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In Memoriam: Cecil O. Alford, 1933-2019

Atlanta, GA

Written by Dr. Roger Webb.

Cecil Alford served with distinction as a School of Electrical and Computer Engineering faculty member from 1968 until his retirement in 1998. He began his longtime affiliation with Georgia Tech as a student, receiving the B.E.E. in 1956 and the M.E.E. in 1960. After receiving his master’s degree, he worked briefly in the aerospace industry before attending Mississippi State University, where he received a Ph.D. in 1966. Before returning to Georgia Tech, Cecil taught at Tennessee Tech from 1966 to 1968. He leaves behind fond and enduring memories with all who knew him.

Aubrey Bush, whose student days overlapped with Cecil’s, recalls Cecil as a brilliant and hard working student who received the Phi Kappa Phi cup as the top Georgia Tech graduate in 1956, as well as the Eta Kappa Nu award as the top electrical engineering graduate. He also recalled that Cecil was an avid Georgia Tech sports fan, was very active in the Baptist Student Union, and was available to assist fellow students, whether it be with academics or auto mechanics.

Roger Webb, a faculty colleague throughout Cecil’s Georgia Tech academic career, also remembers Cecil with fondness and admiration. “Before we both became too busy with other things, Cecil and I played one-wall racquetball two or three times a week in Peter’s Park. Cecil was quick and agile, with a deft left-handed ‘kill shot’, beating me more often than not. But the games and the going to-and-fro conversations were always amiable and enjoyable. Later, after becoming School Chair, I came to know more of Cecil’s professional abilities and superior intellect. He was key to the development and implementation of the computer engineering degree program within the School. His knowledge of both the technology and utilization factors of computers enabled the program to become a true engineering program rather than yet another ‘software engineering’ curriculum, a program that came to be recognized as one of the nation’s best. He initiated a computer engineering research center, CERL, securing ongoing extramural funding to support numerous graduate students. In 1985, he received one of the largest research grants in Georgia Tech history from the Department of Defense to develop a parallel processing computer system in support of the nation’s strategic defense initiative, Star Wars.”

Cecil was an especially gifted graduate student advisor. In 1992, he received the Institute award for the development of graduate research assistants. A total of nine students completed their Ph.D. programs under Cecil’s guidance. One of these, Wei Tan, a native of Indonesia, said, “America is known as the land of opportunity. It wouldn’t be so if not for people like Dr. Alford. He believed in me, hired me to work on his research project, and tutored me through my Ph.D. program.”

Another former student Stanley Belyeu said, “Cecil mentored each of his graduate students in ways that matched their skills and aptitude, but was more than just a mentor. He cared deeply for them personally, inviting them to attend special events with him and inviting them into his home. After graduation working with IBM, I was able to observe first hand Cecil’s special skill in developing and nurturing meaningful university, government, and industry partnerships.”

Mike Woods, who graduated under Cecil and then spent a couple of post-graduate years working with Cecil on the Star Wars initiative echoes and reinforces Belyeu’s sentiments, “I could cite many specific examples of Cecil’s intellect and professional accomplishments, but there was a very human and caring side to Cecil that needs to be recognized. He felt that everyone has individual strengths, weaknesses, and needs and that his job was to build on the strengths, help overcome the weaknesses, and alleviate the needs, and he took on that task enthusiastically with students and other employees.”

Certainly, the most poignant and meaningful memories of Cecil reside with his family, whom he dearly loved. Cecil’s son Richard shared some of those memories in a truly moving eulogy delivered at Cecil’s memorial service. Richard probably came very close to defining the essential Cecil when he said, “Helping others is what was of great importance to my Dad,” and then exemplifying the statement by recounting how he discovered quite by accident that his Dad was teaching a custodial staff member assigned to Van Leer to read.

Cecil Alford was a self-effacing and humble man who lived an exemplary life in service to his family, his students, and others who ventured into his circle of influence—a credit to Georgia Tech, to his profession, and most assuredly to himself.

Last revised May 15, 2020