Updates on the campus response to coronavirus (COVID-19)

Kendall Su: The Standard for Educator Excellence

Atlanta, GA
Kendall and Jonathan Su

ECE Professor Kendal Su with his son Jonathan at his Georgia Tech Ph.D. Commencement Ceremony.

Download Image

Written by Roger Webb and David Hertling.

Shortly after President Joseph Pettit arrived at Georgia Tech in 1972, he encountered Kendall Su and remarked to Kendall that he had only recognized Kendall’s name on the Georgia Tech electrical engineering faculty. President Pettit surely intended his remark as a compliment, and Kendall took it as such. However, given President Pettit’s long-standing affiliation with electrical engineering academia while a faculty member in electrical engineering at Stanford and subsequently dean of engineering at Stanford, his remark was at the same time much more complimentary than probably intended and an apt evaluation of the status of electrical engineering at Georgia Tech.

Pre-Pettit, Georgia Tech was known as an excellent regional engineering school which produced excellent engineers, but whose name recognition had more to do with football than academics. By 1967, the School of Electrical Engineering (EE) had grown to include a little more than 20 tenure-track faculty. The undergraduate student body was large and growing, requiring multiple sections of most required courses, and a valiant attempt at establishing a viable graduate curriculum was underway. Thus, a typical faculty teaching load was four or five courses per quarter, plus some laboratory supervision, and few faculty members were able to find time for research.

Small wonder then that President Pettit’s unspoken evaluation was apt, and that his recognition of Kendall was remarkable. Without the benefit of funding for his research or workload relief to pursue it, Kendall persevered. In point of fact, throughout his long and productive career, Kendall neither sought nor received financial support or teaching load relief for his research and publication activities, and yet he authored over 25 refereed research publications, supervised 20 Ph.D. theses, and published six books. He loved his field of endeavor and felt obligated to contribute to its development and elucidation.

Kendall was born in Nanping, China, on July 10, 1926. Nanping is in the Fujian province, bordered on the east by a rugged coastline fronting on the Taiwan Strait and the west by  mountains with peaks rising to 6,500 feet. The island of Formosa (Taiwan) lies 100 miles from the coast. Kendall’s given name is Ling-Chiao Su; the name Kendall was adopted after he immigrated. He was the seventh of nine children born to the Reverend Ru-Chen Su and his wife, Xiu-Xiang Su. The family lived in a Methodist compound associated with a Methodist school where Kendall’s paternal grandfather was a teacher. The Reverend Su lived to be 100. He received his divinity degree from Boston University. Kendall greatly admired his father and recalled him as extraordinarily meticulous and a strict disciplinarian. Kendall’s mother, Xiu-Xiang Wang Su, initially joined the Su family as a domestic worker. Kendall recalls her as a very caring and good mother to her large family.

Kendall attended primary and secondary schools in Nanping and finished in 1943. In the fall of 1943, he entered college at the National University of Amoy, also known as Xiamen University, which was then located in temporary headquarters in Chang-ting due to the Japanese occupation and blockade of the coastal area. In 1946, the university moved back to the Amoy campus where Kendall completed his bachelor’s degree in electrical and mechanical engineering. He then went to work as a junior engineer with the Taiwan Power Company in Taiwan, China. Kendall emigrated to the U.S. in 1948, which was fortunate timing. In 1949, communists took over mainland China, and the nationalists fled to Taiwan after that emigration became more difficult.

Kendall’s immigration and subsequent enrollment as a graduate student at Georgia Tech was facilitated by a Rotary Club program. A husband of one of Kendall’s sisters, David Lin, had received a Methodist church scholarship to attend Emory University in Atlanta. David Lin learned of the Rotary Educational Foundation Scholarship from Kendall Weisiger, whom he knew. Mr. Weisiger was the president of the Educational Foundation of Georgia and ultimately arranged for Kendall to receive a fellowship attending Georgia Tech. After receiving Mr. Weisiger’s fellowship letter, Kendall, having decided an American first name would be advantageous, adopted the first name of his benefactor.

Kendall completed his master’s degree at Georgia Tech in 1949. In the fall of 1949, he enrolled at the University of Washington to pursue the doctorate, since Georgia Tech was not yet certified to grant Ph.D. degrees. Kendall didn’t like the weather in Seattle, so when Dr. Domenico Savant, then director of the School of Electrical Engineering at Georgia Tech, offered him a graduate teaching assistantship and asked him to enter the newly formed Ph.D. program at Georgia Tech, Kendall gladly accepted and happily returned to Atlanta in the fall of 1950. He completed his Ph.D. in 1954. His thesis, entitled “The Approximation Problem in the Synthesis of R-C Networks,” was under Dr. Ben Dasher. Kendall was the third to receive the Ph.D. degree from the School. While serving as a graduate teaching assistant, Kendall found that he liked teaching, so when Ben Dasher, who had become director of the School, offered him a position as assistant professor, Kendall readily accepted and joined the electrical engineering faculty in fall of 1954. 

Jennifer Su, Kendall’s wife, was born in Shanghai, China, but moved with her family 10 years later in 1948 to Taiwan. In Taiwan, she attended Taipei American School, an English-speaking school, and many of the students were children of U.S. military or U.S. embassy employees. After completing her secondary education, Jennifer applied to Brenau College, was accepted, received a scholarship, and, after clearing the necessary hurdles, came to Atlanta. She met Kendall through mutual friends in 1957, and they married in 1960.

Jennifer and Kendall have two children, Adrienne, born in 1967, and Jonathan, born in 1969. Adrienne was educated at Harvard and the University of Virginia. She is currently poet-in-residence and professor of creative writing at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. She is the author of four books of poetry and the mother of two daughters. Jonathan followed in his father’s footsteps and studied electrical engineering, receiving his BSEE at Rice University and his Ph.D. at Georgia Tech. Jonathan’s doctoral advisor, Regents’ Professor Russell Mersereau, offered Kendall the opportunity to install Jonathan’s doctoral hood, which Kendall eagerly accepted and proudly conducted at Jonathan’s graduation. Jonathan is now a research scientist at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. Jennifer had several impressive years as executive secretary at The Portman Companies when its famous founder, Atlanta architect John Portman, was extending his operations into China. She remains the strong and quiet bulwark of the Su family.

Kendall’s contributions to Georgia Tech were considerable. He was, without a doubt, the first “homegrown scholar.” He reached the highest academic position of Regents’ Professor, the first electrical engineering faculty member to be so recognized.

For four decades, he set the standard in teaching and scholarly publications. Kendall retired in 1994 but continued teaching for almost 10 years after he “retired.” Kendall was the mainstay of the required undergraduate circuits courses, so most electrical engineering graduates for five decades underwent the “Su treatment.” When asked, the common Su descriptions utilized were “tough” and “fair.” He was sometimes described as “Killer Su.” Many alumni credit his toughness in the beginning electrical engineering courses for preparing them for the rigor that would follow.

The course EE 205, required for all electrical engineering undergraduates, was the beginning circuits course until the curriculum change brought on by the Board of Regents mandatory degree credit hour reduction in 1973 and the material was moved to new courses, EE3200 and EE3250. Generally, there were three or four parallel sections of 205, with three or four different instructors, Kendall usually being one of them. Frequent quizzes were given in all sections, and so there was the inevitable competition regarding which section achieved the highest average quiz score. Kendall’s section almost always won. In addition to the core circuits courses, Kendall developed and taught courses in network synthesis and analog filter design.

The material from the analog filters course was the foundation for his last book, Analog Filters. This book was written later in his career after Adrienne and Jonathan had finished their undergraduate studies. He later told Jonathan that he had become focused on putting his children through college rather than advancing his career.

When he embarked on this project, he was very excited about writing again. Roger Webb, who as a graduate student took most of Kendall’s graduate courses, describes Kendall as, “without a doubt the best instructor I had in my many years taking engineering courses. His lectures provided no entertainment value, but what they did provide was truly remarkable conciseness and clarity. He was a master at elucidation.”

David McElroy, another of Kendall’s graduate students who eventually did his Ph.D. thesis under Kendall, remarks, “Dr. Su was an excellent teacher with unique ability to clearly and concisely explain complex material. His thesis supervision style was to suggest various research topics and approaches, then allow the student freedom to discover, and flounder, providing periodic guidance as necessary. The training and guidance I experienced under Professor Su prepared me well for what is now a 47-year-and-counting successful career at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. I appreciate having him as my Ph.D. advisor, my mentor, and my friend.”

Kendall’s first publication of note was his doctoral thesis, which won the Georgia Tech Sigma Xi Best Thesis Award, of which he was very proud. Several IEEE publications based on his thesis research followed, some co-authored with Ben Dasher. Kendall’s overall publication record, including his books, is well-recognized for the significance of his contributions and the quality of his scholarship. Kendall’s book, Fundamentals of Circuits, Electronics, and Signal Analysis, published in 1978, was utilized for many years in the electrical engineering circuit courses. Fellow faculty member Dave Hertling, while visiting his alma mater, University of Illinois, encountered Dr. Mac Van Valkenburg, then dean of engineering at Illinois and himself an icon in the circuits world. Van Valkenburg, upon learning that Dave was at Georgia Tech spontaneously expressed his admiration of Kendall Su, remarking that he would recommend Kendall’s books to anyone interested in circuit theory. This appreciation, coupled with President Pettit’s earlier recognition of Kendall, confirms Kendall’s stature and the significant role he played in enhancing recognition of Georgia Tech’s electrical engineering program.

Kendall, a quiet, self-effacing, and friendly person, was genuinely liked and admired by colleagues. His devotion to scholarship and the quality of that scholarship are well-recognized and admired. His classroom teaching and student mentoring were truly exceptional. When he finally “hung up the chalk” in 2003, he left behind an enduring standard of educational excellence. Kendall now resides in Stone Mountain, Georgia, with his wife, Jennifer. 

Last revised March 31, 2021