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In Memoriam: James O. Wilkes

Long-time professor and mentor, department chair, assistant dean, and department historian passed away following heart surgery

James O. Wilkes, Ph.D., professor emeritus of chemical engineering, passed away on December 6, 2020, following complications from heart surgery. He was 88.

Jim (MSE ’56, PhD ’63), as he was affectionately known to friends and colleagues, was a beloved member of the U-M ChE community, serving as a long-time professor and mentor, department chair, assistant dean, and authoring numerous books on computer programming, numerical methods and fluid mechanics. Jim’s knowledge of the department was unrivaled; many knew Jim by his unofficial role as department historian.

Jim retired in 2000 following a 40-year career at Michigan, though he never slowed down. He was ever-present at faculty, alumni and student events, engaging fluidly with alumni one moment and stepping to the microphone to deliver an engaging speech the next. He continued to generously share his time and expertise with faculty and students, giving his final lecture in October 2020 to Professor Ron Larson’s ChE 527 class.

Those fortunate enough to have known Jim recalled how he was always the first to extend a helping hand or offer encouraging words; a friend and educator who cared deeply about the well-being of others, especially students.

“On my very first day as a new professor in 2001, Jim showed up at my door, textbook and class notes in hand, grinning ear to ear, offering to help me prepare to teach the undergraduate fluids class,” said Sharon Glotzer, the Anthony C. Lembke Department Chair of Chemical Engineering.

After serving on the University of Cambridge’s faculty from 1957-60, Jim returned to Ann Arbor in 1960 as an instructor. He was promoted to assistant professor in 1963, associate professor in 1966, and professor in 1970. Jim was department chairman from 1971–1977 and Assistant Dean for Admissions from 1990–1994. He retired from active faculty status in May 2000.

High marks: A dedicated educator

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Jim Wilkes and Johannes Schwank at the 2017 ChE Graduate Picnic

Though Jim’s decades-long teaching career included multiple administrative roles, he was most at home in the classroom, where he mainly taught fluid mechanics and numerical methods. His dedication and care for teaching students earned him several accolades, including the College of Engineering’s inaugural Engineering Excellence in Teaching Award in 1980. In 1987, the University of Michigan honored him with its highest award for classroom teaching—the Amoco Good Teaching Award. He later was named an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor from 1989–1992, recognizing excellence in undergraduate education.

Susan Montgomery (BSE ’84), the department’s long-time Director of Undergraduate Studies and Undergraduate Program Advisor, recalled first learning about Jim as an undergraduate student through his writing, a befitting first introduction to her future colleague given Jim’s prolific number of authored works. Her fluid mechanics and heat transfer textbook, which Jim co-wrote with former ChE Professor Rasin Tek, was Montgomery’s introduction to using numerical methods to solve chemical engineering problems.

“He made it so simple to understand!” Montgomery said. “I got to know him better when I worked in Professor [H. Scott] Fogler’s lab in the summer of 1984, and was impressed by his gentlemanly manner, charming wit, and perfect penmanship. He was also so down to earth and approachable.”

During his four decades of teaching and service at Michigan, Jim was a pioneer in the numerical solution of partial differential equations, both by finite-difference and finite-element methods. He co-authored numerous textbooks with Professor Emeritus Brice Carnahan—his close friend and former ChE colleague—including Applied Numerical Methods (1969), and Digital Computing and Numerical Methods (1973). In 2017, the 3rd edition of his popular Fluid Mechanics for Chemical Engineers, with Microfluidics, CFD and COMSOL Microphysics 5 was published.

image of Jim Wilkes and Brice Carnahan with textbooks
Jim Wilkes and Brice Carnahan with all of the engineering textbooks they published together.

Jim taught as many as 5,000 chemical engineering undergraduate and graduate students during his tenure, though thousands more from across the College of Engineering benefitted from his depth of knowledge. For extended periods beginning in 1967 and continuously from 1981-97, Jim and Carnahan co-taught the College of Engineering’s required freshman computing courses: ENG 102, 103, 104, and 105. Together, the duo helped shape these foundational courses that impacted potentially upward of 30,000 Michigan engineering freshmen.

“Jim Wilkes is closely identified in my mind with the best values of our Chemical Engineering Department and the University of Michigan,” said Ron Larson, the George Granger Brown Professor and A.H. White Distinguished University Professor. “Always polite, kind, and consummately articulate, Jim always put the needs of the students at the forefront.”

Jim Wilkes is closely identified in my mind with the best values of our Chemical Engineering Department and the University of Michigan. Always polite, articulate, kind, and consummately articulate, Jim always put the needs of the students at the forefront.

Ronald Larson, George Granger Brown Professor and A.H. White Distinguished University Professor

At Jim’s retirement dinner in 2000, Carnahan perhaps best summarized his friend and longtime collaborator’s career: “No student who has experienced Jim’s teaching will forget it. Of all our faculty during my 40 years in the department, you, Jim, have had the greatest impact on the quality of the undergraduate experience. Your teaching and concern for the undergraduate are legend.”

Those who worked with and learned from Jim recalled the warmth and care he effortlessly radiated. He found friends easily, from fellow students and professors at Cambridge to his former students and colleagues at the University of Michigan and beyond.

Hard to imagine a kinder, more gracious individual

Each Thanksgiving, he and Mary Ann sent out their famous holiday card, in which he reported on and shared photos of their trips, visitors, and garden. For many, this year’s annual holiday greeting came tinged with sadness, as many first learned of Jim’s passing at the same time the card arrived in their mailbox.

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Wilkes Holiday card-1
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Wilkes-obit- Holiday card 2
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Wilkes-obit- Holiday card 3
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Wilkes-obit- Holiday card 4

What Rosemarie Wesson (PhD ’93), one of Jim’s PhD students, remembers most is that he was a “gentle and kind soul.” The two remained close following Wesson’s dissertation defense; Jim even played the organ at Wesson and her husband’s wedding in 1986.

“He was very positive. I don’t recall ever seeing Professor Wilkes sad. He was more interested in how I was doing and what was happening in my life,” said Wesson, who is the Assistant Dean of Research at City College of New York. “I looked forward to receiving his Christmas cards and learning about the trips and adventures he and Mary Ann had taken in that year.”

Liz Batesole Hainey (PhD ’88), who also was one of Jim’s doctoral students, credited Jim for her professional and personal growth.

“He cared about me not just as a student, but as a person, and eventually as a colleague. He opened his home to me and my fellow classmates, and always made us feel welcome. Later, he and his wife stayed with me and my family in Dallas as a short side trip from their annual Big Bend National Park visit,” said Batesole Hainey. “I have known and respected him for 37 years—he will always be in my heart. I am a better person and a successful engineer because of him.”

“As you go through life, there are some people who distinguish themselves above others,” said Jim Rennell, who supported the computer labs where Carnahan and Jim taught the introductory engineering courses. “They have a positive impact on your life that you still feel and cherish many years later. Jim Wilkes was one of those people. It is hard to imagine a kinder, more gracious individual. His kindness and sense of humor will be sorely missed.”

Mich Rasulis, an Engineering 103 instructor and long-time friend, recalled Jim’s “unique combination of humility, wit, graciousness, and intellect.”

“He radiated warmth and kindness in every interaction and could see the limitless potential in those he cared about,” said Rasulis. “He reflected his own confidence upon those around him and would listen deeply for ways he could provide guidance and support in non-assuming ways. His impact will have a lasting impact on the many that have had the pleasure to know him.”

Mayur Valanju (BSE ’99), a student in Jim’s final course before his retirement, remembered him as an excellent teacher who found the delicate balance of keeping the atmosphere light and fun while teaching “the concepts with clarity and encouraged all of us.”

Jim reminded Scott Fogler, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Vennema Professor, of “Mr. Chips” from English author James Hilton’s novella Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Though both were British, Fogler said it was Jim’s kind-hearted nature and genuine interest in his students that sparked comparisons to the character, Mr. Chipping.

As you go through life, there are some people who distinguish themselves above others. They have a positive impact on your life that you still feel and cherish many years later. Jim Wilkes was one of those people.

jim rennell

“Jim listened carefully to his students’ questions in class and devoted his entire attention to them when they came to his office hours,” Fogler said. “He had a deep interest in their growth in the subject matter and in their welfare outside the classroom.”

What Jim’s distinguished teaching career and numerous accolades might not as readily reflect was his good sense of humor, even when he was–unwittingly–a part of the joke’s punchline. Fogler recalled one particularly memorable prank involving a stop light. In the late 1960s, Jim entered his office in East Engineering–only to find a too-large-too-miss stop light sitting inside.

Soon after, the Ann Arbor Police Department called to ask whether Jim had taken a stop light that belonged to the city, to which Jim dispassionately replied, “Wait and see, I will have a look.”

An active retirement

Born in Southampton, England, Jim received his BA degree from Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge in 1954 and his MSE and PhD degrees from the University of Michigan in 1956 and 1963, respectively. In addition to his rigorous chemical engineering courses, Jim pursued another passion: organ performance. He received his organ performance diploma, Associate of the Trinity College of Music (London), in 1951, and his Service-Playing Certificate from the American Guild of Organists in 1981.

Jim first arrived in Michigan in 1955 after graduating from Emmanuel College. Soon after, he met the love of his life, Mary Ann, at a student church group. The two married in August 1956.

After retirement, Jim continued to teach, returning to campus classrooms for his biannual lectures to ChE 341 and ChE 527 fluid mechanics students on the use of the important problem-solving tool, COMSOL Multiphysics. Larson, whose ChE 527 students heard what became Jim’s final lecture, reflected on the importance of Jim’s “masterful text on fluid mechanics.”

“Always interested in advancing the latest methods, Jim was prescient in bringing modern computation methods into chemical engineering, as demonstrated by his pioneering work with Brice Carnahan in the early years of engineering computing, and continuing to the present in Jim’s incorporation of COMSOL finite element simulation methodology into Chemical Engineering Fluid Mechanics,” Larson said.

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Jim Wilkes and Nina Lin at the Graduate Recruiting Weekend Dinner in 2017.

Every year for the last decade, Larson has used Jim’s textbook in his graduate fluid mechanics course.

“As chance would have it, this past year I needed to pre-record his COMSOL instruction to prepare for the remote teaching necessitated by the Covid pandemic,” said Larson. “Little did I know that this would be Jim’s last chance to teach it, and fortunately, due to Covid, we have it captured on video to benefit students for years to come.”

Professor Jim Wilkes’ 2020 COMSOL guest lectures

Presented to ChE 527 in October 2020

COMSOL Lecture – Part 1
COMSOL Lecture – Part 2
COMSOL Lecture – Part 3

ChE Associate Professor Sunitha Nagrath also welcomed Jim into her classes to give guest presentations, fondly recalling how she watched him “sharing his passion with such enthusiasm!” Following his talk, Nagrath’s students—armed with their copies of Jim’s fluid mechanics textbook—lined up to have Jim autograph their copy.

In 2011, AIChE invited Jim to present a webinar, “Fluid Mechanics, Old and New” to a national audience.

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Mary Ann and Jim Wilkes with Sunitha Nagrath, at a department event in 2014.

Jim continued his long-standing involvement as instructor for a 2- and 4-week fluid mechanics class at PPC, The Petrochemical College of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. The course was a part of the ChE department’s co-operative involvement in developing MS/PhD programs at the university. Jim later hosted many of the university’s representatives at his home, as well as many Thai graduate students.

Boonyarach (Luke) Kitiyanan, a professor at Chulalongkorn University, met Jim when he arrived in Bangkok to teach his first class, Advanced Chemical Engineering Calculation, which focused on advanced numerical methods.

“Jim had a great impact on our students’ education and to their professional careers,” said Kitiyanan, who worked closely with Jim on several courses. “I still remember his very neat, brilliant explanations on complex subjects, his excellent preparation of course materials, and his beautiful hand writing. Although he has not visited Bangkok in recent years, we still kept in contact by email, and of course, his holiday greeting cards. He will remain in our memory.”

Jim remained an active presence in Chemical Engineering beyond the classroom, rarely missing a departmental or College faculty meeting, at which he served as Parliamentarian. In 2017, he received the College of Engineering Edward Law Emeritus Outstanding Service Award for his remarkable standard of service. He was a featured speaker at the annual lectureship dinner held in Donald L. Katz’s memory and to ring in his 81st birthday in 2013, he delivered a 45-minute, fully-illustrated seminar to the department titled, “100 Years of Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan (and How I Survived Half of Them).”

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Jim Wilkes talking about Donald L. Katz at the lecture presented annually in his honor.

He took an active interest in selecting recipients for the undergraduate scholarships established in his name. Jim came from a family of modest means in Southampton, England, and was awarded a merit scholarship to attend Emmanuel College at Cambridge University in 1951.

Since graduating from Cambridge, Jim sought to help students in need. Knowing this, when Jim retired in 2000, admiring friends and colleagues set up the James O. Wilkes Scholarship Fund in the department, which has become one of the department’s major undergraduate scholarship sources. Jim’s father-in-law, William Gibson, endowed a similar scholarship fund, named after his late wife, Helen B. Gibson. Donations in Jim’s honor may be made to The James O. Wilkes Undergraduate Scholarship at the University of Michigan.

Montgomery appreciated Jim’s dedication to the department and his thoughtful feedback on scholarship applicants to the two scholarships, both of which made a significant difference in the lives of students paying their way through school.

“His scholarship allowed students to cut down their work hours and take advantage of the resources that Michigan has to offer,” Montgomery said. “Well into his retirement, he would meet with the scholarship committee to share his thoughts on the candidates. While final decisions were made by the committee, his insights helped us make sure that recipients met the spirit of the scholarship.”

An accomplished, prolific author

In addition to his many textbooks, he is also the author of A Century of Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan—typesetting the entire book using TeX due to its superior handling of scientific and engineering equations compared to the ubiquitous Mircosoft Word—which was published in time for the department’s 100th anniversary in 2002. According to Carnahan, writing this book was a truly monumental, all-consuming, full-time effort that required the gathering of an incredible amount of archival material—over 500 photographs, correspondence with faculty, graduates, and departmental friends and benefactors, and the recording of numerous oral histories from active and emeritus faculty and others.

image of Jim Wilkes with alumni at alumni luncheon.
Jim with other Michigan ChE Alumni in at the Alumni Luncheon in 2016. He is second from the left in the back row.

“Jim’s love of the department overflowed in his history book. Unique in its comprehensiveness, Jim had been nearing completion of an update to this beautiful work,” said Ron Larson. “Jim’s love for the department, its history, and its people also showed in his dedication to the memory of one of its uniquely committed educators, Brymer Williams, and to one-time chair and pre-eminent leader, Donald Katz.”

He published Pipe Organs of Ann Arbor in 1995, which included a 30-page history of the Frieze Memorial Organ in the U-M’s major concert hall, Hill Auditorium, and also describes about 75 instruments in the city’s churches, colleges and universities, residences, cinema, and even a funeral parlor.

He completed the editing of his grandfather, James Oscroft’s manuscript, Place-Names of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, and published it as a 624-page hardcover book in 2015, including 200 illustrations. Jim considered this his proudest publishing achievement! His grandfather wrote the text in the 1920s and 1930s and compiled it in a beautifully illustrated manuscript of about 1,000 pages. It traces the names of all the villages, hamlets, and towns in Hampshire (a county in southern England) to their origins, many of which are Anglo-Saxon. Soon after the publication of the book, The English Place-Name Society made Jim an Honorary Life Member.

Jim’s hobbies included reading, gardening, cycling, organ-playing, and hiking in North Wales and the American West.

He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Mary Ann Wilkes (née Gibson). Anyone who attended department events will remember Mary Ann’s charm and sense of humor, and be warmed by the devotion they showed to each other.

A memorial event will be held to remember Jim when it is safe to do so.