ECE colleagues fondly remember Harvey Palmer

October 21, 2019

Harvey Palmer

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering faculty member Harvey Palmer’s teaching career didn’t end when he retired from Johns Hopkins University in 1989.

An optical engineer with a specialty in precision acoustic signal measurement and assessment using lasers, Palmer began to miss teaching almost as soon as he settled into a retirement community in Sykesville, MD. Though he had taught a variety of subjects for close to 40 years, he found he particularly missed being involved with classical optics courses focusing on astronomy, which incorporated high-powered telescopes and infrared spectrometers.

However, Palmer quickly realized that he did not need to be in front of a classroom at a prestigious university to continue to educate others. He could share his skill in teaching and his passion for his subject with other members of the retirement community.

“He had a telescope and he continued teaching astronomy with it. He knew a lot about infrared and solar radiation, which he shared with the other community members,” said Frederic Davidson, ECE professor emeritus. “I went out to visit him a few years ago, and it didn’t take long to realize that everyone in the community thought he was fascinating. He was still as sharp as a tack, and he still had that strong desire to teach people things.”

That Palmer continued to teach well past his retirement is not surprising to many of his former colleagues. Current ECE professors Jacob Khurgin and G.L. Meyer both used phrases like “a lifelong educator” and “what a professor should be,” when describing Palmer.

Palmer continued to share his expertise and enthusiasm for optics and astronomy with others until last August, when he passed away. He would have celebrated his 100th birthday in December.

Palmer joined Johns Hopkins in 1954 as a research associate in the Laboratory of Astrophysics and Meteorology. In 1960, he became an assistant professor of electrical engineering. He was promoted to associate professor in 1964, a position he held until 1979, when he became a full professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Palmer’s research interests included ultrasonics, nondestructive evaluation of materials, applied optics, instrumentation and electronics. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from Harvard, and was a member of a variety of professional groups, including IEEE, American Association of Physics Teachers, and the Optical Society of America, among others. He also played an instrumental role in the establishment of now defunct Johns Hopkins Center for Nondestructive Evaluation.

In addition to being an accomplished optical engineer, Palmer is fondly remembered by his former colleagues for his kindness, sense of humor, and dedication to staying physically fit. Khurgin recalled when a younger faculty member, who was a devoted marathon runner, challenged Palmer, who was in his early 60’s at the time, to run a marathon with him to see who would complete it first. Palmer easily finished with the better time.

When he was not besting much younger competition, Palmer and his wife, Betty, were avid hikers known for their international adventures, one of the highlights of which was scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. The pair also took a memorable trip to Norway, where they got lost on a long hike and were forced to cross a glacier in a blinding snowstorm without any ropes.

“It seemed like he was always in motion,” Davidson said. “He liked to travel a lot, and would always come back with a couple wonderful stories about his trips. Harvey really was an exceptional storyteller, and he always had a great sense of adventure.”

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