In Memoriam: Theodor Tamir

The entire NYU Tandon community mourns the passing on November 22, 2018 of Theodor Tamir, an electrical engineer who devoted more than a half-century to our school — serving for a time as chair of his department, attaining the rare title of University Professor, and inspiring an annual award that is given to the electrical and computer engineering student with the best master’s thesis of the year.

Longtime friend and colleague Professor Emeritus Henry Bertoni contributed the biographical information for the following tribute:

Theo TamirTheodor Tamir was born on September 17, 1927 in Romania. During World War II the Red Cross managed to get clearance for a train to take Jewish teenagers from Romania to Palestine. So at age 15 Theo emigrated to what is now Israel. While most teenagers were sent to live on a kibbutz [communal farm], Theo’s asthma caused him to be diverted instead to Jerusalem. As part of his struggle to survive there, Theo started his electrical career as an apprentice in a radio repair shop. Later, during his service in Israel’s War for Independence, that training, along with his asthma, led to an assignment in radio repair for the Israeli army. During this period he met his future wife, Hadassah, whom he married in 1949.

After the War for Independence, Theo enrolled in the electrical engineering program at the Technion, receiving his B.S. in 1954. After graduation, he worked at the research and development arm of the Israeli army for four years before coming to what was then known as the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn for graduate studies. He earned his doctoral degree in 1962 and was invited to join the Polytechnic faculty in electrical engineering. He continued his studies into the propagation and scattering of electromagnetic waves (from radio to optics).

Theo became the head of his department shortly after Poly acquired the faculty, programs, and students of New York University College of Engineering — a time of great transition. He carried out his duties in a fair, steadfast manner, working to guide the department, accounting for its broadest interests, and skillfully integrating the two faculty groups. (Several of the people he recruited to help him went on to head the department themselves.)

Besides being an effective and committed administrator, he was a brilliant engineer. During his career, Theo carried out creative mathematical studies of electromagnetic wave propagation in layered and periodic media. One of his contributions was to describe the mechanism by which radio transmission occurs over long distances in forested regions. This result has continued to be cited by others. 

Early on, Theo saw the importance of optics for communications and brought this insight to others at the school. He is well-known for explaining various phenomena that had been observed for coupling light beams to waveguides.  This work is also still being cited. His most recent work dealt with using period grating like structures to enhance the efficiency of photovoltaic cells.

Memories from Other Friends, Students, and Colleagues

Former student Kaichiang Chang, who went on to make important contributions to modern radar technology, called Professor Tamir “not only my mentor for academic excellence but my role model for character integrity.” Chang continued, “He is a man of humility and kindness who affected my life profoundly. I was honored to be his student and will always miss him and remember him.”

Dean Jelena Kovačević, who in 2018 became the first woman to head the school since its founding in 1854, offered, "While I never had the privilege of working with Theo, I have been told of his impressive scholarship, commitment to students, and unparalleled devotion to our school and its ideals. We are all grateful for his decades of dedication and for the fine example he set for anyone lucky enough to know him." 

Professor Kok-Ming Leung recalled, “We were carpool buddies for over 15 years, commuting to Brooklyn from New Jersey, and we collaborated on numerous funded research projects. We published 13 journal articles together, four of them along with a Nobel Laureate from Princeton University.”

Professor Shivendra Panwar said, “I recall him very fondly as someone who always had a good story to tell, and he was passionately interested in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the school as a whole.”

Department Chair Ivan Selesnick asserted, “I think everyone who has chaired the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering since Theo’s tenure will agree that he left very large shoes to fill. His diplomacy, patience, intelligence, and fortitude have inspired us all, and he will always be a revered figure in our school community.”

Professor Zivan Zabar recalled, “Theo Tamir has a special place in my memory. In 1975, I applied for a position at Poly and was waiting anxiously in Haifa, Israel, for a positive reply. Just as we prepared for [the Jewish holiday of] Rosh Hashanah, Theo’s invitation letter arrived. At that time, Theo was the Head of Electrical Engineering Department and, as I’ve learned later, he made sure that his express letter would get to me in time for the holiday. What a wonderful gift he gave me and my family for the New Year. On my first day at Poly, Theo [and a few other faculty members] sat in his office on the third floor of Rogers Hall overlooking a large map of New York City, searching for the best possible location for an apartment for my family. A few weeks later, Theo invited me and my family for a dinner at his home in Teaneck, New Jersey, where we were welcomed with open arms. As a newcomer to a new country, a new language, and a completely new ambience, my family and I could not ask for a better introduction. While it can be difficult to adjust to a new environment, it became pretty easy with Theo on my side. During the years, we became good friends, with mutual respect for each other. I learned to trust him and his valuable advice, although all I could give him in return was a few tips about Apple computers. A calm and caring person, Theo tried his best to help his friends and never raised his voice in anger, even when the circumstances ask for it. For me, Theo was the epitome of integrity and compassion, a mensch.