The following appeared in The Boston Globe on October 23, 2019.
Woodie Flowers, MIT robotics guru who championed ‘gracious professionalism,’ dies at 75
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Born in 1943, Woodie Claude Flowers (“It’s really on my birth certificate,” he told MIT’s The Tech in 2011) was named for his grandfathers – Woodie and Claude — and grew up in Jena, La.
He was the younger of two siblings whose parents were Abe Flowers and Bertie Graham. His mother was an elementary and special education teacher. His father was a welder and inventor, though he wasn’t quite as inventive with family finances.
We were literally dirt poor – never owned a house – but he did things in interesting and creative ways and I think I mimic him,” Dr. Flowers recalled in the Flatland interview.
Money was so tight that he thought college was beyond reach until a high school shop teacher arranged for a rehabilitation scholarship. Dr. Flowers had broken an arm as a boy, and the injury wasn’t set properly.
He graduated in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Louisiana Tech University, where he met Margaret Weas. An education student, she initially stayed to finish a master’s at Louisiana Tech when he headed to MIT. They married in 1967 and she supported him through graduate work, switching from teaching to working in the computer field as they settled in Greater Boston.
From MIT, Dr. Flowers received a master’s in mechanical engineering, an engineering degree, and a doctorate, and as a graduate student he began designing prosthetics for above-knee amputees.
“He always wanted to learn,” Margaret said, and that continued into retirement.
They rose early to read together – “our 4 a.m. book club,” she said.
Interested in more than just a life of the mind, Dr. Flowers learned race car driving techniques in Watkins Glen, N.Y., and he took lessons on the trapeze and in hang-gliding and polo.
After he retired in 2007, “we thought, ‘Oh, he’s going to slow down,’ but he never did,” said his niece, Catherine Calabria of St. Augustine, Fla.
When Catherine bought a house, Dr. Flowers offered to help her build a table and found slabs of walnut and ash to craft into a one-of-a-kind piece of furniture, even though he hadn’t made one before.
“We treated it as a learning thing: ‘We’re going to learn a lot from this adventure,’” she said. “We just finished it two months ago.”
In addition to his wife and niece, Dr. Flowers leaves his sister, Kay Wells of St. Augustine.
FIRST, which is based in Manchester, N.H., and MIT will announce memorial gatherings to celebrate his life and legacy.
Along with teaching, Dr. Flowers hosted the national PBS series “Scientific American Frontiers” in the early 1990s and was awarded a regional Emmy.
He formerly was head of the system and design division in MIT’s department of mechanical engineering and had been FIRST’s Executive Advisory Board co-chair and distinguished adviser.
Dr. Flowers, who was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, counted among his many honors the Ruth and Joel Spira Outstanding Design Educator Award and the Edwin F. Church Medal, both from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
Yet he always stressed the necessary duality of his “gracious professionalism” approach.
“I don’t believe we can afford to have people claim to have a liberal education without understanding the universe. I don’t believe we can afford to have large numbers of technologists and scientists who choose not to pay attention to humanism,” he said in the Flatland interview.
On that point, he was sure his legacy was secure.
“I believe that gracious professionalism is alive and well at MIT,” Dr. Flowers told The Tech.
Editor’s Note: Click here for an NBC tribute to Woodie.
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