Professor Emeritus Robert Colwell, who taught mechanical and mechatronic engineering for 34 years, passed away September 22. He was 82.
Born August 29, 1939, in Johnson City, New York, he moved with his family to the Pacific Northwest as a young boy and graduated from high school at age 16. He went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Washington State University. In 1968, Colwell earned his PhD from Oregon State University.
He was hired at Chico State College In 1966, where he was beloved by his students and fondly known as “Dr. Bob.” It was Colwell’s vision to make the Mechanical Engineering Department and its curriculum transformational, and he provided the leadership to make it happen, said retired engineering professor and former dean Mike Ward, who was hired by Colwell in 1988.
“He was a very practical no-nonsense manager who was totally devoted to our students’ success,” Ward said. “Many of our students were close to him, as he was known by all.”
Colwell was equally committed to the faculty, and as he worked to grow the department, he made new hires feel welcome both on campus and within the community. Professor Emeritus Greg Kallio still remembers how Colwell and his wife welcomed him and his wife to dinner at their home during his interview and then drove them around Chico with stops at Bidwell Park and Bidwell Mansion, a personal touch that made his decision to accept the position easy.
“I soon found that our small department of diverse faculty and staff, which Bob essentially built, was a close-knit family with a strong student-centered focus,” he said. “This special rapport with students was something I had never experienced before, and the faculty have maintained that legacy through the years to this day.”
In addition to his caring nature, Colwell was also progressive in terms of teaching and curriculum, Kallio said. He introduced solar energy technology into the curriculum in the 1970s, and even though personal computers were expensive and still in their infancy in the late 1980s, he ensured the department had the best IBMs and technical word-processing software available. He also promoted computer-based engineering analysis and teamed with another faculty member to develop a novel equation-solving application that was eventually marketed as “ChicoSolver.”
With expertise in thermodynamics and heat transfer, he also prioritized a department that reflected a range of specialties and backgrounds, and helped start a joint master’s program with Sacramento State that lasted for many years. His colleagues noted that Colwell went out of his way to support faculty with their research and teaching interests.
“He strongly believed in diversity and wanted to grow the department, which he did. All those he hired are his legacy of his open-mindedness to diversity,” said retired professor Ramesh Varahamurti, who Colwell hired in 1984. “He afforded us the freedom to grow in our areas of expertise in a pleasant working condition. He was all about the department and the students.”
Colwell retired from Chico State in 1990 and moved with his wife, Suzanne, to Montana to serve as department chair at Montana State University. He finished his professional career doing contract work with the Department of Energy in Colorado and Pacific Gas & Electric in San Luis Obispo County.
In addition to his passion for engineering, Colwell enjoyed waterfowl and big game hunting, fishing, and spending time with his family. He is survived by his wife, Suzanne; sons Rand and Tyler; daughter Dana; sister Joyce; and numerous grandchildren, nieces, grandnieces, and grandnephew.
A private celebration of life will be held at a later date. The University flag will be lowered Monday, November 1, in his memory.