To Sidney Burrus: Teacher, Friend, Colleague

When I heard last weekend that Sidney Burrus had died I felt simply heartsick, bogged down with grief. Sid was the person most responsible for me staying at Rice after I graduated. People are often surprised to learn that my first real job here was as a post-doc in the School of Engineering. This odd career trajectory says much more about Sidney than it does about me. His relentless curiosity and willingness to come at things from unexpected angles was one of his defining characteristics and it led him to think that having a historian around the Dean’s office might be of some value. I don’t know if that’s so but he remained always an enthusiastic supporter, friend, and resource. I won’t recite again the facts and figures of his brilliant career (you can find those here and here) but I do want to say a small bit about what he’s meant to Rice, and what Rice meant to him.

It was my great good fortune to be called on to help with the task of emptying his office in Abercrombie, itself about to meet its maker. And as soon as I was in there I began to feel better, rather cheerful again and filled with gratitude that I got to be on the Earth at the same time as Sid. Cleaning out someone’s office is always an education, no matter how well you knew the person, and this was no exception. Delightful discoveries were everywhere. There were drawers full of carefully organized files of his academic work dating back to graduate school, which beautifully revealed the evolution of his scholarly ideas. I also discovered that Sid didn’t read things online. He found things online, then printed them out and read them on paper. This paper was not so carefully organized–it seems to have just collected and the sheer scope of what he read is amazing. Yes, there was engineering and science and technology but also many pieces about the future of the American university, about religion, about social policy of all kinds. I even found some Foucault! And most unusual were his books. In the offices of retired faculty the books tend to be old and outdated, useless but dustily preserved by inertia. Sid’s books, in contrast, were quite current, a reflection of his constantly forward-looking mind.

And yet. There was single shelf’s worth of old volumes. It was there that I came upon something that seems to me very lovely. Because as deep as Sidney’s drive to move forward was even to the end of his life, he always carried something of the old Rice with him. I already knew this, gleaned from conversations over many years. But in this one object I found a tangible demonstration of the ties of respect and love that have been shared by successive generations of Rice students and faculty.

It was this book, published in 1960 by Paul Pfeiffer, ’38, who was one of Sid’s teachers here:

Inside, this note. Sidney Burrus, ’57, ’58, ’60 had only just graduated when it was written:

Then I turned the page once more to discover that Pfeiffer had dedicated the book to James Waters, ’17, professor of electrical engineering, who had been Paul Pfeiffer’s own teacher at Rice:

Sid Burrus, rest in peace.

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12 Responses to To Sidney Burrus: Teacher, Friend, Colleague

  1. I was a colleague of Sid from 1968 thru 1978 in the Department of Electrical Engineering (and Computer Engineering). The previous post summarizes my feeling. Sid was a bedrock for EE and Engineering. Rice will be different without him!

  2. Sara Lowman says:

    Wonderful tribute, Melissa! Sidney was a very special person—he will be greatly missed.

  3. Gloria Meckel Tarpley says:

    You encapsulated him beautifully. We were all very lucky to be on the Earth at the same time as Sid, and to have shared a little bit of time with him. We will miss him.

  4. Galloway Hudson (Wiess '60) says:

    Beautiful tribute Melissa. I was there at “the Old Rice”. Waters and Pfeiffer were still there, as were other giants like Heaps, Tsanoff, Ryon, and Bray. I was not an EE major, but as an ME, I was privileged to take an electronics course in 1959 or 1960 that Sid taught as a grad student. I followed his phenomenal career after he returned to Rice from Stanford and saw him from time to time. He was a great one and will be sorely missed.

  5. Jessie says:

    Sorrow fades
    Never disappears
    Love you

  6. Nancy Burch says:

    Sid and I were members of the alumni board in the early 80s, a group that developed friendships that have lasted all these years. We called ourselves “Joe Reilly’s Board,” as Joe was the ARA president our first year. Sid was special. I will miss him.

  7. Karen Shelton says:

    Dr. Burrus did not know me personally, but always had a smile and kind greeting when we spoke in in the hallway of Abercrombie, or at SOE events. He was a kind man and hearing of his passing made me sad, as did the moment this morning when the movers went past me with all the boxes coming your way from his office here. I will fondly remember my time in Abercrombie and my interactions with this fine gentleman. RIP.

  8. Bob Roosth says:

    I do not recall what classes I had with Prof. Burrus, but I fondly remember being in at least one. Thank you for your tribute.

  9. Bill Harris says:

    I took his EE342 electronic circuits course, and one story sticks with me that speaks to his broad interests. He told of counseling a electrical engineering student on what courses to take, and this student didn’t want to take quantum mechanics because “I’ll never use quantum mechanics.” His answer was simple and straightforward: “The only way to know you won’t use quantum mechanics is if you don’t know quantum mechanics.” Thank you for your tribute.

  10. rusk49 says:

    Sidney was a great friend, from the days when we were in grad school together. When I left the last embers of the Rice Computer Project in 1976 I joined Don Glaser’s computer lab in the Dept. of Surgery at Baylor, and when I was assisting a cardiology intern in analysing his research data I needed to know more about digital signal processing so I knew where to go. Sidney pointed me to the right references I needed. From time to time our paths would cross again and we always had much to talk about. I had been planning to try and meet with him at Brazos Towers the week before the news of his death.

  11. Josef Aaron Sifuentes says:

    What an exciting find to come upon the Linear Systems book connecting three great people in Rice’s history. I was fortunate enough to have met Dr. Burrus and Dr. Pfeiffer, though he was retired when I was there, but always around and curious. As an undergraduate, I won an award named after James Waters, but didn’t know much about him. Glad to learn about this connection here.

  12. Thoughts tonight of a client’s problems caused Dr. Burrus to pop into my head. Again. In maybe 1972 he and I were having a spirited discussion of my choice of courses for a EE major. My choices were too broad and scattered to fit a standard curriculum. He eventually approved it with the stipulation that I include a couple of his digital signal processing courses (which I wanted to avoid). For decades I have made my living solving problems that required just such a broad, scattered set of skills, including digital signal processing, and I was seized with the desire to drop him a note of thanks. Then I remembered that I cannot. 🙁 I loved the quote above about the only way of knowing you would not use quantum mechanics is if you did not know quantum mechanics 🙂

    He still inhabits my thoughts and I can hear his lectures. Not too long ago I attended an interesting talk he gave at Fondren Library on books that influenced him. I used the opportunity like a white-haired groupie to have him sign my copy of DFT/FFT and Convolution Algorithms. Thanks for the lovely tribute, Melissa.

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