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Walter Royal Lynn

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Walter Royal Lynn Obituary
Walter Royal Lynn, P.E., Ph.D.

Walter R. Lynn, a distinguished professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Cornell University, died on Monday, June 6, at the age of 82. Since retiring from teaching in 1998, he maintained an active professional life, including serving as the University's Ombudsman for the past twelve years. Until two weeks before his death, despite the ravages of an incurable cancer, he continued to advise individuals and parties on the Cornell campus, in Ithaca and around the world on ways to manage complicated and emotional disputes. He performed his work selflessly and with a keen appreciation for fairness. In so doing, he respected the importance of the presenting issue, and the empowerment and dignity of the visitor. No doubt Walter will be best-remembered in the academic archives as the pioneer who in 1961 brought systems-techniques, aided by emerging computer capabilities, to Cornell for the framing and analysis of solutions for many civil engineering problems, particularly those dealing with water supply, water treatment and later-on broader environmental and public health concerns. In 1972, as founder and head of the Cornell University Center for Environmental Quality Management (1966-76), he coined the phrase, "sustainability", in assembling a multi-disciplinary research team of engineers, chemists, biologists, economists, lawyers and mathematicians to attempt to define and organize the way we think about society's environmental problems in meaningful ways that recognize human aspirations and proclivities. Raised in Florida, Walter began his professional career managing a sewage-treatment plant in Miami after earning his B.S. in Civil Engineering at the University of Miami (1950). While there he learned to water-ski, and he also managed surveying crews in the Everglades before moving on to Chapel Hill to earn an M.S. in Sanitary Engineering at the University of North Carolina (1954). He returned to the University of Miami as an Assistant Professor, and while teaching there, he met and married Barbara Campbell. Subsequently, Professor Abe Charnes at Northwestern University ignited Walter's enthusiasm for using systems tools in forging meaningful and longer-lasting engineering solutions, and Walter earned his Ph.D. under Abe at Northwestern in 1963. Walter came to Cornell and Ithaca as an Associate Professor of Sanitary Engineering in 1961. Early on, he held a joint appointment at the Cornell University Medical College in New York City where he taught courses on systems methods to physicians and where he worked on modeling epidemiology to understand the interface between human biological and civil-engineered systems. After becoming a Full Professor at Cornell University in 1964, he served in many academic administrative positions, as Director of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering (1970-78), Director of the Center for the Environment (1996-97) and Director of the multi-disciplinary program on Science, Technology and Society (1980-88) where he contributed to its establishment as an academic department in the College of Arts and Sciences. He was elected by the faculty as a trustee of Cornell University (1980-85), and he later served as the Dean of the Faculty (1988-93). He was elected Professor Emeritus in 1998. At one of his many retirement "fests", Walter's own academic legacy was highlighted by the large number of Ph.D. students who had been supervised by just two of his own former Ph.D. students, Prof. Charles Revelle (deceased) at Johns Hopkins University and Prof. D. "Pete" Loucks at Cornell who Walter recruited from Yale while both were sitting on a raft while visiting a camp in Vermont. One of Walter's proudest accomplishments was helping to facilitate the establishment of the Weiss Fellowships that are awarded annually for innovation and excellence in undergraduate teaching at Cornell. However to Walter, his far more important legacies were his son, Michael, his wife, Barbara and their many friends. This fluid, far-reaching social network included individuals from across society at every level and of every age - - doctors, gardeners, artists, lawyers, hair-stylists, politicians, students, merchants, police, as well as faculty and university presidents - - all that was required was that they be capable of laughing at themselves. Over the years Walter also served on a large number of National Academy Panels and working groups, including one beginning in 1976 to study the regionalization of the Washington, DC water supply system, now successfully implemented. In New York State, he was appointed Chairman of the New York State Water Resources Planning Council in 1985 following a series of droughts in 1964-66 and again in 1984. As water "czar", Walter had the absolute authority to declare a drought-emergency in NYC, a tremendous responsibility that soon became opaque to subsequent governors after the return of normal rainfall levels. This required Walter to remind each successor that he held this awesome responsibility, were they pleased to re-appoint him. They did. Other significant National Research Council appointments were as Chairman of the U.S. National Committee for the Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction in 1990 and Chairman of the Board on Natural Disasters (1992-96). The irony of subsequent events and the loss of institutional memory in the following decade never failed to bemuse him. Beginning in 1998 he served locally as Commissioner of the Southern Cayuga Lake Inter-municipal Water Commission that coordinated the use of the Bolton Point water supply facility with the needs of several local municipalities. Internationally, Walter has been a consultant to the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, beginning in 1969 on the interaction between the environment and human health. Walter's formal government positions included serving in the U.S. Army in Korea as a sergeant (1946-48). Soon after moving to Ithaca in 1961 he chaired the City's Urban Renewal Agency (1965-68) which led to the development of the Ithaca Commons. After retiring from teaching at Cornell he was elected a trustee of the Village of Cayuga Heights, NY (2000-02) and then for three terms he served as the Village's mayor (2002-08), where again he put theory into practice with a heady dose of levity and common sense. He also served on the Board of Directors of both the Tompkins County Sciencecenter (1982-85) and of Planned Parenthood (1991-95). Prof. Lynn's many honors include, Fellow and Life member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and National Associate of the National Research Council of the National Academies; but to Walter, the highest reward was to be greeted cheerfully on the street while walking his dog Charlie (and then, Daisy) with a rousing "Hi-Walter". He also enjoyed fishing, flying (airplanes), wood-carving, calling square dances and an occasional game of poker. Valdimir (as mis-spelled on his birth certificate) Royal Lynn was born in New York City on October 1, 1928 to Norman Lynn (from Poland) and Gussie Gdalin (from Russia) who soon moved to Florida. Walter is survived by his wife Barbara Lynn of Ithaca, NY, their son, Michael Lynn of Stateline, Nevada, an older brother, Robert Lynn of Miami, Florida, and a nephew, Jeffrey Lynn of Hollywood, Florida. A Memorial Service to commemorate Walter's life is being planned in Ithaca for September. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Cornell University, in Memory of Walter Lynn.

Published in Ithaca Journal on June 17, 2011
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