CHAMPAIGN – A shadow box of achievements, a $300,000 graduate student award and a cake with LED candles capped a day-long symposium Friday that celebrated Nick Holonyak's birthday.
"Nick, you've accomplished so much, it's hard to believe it only took 80 years," Ben Streetman, a former colleague of Holonyak's, told the dinner crowd at the Champaign Country Club on Friday evening.
Dozens of friends, family and colleagues came to honor the life of Holonyak, inventor of the first practical light-emitting diode in the visible spectrum, a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the recipient of numerous national and international awards and honors.
Some even shared their stories – Holonyak's regular trips to the gym, his interest in people and his continuing influence on students today.
"He made it his business to run faster, bench-press more weight and climb rope better than anyone else," Streetman said. "When he left the gym, there would be white chalk hand prints on the floor where he would walk around on his hands. There were many days when his students and I didn't want to go to the gym, but we had to go because we didn't want to look like wimps."
Holonyak's former students collected $300,000 to fund a graduate student award – one of two presentations given to him – in honor of Holonyak and his wife to "recognize you for the support you've given so many of us," said Raymond Chin, a former student.
"It was a substantial, dramatic change after I came to know him," Chin said. "He and (his wife) always treated us equally and well."
Holonyak attributed his work to his early life as the son of a coal miner.
"I was lucky," he said. "I saw hardworking people who started with very little and they made what they eat. When I look at what's happening today, it scares me, because during the Depression people didn't live the way they expect to live now."
His father, Holonyak said, would rather starve than steal.
"There was only one thing to do, and that was learn," he recalled his father teaching him. "Read; read; read."
People today, Holonyak said, haven't seen hard times.
"Everyone looks at you and says, 'Find me some money, find me some money, find me some money,'" he said. "I think what we're supposed to do is find an idea, find an idea, find an idea. I think all you can do is go into your empty room and start working."