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Professor Emeritus James Fay dies at 91

Longtime MIT professor and member of the National Academy of Engineering made important contributions to fluid mechanics.
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James (Jay) Fay
James (Jay) Fay

James A. (Jay) Fay, a professor emeritus in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, past away on Tuesday, June 2, of complications from lymphoma. He was 91.

The list of people who will miss him is large: His devoted family of six children and their spouses, 18 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, are the first to feel the loss. But close behind are the many professionals at MIT and a host of other institutions and causes that benefitted from his extraordinary personal talents.

Fay grew up in Brooklyn, New York, but spent his summers in Southold, New York, close to the waters of the Long Island Sound. This motivated his lifelong interest in sailing and led him to earn a BS at the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture in 1944, while an ensign with the U.S. Naval Reserve. Subsequently, he obtained an MS from MIT in marine engineering and a PhD from Cornell University in the unsteady propagation of gaseous detonation waves. After serving on the Cornell faculty from 1951 to 1955, he was recruited to join MIT as an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering (MechE), where he remained until transitioning to emeritus professor status in 1989.

The hallmark of Fay’s success as an innovator and contributor was listening carefully and crystallizing the essence of a discussion. Having reached that point, he was committed to seeing a process through to the appropriate conclusion. This was true across the board, whether it was a decision to perform a “ready – about” in a sailing race or writing a definitive opinion on the ecological folly of extending the John F. Kennedy Airport runways into Jamaica Bay. His selection of research topics at MIT was geared to the common good: air and water pollution problems, acid rain, the safety hazards of liquefied gases, renewable energy, and the spread of oil and other hazardous liquids on the ocean. However, it was his early career work on combustion and detonation, hypersonic heat transfer, magnetohydrodynamics, and plasmadynamics that were the hallmarks of his election into the National Academy of Engineering in 1998. He continued to create new textbooks after his decision to become emeritus.

Fay’s great ability to synthesize solutions in difficult circumstances was amply demonstrated in his service to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as chairman from 1972 to 1977 of the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), the organization that controls Logan Airport, the Boston seaport, and several other Boston-area transportation facilities. Under Fay’s leadership, Massport transitioned into a sleeker, more environmentally-aware public-serving entity. In the words of Alan Altschuler, former secretary of transportation for the Commonwealth, “Jay’s combination of wisdom, deep knowledge, total integrity, and courage in the face of (unfair public) attacks through even the most stressful controversies was absolutely remarkable.” 

Fay played key roles in no fewer than 20 environmental organizations and panels that sought to develop public policy in a new world threatened with pollution and environmental hazards. This included 46 years of service as a director of the Union of Concerned Scientists seeking to ameliorate the threat of nuclear catastrophe. His reasoned and thoughtful scientific approach to these problems was critically important in building credibility for public examination of our approach to environmental threats.

The family has arranged a funeral mass at St. Julia Church at 374 Boston Post Road in Weston, Massachusetts, on Saturday, June 13, at 10 a.m. This will be followed by a celebration of his life at the Biagio Ristorante at 123 Moody Street in Waltham.

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Boston Globe

Prof. Emeritus James Fay, who served as the chairman of the Massachusetts Port Authority and helped launch the Union of Concerned Scientists, died on June 2, reports Bryan Marquard for The Boston Globe. “To know him and benefit from his wisdom, courage, kindness, and friendship was a gift I will treasure for the rest of my life,” says senior lecturer Frederick Salvucci. 

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