Eulogy: John Fitzpatrick

Unitarian Church, St Stephen's Green

Friday, 07 September 2012

I remember my first meeting with John. I think all his students remember their first meeting with John! I was a Freshman up from Wexford and he was a lecturer in the then relatively new department of mechanical and manufacturing engineering. It was the early Eighties, so he was a young lecturer, but he was formidable. There was nothing soft about his lectures - they were straight from the hip, so to speak.

He was - as even those of you who were never taught by him can imagine - forceful, energetic, and intellectually demanding. He wasn’t there to make your life easier. Decades later when we were lecturers ourselves and he was our professor he would say of the students: “if they’re not all happy, you’re doing something right”.

But he was inspirational, he was a motivator. No matter how senior and busy he became, he always had time for the genuine student. To be introduced to his teaching at a young age was to feel all the passion and force of scholarship. Certainly he inspired many of us, his students, to embark on the academic life.

When I joined the department myself, as a member of staff in 1995, I had the pleasure of becoming his colleague and his friend. John was so many things: he was teacher, scholar, engineer, Head of School, Board member, advisor, colleague, friend, husband, father. It is a measure of his warmth and exuberance that everyone who knew him, knew and valued him in all these roles. He was not a man who compartmentalised, or withheld, or displayed different sides to different people.

His route to academia was an unconventional one. When he left school he started as an apprentice ship’s engineer in Plymouth. He told me once that he thought he’d get to travel and see the world; then he realised you only ever saw the inside of the ship...

Anyway, his intellectual curiosity about “how things work” soon drove him to university. He attended Queen’s University Belfast where he did his BSc and PhD degrees, the latter under the supervision of Professor Sir Bernard Crossland, who became a close friend and mentor.

I often thought his early experience on board ships gave him the wide perspective and egalitarianism which were such a hallmark of his character. It certainly gave him a strong practical engineering bent, which he never lost.

As a teacher he was particularly strong on concepts. I still remember him lecturing his senior sophister course: I know many of you non-engineers will find this hard to believe, but the title of this course was just “Vibrations”.

I consider myself privileged to have had 54 hours of John Fitzpatrick extoling on the topic of vibrations. All kinds of vibrations: even frightening us dazzled undergraduates with his favourite kind of vibrations - which were “flow-induced vibrations”.

But he combined this mastery of concepts with hands-on practicality. Throughout his career, he worked closely with industry, including Babcock & Wilcox in the early days, and the likes of Airbus and Rolls Royce later on.

His early research work was on fluid mechanics and noise, and when he took up his first academic posting in Glasgow University, he added vibration analysis to these research interests. His initial reading on the fundamental physics of noise generation from turbulence inspired him throughout his career. He was particularly focussed on experimental studies in jet noise -and the fruits of his research in aeroacoustics are today being incorporated in modern quieter jet engines.

He built up a substantial international reputation, collaborating with industrial and academic researchers around the world. He was a visiting Professor in McMaster University, Canada; CIRA, Italy; and Poitiers, France and his professional honours were many, including the Doctor of Science degree from his alma mater - Queen’s University Belfast - , Member of the Royal Irish Academy (MRIA), and Fellow of the Royal Society of Engineering (FREng).

However, only one certificate hung on his office wall - the one qualifying him as a Bushmills’ Whiskey Taster!

John came to Trinity in 1980 as part of the rapid expansion of the School of Engineering. Almost his first task was the re-development of the curriculum. He told me once that he was so exasperated by the dithering about in the development of the curriculum, that he went home - I think John and Hilary were living in Trinity Hall at the time - and wrote a mechanical engineering curriculum out from scratch himself, had it typed up the next day, and presented it to the Head of Engineering, who accepted it - and that was that. I can well believe it!

As Professor of Mechanical Engineering for eighteen years, as head of department and later Head of School, John strove constantly to consolidate and augment the standing of Engineering in Trinity College.

I think it is fair to say that, in terms of getting his own way in Trinity, he had few equals. Despite his tough exterior he was well able to plot a strategy and carefully exceute it. The excellent infrastructure for mechanical engineering is a testament to this: in terms of the buildings and equipment; in terms of the size and quality of staff; and in terms of the great reputation for research-led education.

He also helped establish the culture of properly funded research in engineering, and in particular addressed opportunities within EU Framework Programmes, which in addition to a certain independence, offered immediate access to the international research community and to the mechanical and aeronautical engineering industries.

John took huge pride in being a leading member of the academic community that has made the Engineering School in Trinity one of the best in the world.

John had a great zest for College life - the research and teaching for sure, but also the politics, the policy, the building of friendships. My abiding memory of John is of him hailing me on campus and us adjourning somewhere for coffee, where the conversation might flow from the newest College appointment, to the latest in fluid mechanics, to tales from his trips to conferences - now the stories were often repeated but - strangely - they lost nothing whatsoever in the repeating. Conversation was amusing, invigorating and productive because he genuinely sought to build and find constructive solutions to problems.

That doesn’t mean discussion always flowed easily and agreeably. I well remember one row I had with him - over the relative importance of my Bioengineering Group and his Vibrations Group - and it was pretty epic... He gave me the “You listen to me here” treatment with the index finger in the chest - I had the bruises to show for it. But the next time I saw him, he wanted to go for a pint and bury the hatchet...

That was the thing with John, you might argue - only over policy, never personal matters - but he didn’t bear grudges. Policy didn’t get in the way of friendship. And you never minded the rows because they were a part of his characterful directness, his lack of airs and graces, his confident way of being himself.

As Paul Durcan wrote of Paddy Kavanagh: “He was pure straight; God rest him; not like us.”

John, himself so successful in his career, was concerned for the career development of junior colleagues, and served as a kind of mentor to many, including to myself.

I counted so much on his advice and vision. I hoped very much to have him as one of my Officers. Sadly his illness did not permit this, though even when ill, he committed himself heroically to his teaching - earlier this year he delivered his Senior Fresh fluid mechanics course. His attitude was ‘business as usual’.

Knowing John for thirty years, first as teacher, then as friend, colleague, and supporter, it is difficult to think I can no longer avail of that warmth, intellect and loyalty - as it is difficult for all who knew him. Although our loss is not comparable, we, his friends and colleagues, mourn together with Hilary, Jamie, Katy, and Daniel, the loss of this great man, who leaves a gap in all our lives.

The night before he died I found myself reading the Walt Whitman poem, ‘O Captain, my Captain’, and it is those lines I think of when I think of John, erstwhile seaman, our captain of Mechanical Engineering, who achieved for the College the great prize of sound scholarship and international reputation:

“O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;

[...] The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk on the deck my Captain lies...”

Rest in peace, John.


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