Engineering School Visionary Dr. Cyrus Cantrell Mourned

Professor Was a Key Force in Establishing and Expanding the Jonsson School at UT Dallas

Dr. Cyrus “Cy” Duncan Cantrell III joined UT Dallas in 1980 to start an applied physics program. He became a professor of electrical engineering when the Jonsson School was founded in 1986.

Dr. Cyrus “Cy” Duncan Cantrell III, a longtime professor of electrical engineering and physics who helped establish and then expand the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, died Wednesday night from complications of cancer. He was 72.

Memorial services for Cantrell will be held at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 26, at Restland Funeral Home and Cemetery, 13005 Greenville Ave. in Dallas. Visitation is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 25, at Restland. A memorial service will be held at UT Dallas at a later date.

“Cy Cantrell was the first member of the UT Dallas family that I met, 21 years ago, early in my thinking about joining the school,” said Dr. Hobson Wildenthal, the University’s executive vice president and provost. “He was then, as he was four weeks ago at our last meeting, an eloquent, highly intelligent, highly knowledgeable intellectual with clear and decisive views on many, many topics. He provided me with a fitting introduction to the UT Dallas faculty.

“Only later did I come to know of his longstanding key role in faculty affairs, and only later still of his expert’s interest in food and mountaineering. In losing Cy we have lost a major part of our institutional wisdom and a vitally dynamic, deeply valued friend and colleague.”

Cantrell, who served as senior associate dean for academic affairs for the Jonsson School, will be remembered by the University community for his steadfast devotion to building the Jonsson School and for his mentorship of faculty, students and staff.

Dr. Cantrell, shown chatting with graduate Laura Shagman after the winter 2012 commencement, was known for his dedication to mentoring students.

“This is, of course, both a professional and personal loss for the School,” said Dr. Mark W. Spong, dean of the Jonsson School. “Cy was not only an outstanding teacher and researcher, he was invaluable to me as senior associate dean. His immense knowledge of the history of UTD and the Jonsson School, which he was instrumental in shaping, is irreplaceable.”

Cantrell’s service to the University also includes nearly three decades on the Faculty Senate, where he was known for upholding University ideals and demanding integrity in academic work. His roles over the years included serving as speaker of the faculty and leading the committee on educational policy.

“He had been carrying a tremendous load,” said Dr. Murray Leaf, speaker of the Faculty Senate. “There are people whose shoes cannot be filled, where the whole system has to be adjusted. I think Cy was such a person.”

A photonics expert, Cantrell joined  UT Dallas in 1980 to start an applied physics program. He soon met with Cecil Green, University and Texas Instruments founder, and Jack Kilby, who later was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for the integrated circuit he invented while working at TI.

Green and Kilby saw an engineering school in UT Dallas’ future. So Cantrell was initially hired into the Physics Department and then became a professor of electrical engineering when the Jonsson School was founded in 1986. His early years included trying to recruit professors to a University that was then in the middle of a prairie, and to a school housed in the University library.

Dr. Cantrell was an advisor and mentor for the UT Dallas “Battlebot” team. Shown are the designers of the 2013 entry, which made it to the quarterfinals in the international RoboGames.

“They wouldn’t even return our phone calls,” Cantrell said of potential recruits.

Dr. Kamran Kiasaleh, professor of electrical engineering, was one of the first to join Cantrell.

“His promotion of the University and School is truly unparalleled,” Kiasaleh said. “He would take young faculty under his wing as a mentor and then remain a go-to person for navigating the academic world. Even though he had excellent research credentials, he never lost his passion for teaching and mentorship of students.”

Kiasaleh said Cantrell handled the challenges that came with building a school the same way he handled everything – with a professional, positive attitude.

Leaf also noted Cantrell’s command of difficult situations.

“One of the joys of University work is dealing with bright people who care about what they do,” Leaf said.  “Such people often disagree passionately with one another and it’s hard to bring them together. Cy was quite good at it, and I think he enjoyed it."

Since 2002, Cantrell had been an associate dean of academic affairs for the Jonsson School, where his day-to-day work also included responsibility for graduate education, accreditation of academic programs and high-level faculty evaluations.  He helped drive the expansion within the school, which now has six departments, four added in the past five years, and seven undergraduate, 16 graduate and two executive master’s degree programs. Cantrell’s chronicle of the Jonsson School’s establishment and growth is considered the definitive source of information about the program’s growth and history.

Cantrell was known for engaging his students outside the classroom. He served last semester as advisor to two extracurricular engineering and computer science student groups. One was the student branch of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) that this year won the large student branch award in a region that includes about a dozen states. The branch has won the award at least four other times under his guidance. He also was an advisor and mentor for the UT Dallas “Battlebot" team, which placed first in the 120-pound college division of the 2011 Battlebots National Championship.

In 1958, Cantrell (left)  was a national finalist in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. The event was attended by then Vice President Richard Nixon.

“He let us make our mistakes while guiding us toward the right direction,” said Stuart Yun, a member of the Battlebots team who worked with Cantrell the last three years and called him an adviser, mentor and inspiration. “Even though he is a very busy man – anytime you went to his office to talk to him you would see these huge stacks of papers – he always had time to talk to his students.”

Cantrell was born in 1940. His father was a licensed professional engineer and petroleum geologist. Cantrell has said he came of age when pursuing careers in science was seen as a way for the United States to protect itself. In 1958, he was one of 40 national finalists in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, whose ceremony was attended by then Vice President Richard Nixon.

He was supported for four years at Harvard University through a General Motors National Scholarship. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from Princeton University. He taught in the Physics Department at Swarthmore College before becoming a staff member at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and then at Université Paris-Nord, before joining UT Dallas.

Cantrell was born in 1940 and came of age when pursuing careers in science was considered a matter of national safety.

Since 1964, Cantrell had carried out computational and theoretical research in various areas of photonics, beginning in the field of statistical properties of light, then in modern molecular spectroscopy, and continuing with quantum and nonlinear optics. Over his career, Cantrell supervised 32 PhD graduates. His academic honors include becoming a Fellow of the Optical Society of America, the American Physical Society and IEEE, which honored him with the Third Millennium Medal in 1980, an award given for outstanding contributions in a person’s area of activity. He was a Life Fellow of IEEE and the American Physical Society.

A licensed professional engineer in the state of Texas, Cantrell held four patents and was the author of Modern Mathematical Methods for Physicists and Engineers, as well as several book chapters. He also served as editor or co-editor of other books.

Cantrell filled his free time with myriad personal interests. His hobbies included backpacking, photography, cooking, languages, history and traveling. Family and friends noted that Cantrell provided lively, detailed conversation about a variety of topics over gourmet dinners, and was a powerful intellectual who could relate his knowledge in a down-to-earth way. He was an avid family man, who enthusiastically supported the interests of his family members.

Cantrell is survived by his wife of 40 years, Lynn Marple, and daughter, Kate Marple-Cantrell. The Sarah Montgomery Marple-Cantrell Memorial Scholarship for Women In Engineering was established in honor of his youngest daughter, who passed away in 2003.

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Sarah Montgomery Marple-Cantrell Memorial Scholarship for Women in Engineering at UT Dallas.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].