For 29 years, the Merrill Presidential Scholars Program has honored an elite group of graduating seniors. Each recognized student, in turn, recognizes a high school teacher and university professor who made a significant impact on his or her academic career at a spring luncheon.
To be recognized once or twice would be a feather in any instructor’s cap. The fact that engineering professor Charles Williamson has been an honoree’s choice a record 17 times says a lot about the man.
He’s made a difference in the lives of hundreds of students in 27 years, and the Merrill Foundation and Cornell are saying a heartfelt thank you in a conspicuous and fitting way.
In a surprise ceremony Oct. 21 in the Upson Hall Lounge, the Fluid Dynamics Water Channel Lab was officially named the Charles H.K. Williamson Lab. The naming opportunity arose during the recent renovation of Upson and, according to Doug Merrill ’89, who represented the family at the luncheon ceremony, the time was right.
“Occasionally when I’d come back to visit campus, I’d drop in on his class,” said Merrill, whose family gave a gift to support the naming. Dozens of Williamson’s former students also contributed. “It wasn’t hard to see why he was chosen so many times by his students. He clearly made it a lot of fun.”
Among the attendees was Bill Nye ’77, a longtime friend of Williamson and his family. He made the trip to Ithaca from Providence, Rhode Island, where he had an engagement the night before, just to attend the dedication event.
Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering, called Williamson “an extraordinarily careful and extraordinarily creative experimentalist,” with a bevy of honors and awards to his credit.
"Everything is dependent on the quality of the students, which is absolutely outstanding at Cornell."
“But if anything,” Collins said, “his accomplishments are upstaged by his great skill as an educator. He brings passion to fluid mechanics like no one I’ve ever known.”
Williamson’s other passion also involves water. He has sailed, both competitively and for recreation, for years and has been the faculty adviser for the Cornell sailing team since 1998.
“If you get the chance to indulge your passion at the same time with something you need to do [work],” he said, “it just gives you a real sense of joie de vivre and also raison d’être.”
The Briton then turned to his French-Canadian wife, Chantal Champagne, and playfully added: “I had to use two of those French phrases – did I pronounce that right?”
Champagne and their family – including daughter Emilie, M.D. ’17, and sons Nicholas ’12 and Philippe ’16, M.Eng. ’17, all in attendance along with Charles’ sister, Cara Richardson, and her husband, Mark – managed to keep the rededication plans a complete surprise to the honoree. Champagne told her husband that the children came to town for a belated birthday celebration; Williamson turned 61 on Oct. 7.
Williamson, the Willis H. Carrier Professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, was stunned when he entered the lounge filled with colleagues, former students, family and friends.
He said he didn’t realize what was happening until “about a minute after standing at that doorway, thinking that this cannot be true,” he said. “Seeing my sister here, and all my kids, past students and professors … it was unbelievable. I just couldn’t take it in. That was a ‘pinch me’ moment.”
Philippe Williamson, a furniture designer, came in from Seattle along with his brother, a senior software engineer at Microsoft, for the event. Philippe recalled his dad’s dedication to his students, himself included, pausing to compose himself more than once.
“He’s the professor who sat in Duffield until midnight before a prelim so his students …” he said, tears filling his eyes, “could come up if they had last-minute questions. He’d always try to reach out to people, and he’s really appreciated by his students.”
Nye, who graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and worked briefly for Boeing in Seattle before becoming TV’s “Science Guy,” wouldn’t have missed the ceremony, he said.
“Charles Williamson is a very important guy in my life, and if I have a chance to support him, I will,” he said. “My dad always said, ‘Don’t miss weddings or funerals.’ This is neither, but it’s a significant moment in the guy’s life, and to be here to share it means a lot to me.”
The lab naming meant “the absolute world” to Williamson, too. He felt it was as much or more a reflection of the hundreds of eager undergraduates whose lives he affected as of himself.
“Really, the bottom line isn’t just about having great colleagues, but it’s the quality of the students,” he said. “I’m telling you, that makes a complete difference. Everything is dependent on the quality of the students, which is absolutely outstanding at Cornell.”
Williamson earned his bachelor’s degree in naval architecture from Southampton University in England and his Ph.D. in fluid mechanics from Cambridge University. Following six years at the California Institute of Technology, he joined the Cornell faculty in 1990.
He won the 1994 W.M. Keck Foundation Award for engineering teaching excellence, as well as the 1999 Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellowship from Cornell, the university’s top teaching honor. In 2006, he was named New York state’s top professor by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.