In memoriam: Robert Williges, professor emeritus in the College of Engineering
Robert Carl Williges, professor emeritus in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering in the College of Engineering, died July 11, 2020. He was 78.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, on March 19, 1942, Williges was a world-renowned scholar, teacher, and researcher in the field of human-computer interaction.
Williges started his career in academia at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as a human factors engineer before joining Virginia Tech in 1976, where he started as a full professor in two disciplines, industrial engineering and psychology. He became a full professor of computer science in 1992 and assumed the Ralph H. Bogle Professorship of Industrial and Systems Engineering in 1996.
He was the founder and director of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory at Virginia Tech. In 1979, he started human-computer interaction research with faculty colleagues in computer science. From their pioneering work, human-computer interaction emerged as a field of study in the early 1980s.
Williges made significant contributions to research on human-computer interaction, computer-based training procedures, human factors research methodology, technology for computer users with disabilities, human factors engineering in manufacturing, and emerging human-computer interfaces involving visualization and computer-based conferencing. He authored over 275 scientific publications and made more than 190 technical presentations at national and international scientific meetings.
“Bob was a wonderful colleague and provided leadership in our Human Factors Engineering and Ergonomics group and in the department over many years,” said Eileen Van Aken, department head for the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. “His commitment to his students inspired all of us, and he always had kind and encouraging words to share. Bob was a wonderful mentor to many faculty, and I'll always remember how supportive and welcoming he was when I began as an assistant professor in the department. He will be greatly missed.”
Williges served as the industrial and systems engineering graduate program director and advised and counseled numerous students during his career, serving as the graduate advisor for 46 masters and 15 doctoral students. According to his obituary, his students inspired him and he enjoyed following their careers after graduation.
Williges was very active in his field; he served in several professional technical societies, became a fellow and president of both the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and The Society of Engineering Psychologists of the American Psychological Association, and was editor of the Human Factors Journal.
In reflecting upon Williges’ 27 years at Virginia Tech, John Grado Professor John Casali recalled how fortunate he is to be one of the many graduate students that Williges taught in the late 1970s.
“Bob Williges was the consummate human factors engineering professor and scientist,” Casali said. “One of his instructional specialties was experimental design and statistical analysis as applied to human subject experimentation, and he instilled these skills in hundreds of students at Virginia Tech and prior to that at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign.
"Bob was a pioneer in that he laid a foundation for empirical research on human-computer interaction, and this developed into the important field of human-computer interface design," Casali continued. "Bob was an enthusiastic and caring man, who welcomed new students with a wonderful smile and laugh, and he provided financial support and mentorship for so many who now practice in this profession. He also had a rare ability to make others feel important and valued, and he will be missed by all of us who learned from him, and taught with him, in industrial and systems engineering at Virginia Tech.”
Williges received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wittenberg University in 1964, a master’s degree in 1966, and his Ph.D. in 1968, both in engineering psychology from Ohio State University.
Williges is survived by his wife, Beverly; his son, Chris, daughter-in-law Danielle, and beloved grandson Creig; and his sister Ellen.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorial contributions be made in Williges’ name to the Industrial and Systems Engineering Excellence Fund at Virginia Tech. There will be no services.
— Written by Linda Hazelwood