Professor Wesley L. Harris is a private person who prefers to celebrate birthdays quietly with his family, little fanfare, no fuss.
When his 60th loomed last fall, his wife, Sandra, wanted to surprise him by doing something special. Her dilemma: What do you do for a man who has everything? "I wanted it to be something memorable and lasting," said Mrs. Harris, who conferred with people close to her husband, including Professor Emeritus Leon Trilling, his mentor, colleague and longtime friend.
Mrs. Harris and Trilling enlisted others close to Professor Harris and established the Wesley L. Harris Scholarship Fund for MITE2S , the the Minority Introduction to Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Science program.
"It provides mentorship for young people in person rather than in spirit," said Mrs. Harris, noting that most scholarship funds are created as memorials.
Trilling said, "Opening a door to a young person is a particularly appropriate way to honor Wes in his lifetime."
"My family, friends and former students have given me the greatest gift, namely to continue to include me in their lives in a genuine and sincere way," said Harris, a professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (aero/astro) who is an active participant in the MITE2S program, established in 1974.
"I am extremely grateful to each of my students who have shared their intellectual gifts with me and with each other while we solved a series of challenging and important technical problems. Hopefully, this scholarship will provide opportunities for other minority students to share their intellectual gifts," he said.
The intimate house party Mrs. Harris was planning to celebrate her husband's birthday grew into a black tie catered affair at the University Park Hotel at MIT on Oct. 26 (Harris's birthday is Oct. 29). The 40 to 45 friends and former students at the party immediately contributed more than $10,000, including a $5,000 check written on the spot by one former student of Harris', Bernard Loyd (S.B. 1985, S.M., Ph.D.)
Loyd, a principal in the Chicago-based international consulting firm McKinsey and Co., agreed to help lead the fund-raising effort among members of Black Alumni at MIT (BAMIT). He and several other alumni each pledged to contribute $25,000 or more to the fund.
When he transferred from Cornell University to MIT in 1981. Harris' office was one of the first places Loyd visited. They have since co-authored research papers and Harris was a member of Loyd's doctoral committee.
"Wes was a great role model, mentor and supporter for me throughout my stay at MIT," Loyd said. "He is a great scientist and educator with a relentless drive and a demand of nothing but the very best from himself and from anyone with whom he worked. In addition, Wes committed himself to providing opportunities and encouragement to minorities, and African-Americans in particular, in engineering and the sciences.
"He always made himself available--be it at 6 a.m. or midnight--if you needed his advice and counsel, and his pioneering role at MIT, NASA and elsewhere gave him unique perspectives to share. For me and for so many others, he was the 'go to guy.' He believed in you and set the bar very high; he would always give you his straight and unvarnished perspective; and he would always help if he could. He is tremendously deserving of broad recognition."
Lissa Martinez (S.B. 1976, S.M.) remembers Harris' role in establishing the MIT Office of Minority Education (OME) during her undergraduate days. Harris served as the first director of OME from 1975 to 1979.
"It always seemed to be such a heavy burden to place on Dr. Harris, whose work was already divvied between at least two departments [aero/astro and ocean engineering] and who had so little seniority within the MIT community," said Martinez, who majored in ocean engineering and is now a consultant in San Antonio, Tex. "His perseverance has always intrigued me--so here we are after 30 years. The MIT community is so different, yet the same issues affect each new incoming class. I guess sometimes good work takes a long time."
The fund had $156,000 in pledges at the end of March. The goal is $250,000 to endow two MITE2S scholarships.
"I am deeply touched and so is Wes," said Mrs. Harris. "We were particularly gratified to see his former students respond so enthusiastically. They call it payback by paying forward."
After some thought, she remembered one previous memorable present. "The only other birthday gift that ever came close to this was Alexx, a black lab," she said. "Wes truly loved Alexx." Alexx, who arrived on Harris's 46th birthday in 1987, died three years ago.
MITE2S provides a six-week introduction to college-level science and engineering at MIT for underrepresented minority high school students each summer. Eighty students from 29 states and Puerto Rico participated in the program last summer.
Harris, who earned a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Virginia and the M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton University, was an MIT faculty member from 1972-85, when he left to become dean of engineering at the University of Connecticut from 1985 to 1990. He served as vice president of the University of Tennessee and head of its Space Institute and as NASA's associate administrator for aeronautics before returning to MIT as a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor in 1995. He rejoined the faculty in 1996 and now holds the Charles Stark Draper chair in aeronautics and astronautics. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 10, 2002.