Professor, 87, marks 50th year on campus

Professor, 87, marks 50th year on campus

CHAMPAIGN — The tradition in Roy Axford's family is to work forever. That's why, at 87 years old and celebrating his 50th year as a professor at the University of Illinois' department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering, he still teaches a full load of classes and has no plans of stepping down.

Retire? Him?

"I don't know if that word is in the dictionary," Axford said prior to Thursday's NPRE/American Nuclear Society banquet at the I Hotel and Conference Center, where he was to be honored for his half-century at the UI.

Of his exhaustive list of accomplishments, the man who in 1958 at MIT became the first U.S. student to earn a doctorate in nuclear engineering is most proud of the careers of the 53 doctoral students he has mentored.

They've gone on to work at other universities, national labs, even for reactor vendors.

"The complete spectrum of career opportunities," Axford said. "Every career opportunity available for a nuclear engineering graduate, one student or another have taken that path."

One of those students is Scott Ramsey, a 2009 UI graduate currently working at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. He's among a dozen or so Axford disciples at Los Alamos, one of two U.S. laboratories where classified work toward the design of nuclear weapons has taken place.

"He's meant everything to me professionally," Ramsey said.

Ramsey grew up in Bloomington and said had it not been for Axford's influence, he likely would have spent his entire life in central Illinois. Ramsey knew he wanted a career in nuclear engineering when he came to the UI, but didn't know what path to take.

Axford helped him navigate through that.

"Because of him, I got a student position at Los Alamos and I saw the awesome stuff out there and it was right for me," Ramsey said. "The fact that I've done the things I've done and seen the things that I've seen — nobody in my family would have had that opportunity — is all thanks to him."

Mindy Bogart, a 1983 UI graduate, traveled Thursday from Wilmington, N.C., to see Axford honored.

"It's difficult for somebody to stand out with the staff they have here, but he managed because he was consistently available and supportive," said Bogart, who most recently worked for General Electric.

"He really listened to what you said and never tried to make his own agenda yours. He truly listened and made recommendations to help you with your program of study."

Axford came to the UI in the spring of 1966 from Northwestern University, where he was working as a professor at the school's Technological Institute. If the folks in Evanston had their way, Axford would still be mentoring future engineering leaders there.

Northwestern offered more money, but Axford was drawn to Illinois because of the bigger student body.

"He loves to teach," said Axford's wife, Anne. "He's very sincere about this. He really wanted to teach as many people as he could."

After each of Axford's first five years at the UI, the dean from Northwestern would call to try to lure him back to Evanston.

"After the fifth year, he gave up and said 'If you change your mind, you call me,'" Axford said. "He was done calling me."

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