Alumni, industry leaders celebrate Don Greenberg

Don Greenberg
Brian Long Productions/Provided
Donald P. Greenberg ’55, Cornell’s Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Computer Graphics, right, speaks during a panel discussion April 12 in San Francisco.

Industry leaders, academics and former students gathered April 12 in San Francisco to celebrate the legacy and continuing impact of Donald P. Greenberg ’55, Cornell’s Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Computer Graphics.

“Don is not retiring,” said Kent Kleinman, the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of Architecture, Art and Planning, “and I don't think he should or ever will. … But after five decades of brilliant teaching and mind-expanding research we decided it was long past time to celebrate his amazing accomplishments.”

Greenberg directs the Program of Computer Graphics, which he founded in the late 1960s. The program has become a world leader in 3-D computer modeling and animation. Greenberg has mentored hundreds of Cornell students, many of whom have made fundamental contributions in computer graphics and rendering.

Kleinman, calling Greenberg a “fearless innovator with groundbreaking achievements,” highlighted Greenberg’s industry and academia accolades and his current teaching about disruptive technologies at Cornell Tech and in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and ongoing research.

“Don is particularly good at finding and nurturing talent,” Kleinman added, noting that six former students have won Oscars in technical categories and five have won top awards from the leading organization in computer graphics.

Former Autodesk CEO Carl Bass ’78, who met Greenberg on a basketball court and said that a conversation with him on a bench in Teagle Hall was the most influential one of his life, hosted the event in San Francisco. Nearly 200 alumni and colleagues across fields including architecture, engineering, entertainment, higher education and medicine paid tribute to Greenberg’s accomplishments.

“I always admired Don’s integrity, his conviction and, possibly, his stubbornness about the way he went about approaching computer graphics,” Bass said. “It was about this honesty of really understanding how the world worked, how physics worked, and how light and energy transfer worked. … I have continued to marvel at Don’s curiosity, He pushes all of us.”

Bass moderated a discussion among Greenberg and two of his former students: Marc Levoy ’76, M.Arch.’‘78, professor emeritus of computer science at Stanford University and a principal engineer at Google; and Rob Cook, M.Arch. ’82, commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Service and retired vice president of software engineering at Pixar Animation Studios.

Levoy described Greenberg as a “pathfinder with a long list of firsts,” including revolutionizing computer animation and developing the first architectural fly-through of computer-generated renderings, “Cornell in Perspective,” which Levoy worked on in the ’70s. Levoy said Greenberg has thrived on the cross-fertilization of fields. “These connections between fields, which seem so obvious to us now, were not at all apparent at that time.”

Greenberg, who said his interests extend to bioengineering and neuroscience as foundations for advancing virtual realities, said: “It turns out that we were solutions in search of a problem, and the same algorithms that we used for describing surfaces and lines, we used for the design of ship hulls and automobile bodies, migrated into CAT scans of the ivory-billed woodpecker to see whether we could model that, which moved into the simplification of energy studies for climate change, which moved into the repair of aortic aneurysms in the medical world. That’s the same problem. It’s a technique in search of a problem.”

Cook, an Academy Award winner in computer animation, said Greenberg’s “drive for impact made him a natural in industry and an instinct for insight and rigor made him great in academia.”

Greenberg made a plea for restructuring to encourage greater cross-fertilization. “We've gone through 50 years of exponential growth in the digital world, and computer graphics is a mature topic today,” he said. “… it’s time to rethink the structure and the organization of universities so that we no longer teach in silos and have the opportunity to take advantage of projects where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

He also advocated for greater flexibility in course requirements to allow students to take courses across more interests, including the arts and humanities.

Building on a set of global challenges outlined by former Cornell President Jeffrey Lehman – life in the age of the genome, wisdom in the age of digital information and sustainability in the age of global development – Greenberg added several more: “One is compassion for the underprivileged … another is greater respect for the processes that go on in literature, the humanities, the arts and sciences … and a third is the sensitivity to make judgments about what we read and hear in a new world of alternative facts.”

In closing remarks, Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering, recalled seeing Greenberg leading bands of students across campus: “They were following the pied piper. You’ve had this amazing influence on your students and industry has been advanced by the work that you’ve done.”

Software engineer Phil Brock ’84, M.Arch ’86, said Greenberg “changed my life completely,” a sentiment expressed by many of Greenberg’s former students. “It was an expansive time for computer graphics,” Brock said. “If you went through Don’s program, there was a world of opportunity waiting for you.”

An animated, visual representation of Greenberg’s former students developed by Autodesk software engineer Eric Haines ’85 underscored Greenberg’s impact on the careers of hundreds of alumni.

Addressing his former students, Greenberg said, “You guys made my life.”

Diane Lebo Wallace is a writer for Alumni Affairs and Development.

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