Thomas Waddy Eagar of Belmont, Massachusetts, former Head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and Professor of Materials Engineering and Engineering Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), died at home on Sunday, October 9, 2022. He was 72.
Dr Eagar was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on January 9, 1950 to Harry Douglas Eagar, Sr and the former Emily Clarkson Thompson.
He is survived by his wife, Pamela (Garrett) of Belmont, MA; brother Harry Eagar Jr (Tricia) of Sykesville, MD; sister Emily Maxwell (Richard, d) of Gainesville, FL; and seven children: Matthew Eagar (Jianna) of Belmont, MA; Bekah Dunkley (Greg) of Boise, ID; Linda Simpson (Chuck) of Apex, NC; Karen Meeker (Jared) of Provo, UT; James Eagar (PJ) of Orem, UT; Anna Taylor (Richard) of Salt Lake City, UT; and Tom C Eagar (Ali) of West Hills, CA. Also, 29 grandchildren: Meredith, Garrett, Haley, Bethany, Phoebe, Cader, Topher, Maggie, Hayden, Stewart, Adaline, Laurel Barlow (David), Ben, Megan, Jacob, Seth, Luke, Jesse, Aaron, Adam, Ellie, Ada, Levon, Gabe, Linus, Misha, Russell, William, Henry; and great grandchild, Emily.
Dr Eagar graduated with honors from First Colonial High School in Virginia Beach, VA and continued his education at MIT in Cambridge, MA where he studied materials science. He received his SB in Metallurgy and Materials Science in 1972 and his ScD in Metallurgy in 1975, both from MIT.
Dr Eagar married his high-school sweetheart, Pamela Dozier Garrett, on April 17, 1973 in their church’s temple in Salt Lake City, using wedding bands which he crafted from a bespoke alloy of platinum-iridium. Ten feet of snow in Yellowstone changed their honeymoon plans. With his doctoral degree still one year in the future, they moved into MIT student housing, where their oldest son, Matthew, was born in 1974.
Shortly thereafter, Dr Eagar accepted a position with the Bethlehem Steel Corporation in their Homer Research Laboratories and moved with his family to Pennsylvania where they prepared to build a life. First daughter, Rebekah, arrived in 1975.
Dr Eagar found corporate work stifling and soon began looking for ways to redirect his creative energy. When Dr Mert Flemings reached out to inform him that there was an assistant professorship opening at MIT, Dr Eagar was intrigued. They had just purchased a condominium, but after prayerful consideration, Tom and Pam decided to apply for the faculty position.
Dr Eagar returned to MIT in 1976 as an Assistant Professor of Materials Engineering and the family moved to Watertown, Massachusetts. Children were coming quickly still: Linda in 1976 and Karen in 1978, the year the family moved into their current home in Belmont. James arrived in 1981.
Dr Eagar became Associate Professor of Materials Engineering in 1980. It was the beginning of the Reagan era, and as someone who focused on the “low tech” fields of metals and welding, Dr Eagar became one of the most funded professors in the department through various grants from the Departments of Defense and Energy. His research was instrumental in helping the US Navy learn how to weld titanium submarines — something the Soviets were already doing. Titanium was key in producing light, fast-moving vehicles which would rise to the surface rather than sink when they lost power. Perhaps because of his significant research budget and large cadre of graduate students, Dr Eagar became a tenured professor in 1983.
In 1984, when fourth daughter Anna was still a newborn, Dr Eagar took a sabbatical year and moved the family to Tokyo, Japan where he worked for the Office of Naval Research. It was the height of the Japanese economy, and Dr Eagar was there to study Japanese manufacturing in general and steel production in particular. He saw how innovation in steel production was driving margins away from the business. It had already shifted from the US to Japan, and would shift again to South Korea, and then again to China and India.
From his base in Tokyo, Dr Eagar traveled to Soviet Russia and Communist China. In the USSR he enjoyed games of cat-and-mouse with his KGB handlers, and in China he had to dispose of his American-size consulting fee in non-transferrable Renminbi before leaving the country. When he returned home with a green, hand-woven rug, Pam asked, “Where will you put that?” “In my office,” was the reply. “You’re going to put a green rug next to purple chairs?” Dr Eagar suffered from deuteranomaly. Into the house the green rug went.
Dr Eagar returned to MIT in 1985, becoming a full professor in 1987. Youngest son, Thomas Clarkson, was born in 1989. The year prior, Dr Eagar had begun to expand his academic reach even further. He became a professor in the Leaders for Manufacturing program (now Leaders for Global Operations), and then co-director of that program from 1993-1995.
By this time, Dr Eagar was well-known for his work on material fatigue and stress, and he was often sought after in legal circles as an expert witness for analysis of structural and equipment failure. For example, during construction of the iconic John Hancock Tower in Boston, windows began popping out of its upper stories and falling to the ground – a mishap which led to many years of suits and countersuits. Dr Eagar was called upon to explain the reasons for those alarming failures, as he was in many other cases across the country and around the world. Despite his busy travel schedule, Dr Eagar always took one day off each week to serve as a Cub Scout leader. During this time he also briefly served as acting head of his department at MIT.
Dr Eagar became the Richard P Simmons Professor of Materials Engineering in 1990, and POSCO Professor of Materials Engineering in 1993. In 1995, Dr Eagar became Head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE).
DMSE had never succeeded in appointing a woman to a tenured role. In fact, many of the most promising candidates were leaving for other universities, and DMSE was developing a reputation as unfriendly to women and minorities. Dr Eagar reversed that decline, convincing several women to stay and then making sure they were recognized for their work. Colleagues describe the change in atmosphere in the department as “the difference between night and day.”
Long hours at work were taking their toll. Soon after becoming department head, Dr Eagar was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He continued his administrative, teaching, and other duties while undergoing surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. After five difficult years, he stepped down in 2000.
Around this time, Dr Eagar was appointed bishop of the Revere Second Ward of the Cambridge Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although his “home ward” was in Belmont, he received a special assignment to help develop local leadership in Revere. He completed this assignment in two years, and those he mentored during this time have gone on to hold significant leadership positions in the church.
Upon his release as bishop, Dr Eagar became eligible to serve as an ordinance worker in the church’s new Boston Massachusetts Temple. He would continue to serve in this capacity for the remainder of his life.
In 2001, Dr Eagar became the Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Engineering and Engineering Systems. In December of that year, Dr Eagar and his colleague Dr Christopher Musso were the first to publish a scientific analysis of the collapse of the World Trade Center resulting from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Although their paper, “Why Did the World Trade Center Collapse? Science, Engineering, and Speculation,” was a relatively short review in a niche industry periodical, it garnered broader attention. Dr Eagar became a target of conspiracy theorists in the 9/11 “Truther” movement, and received threats and harassment for the next several years.
When producers working on a 9/11 anniversary production for the National Geographic Channel contacted Dr Eagar about a point-counterpoint style review of events, he declined, stating that he would not give equal weight to conspiracy theories alongside reality. After some review, the producers returned to Dr Eagar with a proposal which eventually became “Remembering 9/11: Science and Conspiracy,” a MythBusters-style takedown of key 9/11 conspiracy myths. The television special aired just before the tenth anniversary of the event, in September, 2011.
In 2005 Dr Eagar resigned his chair to provide more opportunity for younger faculty to advance. He transferred a significant portion of his lab space and equipment to create the Laboratory for Engineering Materials, a prototyping and fabrication space available to all of DMSE, from undergraduates through professors.
Even as he withdrew from his earlier research focus, Dr Eagar increased his efforts to make engineering education more inclusive. Dr Eagar had been an early adopter of technology since the beginning of his career (he claimed to have been the first person at MIT to use a word processor for his graduate thesis). In the mid-1990s, he began to record his lectures and post the videos on his MIT website, https://eagar.mit.edu/.
In 2004, Brigham Young University (BYU), Provo – flagship school of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – invited Dr Eagar to interview for the position of Dean of Engineering. During the interview process, Dr Eagar identified a unique opportunity: to use the school’s thousands of former missionaries and their language skills to translate the academic curriculum and post it online for the benefit of the world. When BYU did not hire Dr Eagar for the position, he continued to pursue this idea on his own – years before the boom in “ed tech” which brought about organizations such as edX and Coursera. When Dr Eagar’s students told him about a new service, YouTube, he was anxious to share his many hours of lectures there for the world to see.
In these later years, Dr Eagar became the “de facto historian of DMSE.” He began taking notes for a book on MIT and the history of engineering. In 2018, former students and colleagues prepared a special “50 years at MIT” celebration for Dr Eagar to reflect on his time since matriculating as a freshman.
Dr Eagar’s concern reached beyond just students and faculty. He knew the custodians by name. He would teach early-morning classes, and as an enticement to his students, he regularly provided food. Leftovers invariably went to custodial staff who worked the early shift. As one student wrote, “Tom looked out for the little guy.”
As his children married and became established in their careers, Dr Eagar remarked that he was now working to provide opportunities for people outside his own family. He invested in several startup companies – former students, people he encountered while serving on corporate boards, local contractors trying to break out. Dr Eagar regularly gifted cars, paid down mortgages, and provided various other forms of assistance for people he encountered who needed help.
In his church, he continued to work with young people, teaching Sunday School, and serving as an “Activity Days” leader – a successor to the Cub Scout program. He left behind stacks of t-shirts which he designed, along with kits which the children could use to make meals for their families. Not prepared to stop teaching, Dr Eagar retired on July 1, 2022 but retained a non-tenured professorship so that he could still be allowed in the classroom. He was one month into the new academic year at the time of his passing.
Dr Eagar was the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship (1972-1974); fellowship at ASM International (1989); fellowship in the American Welding Society (1994) and subsequent honorary membership (1999). In 1997 he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering for his contributions to the theory and practice of welding. In 2003, he became a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Dr Eagar served on various national and international panels, committees, and boards, testified before the United States Congress, and was a trusted adviser at the state and national level. During his career he taught 19 different courses at graduate, undergraduate, and professional levels; published over 200 papers; and was awarded 17 patents.
Dr Eagar was laid to rest in a private burial service at the Highland Meadows Cemetery in Belmont. A public memorial service was held on Saturday, October 15 in the Belmont Chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 15 Ledgewood Place.