Walter F. O’Brien Jr., the J. Bernard Jones Professor of Mechanical Engineering, passed away July 25 surrounded by his family.

O'Brien, who was born in Roanoke in 1937, received his B.S. and Ph.D. from Virginia Tech in 1960 and 1968, respectively, and he earned his M.S. from Purdue University. He was a member of the Virginia Tech faculty for more than 52 years, and was the first faculty member from the department to receive a named professorship.

O'Brien served as an assistant, associate, and professor of mechanical engineering, and in 1987 was a visiting scientist in the Aero Propulsion Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. In 1990 he was appointed Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies for the College of Engineering, and he was one of the founding Associate Deans of the Virginia Consortium of Engineering and Science Universities. In 1993 he was named Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering where he served until 2004. In 2002 he chaired a successful multi-university proposal to found the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), a NASA-affiliated Research Institute in Hampton, Virginia.

O’Brien was the first Virginia Tech mechanical engineering professor to establish an identifiable research group, the Gas Turbine Research Institute, which he did as a junior faculty member. The effort marked a turning point in the department’s evolution from a well-respected regional teaching faculty into a nationally recognized research power.

During his tenure, O’Brien supervised the graduate work of more than 130 M.S. and Ph.D. students, and published more than 150 technical papers and journal articles in the field of propulsion. An internationally recognized expert in the field of propulsion, O’Brien was a Life Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, and a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He was a recipient of the SAE’s Teetor Award as an Outstanding Engineering Educator, and the Virginia Joint Engineering Society’s Pletta Award as the Outstanding Engineering Educator in the State of Virginia, in addition to many other awards and recognition.

In 2018 O’Brien was elected to the inaugural class of the Mechanical Engineering Society of Distinguished Alumni.

The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, people make a donation to a charity of their choice.

A complete obituary can be found here.

— Written by Rosaire Bushey

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