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An educator and an engineer – a tribute to Chuck Vest

I was saddened to learn the other day of the passing of Charles M. Vest.

Chuck was known to many for his tenure as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his subsequent service at the helm of the National Academies of Engineering (NAE).

I got to know Chuck in a capacity for which he was less well-known, though it was a position that perfectly suited his passion to help American students achieve. That position was as a board member of the National Math + Science Initiative (NMSI), which ExxonMobil helped found in 2007.

Serving on the NMSI board, Chuck brought his leadership and formidable strategic vision to bear on bolstering math and science education for all students.

None of us was surprised by his many contributions to NMSI. After all, as president of MIT, he took one of the world’s pre-eminent academic institutions and made it even better. At the same time, he championed the importance of research universities for America’s future competitiveness. At the NAE, Chuck helped implement a valuable campaign to improve public understanding of the importance of engineering.

When the news came this week that Chuck had succumbed to pancreatic cancer, NMSI CEO Sara Martinez Tucker sent a thoughtful note to Chuck’s board colleagues extolling his service. I was touched by one part in particular, which I want to share here:

In the Hispanic tradition we believe every person undergoes three deaths. The first is when the spirit leaves the body. The second is when your family and loved ones lay you to rest. The last occurs when there is no one left who remembers that you existed.

On the Dia de los Muertos/Day of the Dead celebrations, Hispanic families gather to tell the younger children stories of their elders so that spirits are never forgotten.

I’d like to think that every time NMSI teachers walk into their classrooms and set high standards for all of their students, a bit of Chuck will live on.

Chuck’s legacy will live on through the many students today, and in the future, whose paths to a quality education will be shaped by the work he did during his lifetime.

Similarly, it will live on in his contributions to engineering, particularly his determination to make the world a better place through education and the elegant solutions that are the core of the engineering practice.

Chuck Vest was a singular individual, a gentleman scholar, and the true embodiment of what it means to be an engineer.

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