CHAMPAIGN — Dr. Paul Edward Saylor passed away Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, after a prolonged illness, at Carle Foundation Hospital, Urbana.
He joined the University of Illinois Department of Computer Science in 1967 and received a BS from Stanford University in 1961, an MS from the University of Texas in 1963 and a Ph.D. from Rice University in 1968, all three in mathematics. He arrived at Rice the year following John F. Kennedy's address from Rice Stadium, which challenged the nation to reach the moon and accomplish other things, "not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills." He exemplified a virtuous response to Kennedy's challenge where scientific pursuit ranked as a highest calling, modeling its ideal with boundless energy, work ethic and optimism in fathoming the unfathomable.
At Illinois, Professor Saylor focused on scientific computing and numerical analysis, specializing in approaches to approximating the solutions to systems of partial differential equations arising through scientific study, equations which cannot be solved precisely but for which an error can be calculated and minimized through an iterative process. He found great success collaborating with colleagues outside his field to tackle and address difficult, large-scale problems in aeronautics, electromagnetics, groundwater hydrology, oil reservoir detection and general relativity. His collaborations enabled computational models of gravitational events such as coalescing black holes and neutron stars, providing detailed event signatures for which the first detection was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.
He helped grow the Department of Computer Science from the days of an emerging new discipline to an internationally recognized research institution. Following retirement from Illinois in 2001 after 34 years of service, he held positions with the National Science Foundation as program director for computational mathematics and at Louisiana State University Center for Computation and Technology as visiting professor. He served as principal investigator for the NASA Earth and Space Grand Challenge on Simulating the Merger of Binary Neutron Stars. From the late 1970s through the 2000s, he held consulting positions at Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Lawrence Berkeley and Sandia National Labs. Recognized by the UIUC Department of Computer Science in 2015 with the Distinguished Service Award, he remained emeritus professor with the university through the remainder of his life.
Born March 19, 1939, in Dallas, Paul spent his youth in Raytown, Mo., and the Dallas area. A Texan who lost his accent well into life, he grew up hunting birds on the farm of his maternal grandparents in eastern Texas and assisting through high school with the operation of his family's hamburger stand in Irving.
He is survived by his beloved wife, Cynthia, who provided personal care and limitless health care advocacy throughout his illness. They married June 27, 1964, and remained dedicated to one another for 56 years, finding a long-term home in Champaign-Urbana, to the surprise of both, establishing many, many long friendships.
Paul's academic appointment to Illinois foretold a homecoming of sorts to the state, as the Saylor family originally settled in Naperville in the 1840s and sent five sons to fight for the Union during the Civil War, an association not lost on Paul, reflected in the many voice recordings and notes he captured of family conversation through the years. Together, Paul and Cynthia dedicated much to the development of the professional and personal lives of Paul's students who, in ensuing years, transitioned into successful and influential positions.
Gene Golub (UIUC Ph.D. '58) recognized this uncommon devotion with his establishment of the Paul and Cynthia Saylor Professorship in Computer Science at the University of Illinois, a rare and generous act for a rare and generous partnership.
Paul is also survived by his sons, Gerrit (Kimberly) of Seattle and Gerard (Erin) of Lake Mills, Wis.; grandsons, Quentin and Ian; brother, Doyle (Jan); favorite nephews, Andrew (Jennifer) and John (Mary) Kenner; honorary family member, Ivor Brown; and many devoted doctoral students who remained close after many years.
Paul was an avid lifelong reader who told of the low point in his pursuit when sentenced to high school detention after erupting in riotous, uncontrollable laughter while reading Don Quixote during a silent period. Although he ran actively for decades through the most inclement of Illinois weather to maintain fitness, it was impossible to draw him into organized games and sports. Still, he remained puckish, social and engaging throughout his life. Paul, not uncommonly, would bring students, visiting academics and dignitaries home for dinner without notice for evenings of warm, productive conversation subject to his interminably long vocal pauses.
His family anguished in his latter years under the pain of his weakest puns. He suffered no fools in the family, regularly calling out "Bullfeathers!" to his children and nephews. Exclamations of "Sacre bleu!" in an exaggerated accent reflected his regular exasperation.
At his core, he was caring, thoughtful, dedicated and, above all, selfless, even to his detriment. He recognized the vast complexities in navigating life with others through an endless patience and an open ear. A singular individual is deeply missed.
Memorial services will be scheduled at a future date.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Paul Saylor Fellowship in Scientific Computing at the University of Illinois (cs.illinois.edu/give/give-now). Condolences may be offered online at pesaylor.com. Morgan Memorial Home, Savoy, is assisting with arrangements.