birthdays to send a greeting and we swapped Christmas cards in December (thanks, Ann). One of my most cherished compliments was given to me by Dr. Axford in regard to all the references I had at the end of my Ph.D. thesis; as the avid reader of technical material I knew he was, I really took his compliment to heart. He will be much missed by many, but he will remain in our hearts with much fondness and love. May God bless his family at this time and provide them with peace, comfort, and strength.  I feel so blessed to have had Dr. Axford as a professor, and he and his family will be in my prayers. Kendra M. Foltz Biegalski, PhD, P.E.

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When I interviewed so many years ago Roy took me out to dinner—we both were from Detroit originally.  We spend three hours talking about the many experiences we shared of the city and higher education.  I also sat in on one of his lectures on reactor physics and perturbation theory during that interview—he was a skilled teacher, something the students in that class understood.  Over the years I always meant to sit in on one of his classes, but regrettably never made the time. – Brent Heuser, NPRE professor

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Roy was my thesis advisor in 1979. While I had the opportunity to continue on for a PhD with Roy, I decided to complete my education with a Masters.  I have always been extremely grateful to Roy that this did not prevent him from offering me funding to finish my thesis as a graduate research student at Los Alamos National Laboratory.  Not all professors would have taken the time and interest in a student who was not continuing in the program. – Steve Hatch, BS '78, MS '80

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I first met Prof. Axford on my first week working in NPRE.  He walked into the office, stopped by my desk and introduced himself.  He told me the person’s name I had replaced, Mya.  He proceeded to tell me he would come in and say “Hiya Mya”!  Not to be outdone, I said my name was Gail and if you’d like, you could greet me, “Hail Gail.”  A smirk came over his face and for the rest of my tenure at NPRE, I would try and get him to smile all over again.  I was successful needless to say.

I was always amazed at his knowledge, quiet countenance and his hand-written class notes.  I truly admired him for what he meant to all his students, and the looks of devotion that would come over their faces when talking about him.  And I’ll never forget the jack-o-lantern that was carved in his likeness.

He was one of a kind and there will NEVER be another Professor Axford. – Gail Krueger

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Dr. Axford was truly a brilliant man.  He could fill a chalkboard with equations from memory faster than students could take notes.  He took a lot of pride in his work, in the classes that he developed and taught, in his research and lineage of students who he mentored.  Especially important to him was his and his students’ contributions to Los Alamos National Laboratory.  He held himself and our students to high expectations, but he acknowledged with pleasure when they did well.  He was unassuming and modest with a humor that sometimes snuck up on you unexpectedly.  He was very giving of his time and knowledge to our students.  He was widely respected. And it was a pleasure to have occasion to see him and his wife Anne together, they were so devoted and caring of one another.  He was truly unique and irreplaceable.  He made a definite impression and impact on the many students who were fortunate to have him as a teacher and on his faculty colleagues and staff who worked with him. – Becky Meline, NPRE Senior Coordinator of Academic Programs and Academic Advisor

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Dr. Axford was my PhD advisor.  I got my degree in 1970.  He was a great teacher--one of a handful who I have had over the years.  As a thesis student, I will always appreciate how he fostered independence.  He was available for advice, but never controlling.  He will be missed.  When I was at UI there was only the graduate program.  Years later they started the undergraduate program and I was not surprised to see the awards he received over the years.  Paul Rohan, PhD '70

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He was an inspiration.  As I wrote at the time of his retirement, I am one of the countless students who have been inspired by his lecturing style, and his total mastery of the range of subjects covered by our curriculum. – Rizwan Uddin, NPRE Professor and Department Head

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I was not impressed by Professor Axford’s lecture at first. I had a hard time understanding his handwriting and his speaking was so gentle that it seemed that the words remained in his mouth. However, soon I learned that he was a walking integral calculator who performed magic tricks by giving lectures with chalks alone. I looked at him in one lecture and connected him with Santa Claus. This Santa Claus was good at math and nuclear science. I was not brave enough to ask him to wear the costume to class, even though it would be fun. Some fun things happened in his lectures. We faced his back and lots of handwriting on the blackboard and took notes most of the time. I usually sat in the front row, and one day the guy next to me suddenly took my notes. I looked at him and pretended to punch his arm quietly. Soon we caught all other classmates’ attention. Professor Axford seemed to notice something, so he stopped writing and turned around. My notes were back and all students were either bending their heads and taking notes or reading Professor’s handwriting on the blackboard with serious expressions. It seemed that Professor Axford did not find anything abnormal, so he turned around and continued writing. Then I became his teaching assistant, and I was asked to attend his classes, which were usually enjoyable. However, one day I missed it because I was immersed in research work. He showed me grace, and I learned how much it meant to a student. Now I would like to show grace to my students, too. – Hsingtzu Wu, MS '11, PhD '13