Announcing the Fredric G. Nearing Family Classroom
The new ECE building, under construction near the Beckman Institute and the Coordinated Science Laboratory, is beginning to show its definitive form. The steel and concrete frame is nearly complete. Workmen can be seen ascending staircases at the end of hallways, and before long, walls and windows will be in place, students will fill the labs, white boards in faculty offices will be covered with the squiggle and scrawl of new figures and formulas, and the building stage will be remembered only in photographs and memories. Yet the means of construction—the generous support of departmental alumni—will always be unmistakable.
Students will enter a classroom on the second floor of the south wing, prepared to learn about p-n semiconductor structure, perhaps, or algorithm optimization, and will take their seat in the Fredric G. Nearing Family Classroom, named in honor of Fred Nearing, a 1943 graduate of the department and veteran of electronic sales, who has given $500,000 for the building campaign.
“I’ve been lucky in my work career,” Nearing said, “and I found the harder I worked, the luckier I got.” Supporting the ECE building project was a means of spreading some of that good fortune to students and faculty who are pushing the forefront of electrical and computer engineering. In 1997, Nearing and his late wife, Betty, also established the Fredric G. and Elizabeth H. Nearing Endowed Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, currently held by Professor R. Srikant who conducts algorithm modeling, design, and analysis for communications networks.
When Nearing was a student, Everitt Laboratory had not yet been built, and most of his departmental classes were taken in the electrical engineering laboratory and annex, bordering the Boneyard Creek, where the Bardeen Quad is located today (see historic campus map). Burrill Avenue, now a pedestrian walkway, ran on the west side of Engineering Hall, and in Everitt’s stead, a circular drive directed students to the Health Services Building, a small structure set back from the corner of Green and Wright Streets. “There were a few buildings around,” Nearing said with a laugh. “My graduating class was, it seems to me, the low forties—forty to forty-five.” This past year, there were over three hundred graduates.
After graduating from the university, Nearing worked for Western Electric, writing technical data for field engineers, including information about the radar bombing system of the B-29 aircraft. At the end of World War II, he was the third youngest of 650 field engineers. “My guess is that they probably averaged fifteen years experience each. Here I was right out of school,” he recalled.
Afterwards, he went to Dumont Laboratories and then to Graybar Electric as a sales representative, and in 1949, he became a commissioned sales representative for Hewlett-Packard, then a ten-year-old company with 200 employees (they employ over 300,000 today), and he later became the Midwestern sales manager for Hewlett-Packard.
Nearing and several other sales representatives from Hewlett-Packard banded together in 1972 and formed an independent sales company, Electronic Instruments Associates (later renamed Electronic Equipment, Inc.). He worked there until retiring in 1989. “Selling electronic instruments was a great field in that it gets into every field imaginable, not just electronics,” he said. His clients included everything from a pioneer of medical ultrasound, John Wild, to the cleaning supply company, Johnson Wax. “I have a million stories,” he said of this diversity.
The old electrical engineering buildings that Nearing took classes in were removed in the mid-1990s, at the time Grainger Library was completed. Now, with the opening of the new ECE building, a third generation of electrical and computer engineer structures will have been used since Nearing’s time as a student. “Lot’s of changes,” he said.
One doesn’t have to look back too far to remember when, before the Beckman Institute was completed, the land beneath the new ECE building, where cranes can be seen, lifting steel beams into place, was used as a running track (otherwise known as Illinois Field, the home to the Fighting Illini before Memorial Stadium was completed in 1923). The Kenney Gym Annex, on what would have been the south side of the field, is a lasting memento of that history, and in that gymnasium, Nearing, like many electrical engineering students at the time, took fencing, wrestling, and other physical education classes.
While some things have changed dramatically over the past seventy years, others are timeless. Like Nearing, the students who come through the department are diverse and talented, in engineering topics and beyond. Nearing was a gifted clarinetist and played in the Marching Illini and was the first chair concert clarinetist his final two years.
Even now, at ninety-four, Nearing is active and energetic, doing his own gardening and yard work at his home in Barrington, Illinois, and when others ask him how he stays so healthy he tells them about the salubrious effects of gardening, sure, but also of his alma mater. “I say that I go down to Champaign six or eight times a year to try to keep my brain in shape,” he said. “I think you’ll have to look far and long before you find anybody ninety-four who can keep up with me.”
Nearing has served on the ECE and university alumni boards and also on several advisory boards. For his years of indefatigable support, he was honored with the Lou Liay Spirit Award at the 2012 homecoming, a university honor for a distinguished alumnus. The Frederic G. Nearing Family Classroom, too, is a testament to his unflagging spirit and commitment.
For the latest on the building project or to make a donation, visit buildingcampaign.ece.illinois.edu.