WILLIAM E. GORDON, 92, scientist, educator and administrator at Cornell and Rice Universities, died in Ithaca, New York on February 16, 2010. Bill was born in Patterson, New Jersey on January 8, 1918. He attended public schools in Totowa Borough, and worked his way through Montclair State Teachers College, graduating with a B.A. degree in 1939 and an M.S. in 1942. He also earned an M.S. in Meteorology from New York University in 1946 and a Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1953.In 1941, Bill married Elva Freile, his college sweetheart. They were happily married for 61 years and had a son and a daughter. Bill is survived by his son, Larry Gordon and wife Christine of Centerville, MA, his daughter, Nancy Ward and husband George of Austin, TX; four grandchildren, Matthew Gordon and wife Kelly of Alpharetta, GA, Amanda Gordon of Boulder, CO, George Ward and Elizabeth Ward, both of Austin, TX; and three great grandsons, Jacob, Kyle and Andrew Gordon of Alpharetta. He is also survived by his second wife, Elizabeth Bolgiano Gordon, of Ithaca, NY.Before World War II, Bill taught in junior high schools in Mendham and Oradell, New Jersey. During the War, he served in the Army Air Corps, studying and teaching meteorology at New York University and experimenting with radar. Following the War he continued his radar work at the Electrical Engineering Research Labs at The University of Texas at Austin, and then moved to Cornell University where he pursued graduate studies and research, earning a Ph.D. Bill was on the faculty of Cornell from 1953 until 1966, living with his family in the nearby town of Dryden, New York, fixing up an old house and growing a huge garden.While at Cornell, Bill conceived of the idea for the world's largest radar. He received international recognition for the design of the massive 1,000 foot dish that would collect energy waves beyond the Earth's atmosphere. He oversaw construction of the radio telescope near Arecibo, Puerto Rico and was director of the Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory from 1963 until 1965. This remarkable facility has mapped the surface of Venus, discovered planets outside our solar system and sent messages in search of life beyond our own. Throughout his career, Bill mentored graduate students in their research at the telescope. He was an inspiration to these students and proud of their careers and achievements. One of his former students, now head of upper atmospheric research at the National Science Foundation, said of Bill, "He was probably the greatest man I ever knew. You don't see people like him very often. Perhaps once in a lifetime."At the fortieth anniversary of the radar's dedication, the Observatory won two prestigious awards, putting it in the top ten engineering achievements of all time. In his comments at the anniversary, Bill spoke about building the radar: "We were told by eminent authorities it couldn't be done. We were in the position of trying to do something that was impossible, and it took a lot of guts. We were young enough that we didn't know we couldn't do it." And so they did.In 1966, Bill and Elva moved to Houston, where he became a professor of space science and electrical engineering at Rice University. He also served as Dean of Science and Engineering, Dean of Natural Sciences, Interim President, and was Provost and Vice-President at the time of his retirement in 1986. He retired with the honor of being named Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Space Physics and Astronomy at Rice.Bill had the distinction of being the Foreign Secretary of the National Academy of Sciences (1986-1990), and of also being a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He belonged to and was an officer of many learned societies, a Guggenheim fellow in 1972-73, a vice president of the International Council of Scientific Unions, and an honorary president of the International Radio Science Union. He was also a member of the Texas Philosophical Society, the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and on the Board of Trustees of Cornell University. Bill received the Balth Van der Pol gold medal in 1966, the Arktowski gold medal in 1984, a USSR Academy of Sciences award in 1985 for contributions to international geophysical programs, and the centennial medal of the University of Sofia in 1988.Bill and Elva traveled the world for business and pleasure, gathering friends as they went. They had the honor of an audience with Pope John Paul II, visited the White House on more than one occasion, and knew and worked with distinguished scientists from around the world, including Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his early peace efforts during the Cold War. He was a consultant to industry, an advisor to the Air Force and Navy, and counseled many nations on large radar projects.Bill and Elva were long-standing members of the First Congregational Church in Houston. He was also an active supporter and President of the Board of Taping for the Blind in Houston. He was able to find a frequency for radio broadcasts for those with visual disabilities in the Houston area so they could enjoy newspaper and magazine articles on a special radio.Outside of work, Bill liked to raise tropical plants he had discovered in Puerto Rico. He and Elva enjoyed sailing "Dulcinea" on Galveston Bay with family and friends, and spending summers at their cottage on Cape Cod. The cottage was a gathering place for their children and grandchildren and the source of fond family memories. Family weddings, birthdays and anniversaries were celebrated on the screen porch there. In addition to reunions at Cape Cod, in 2001 the entire family gathered in Puerto Rico to celebrate the inaugural William E. and Elva F. Gordon Distinguished Lecture at the Arecibo Observatory, and to spend time together at the beach.In 2003, after the deaths of their respective spouses, Bill married Mary Elizabeth Bolgiano, a friend of long standing, and moved to Ithaca, NY. They enjoyed a wonderful second marriage which included traveling to Europe, Puerto Rico, visits to Houston, the west coast, and time spent with their expanded circle of family and friends. Each of them realized how fortunate they were to have had two happy marriages.Bill was a loving and patient father who encouraged his family to "reach for the stars." He loved to spend time with his children, his four grandchildren and his three great grandsons, and was so proud of each of them. He was a level-headed scientist with a huge heart. He was an intellectual who was recognized for his scientific work, but those who knew him will remember him for his kind, gentle soul. He loved life and loved his family as they loved him. He will be missed.Arrangements are being made for memorial services at Rice and Cornell. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to the Gordon Fellowship at the Rice Space Institute, the Gordon Scholarship at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice, or to the Gordon Distinguished Lectureship at Cornell.
Published in Houston Chronicle on Feb. 27, 2010.