Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 18
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  • Kline, Ronald R.
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  • HARRY E. BOVAY JR. 1914–2011


    I met Harry Bovay in 1988, shortly after I arrived at Cornell’s College of Engineering as an assistant professor in the history of technology. The dean of the College, Bill Streett, asked me when I was hired if I would teach a class on engineering ethics because there was an alumnus, Harry Bovay, class of ’36, who wanted to support engineering ethics at Cornell. I replied that I was happy to develop such a course by supplementing my historical research on codes of engineering ethics by working with the Ethics and Public Life Program at Cornell, then headed by Henry Shue, and the Science, Technology, and Society Program, then headed by Walter Lynn, who taught engineering ethics to masters of engineering students in civil engineering.

    When Harry came for a visit in 1988, I met him at the Statler Hotel with Walter, who had known Harry for some time. At first I did not know what to make of this friendly, rather folksy old engineer and CEO, until we started talking about engineering ethics. Then I realized the intelligence and sharp wit of Harry Bovay and that he had a real passion for this topic, having served as president of the National Society for Professional Engineering in the 1970s.

    During my first years at Cornell, Harry visited regularly, often accompanied by his wife Sue and by Mike Stevens, his lawyer and friend. What struck me was that Harry was genuinely interested in how engineering students engaged with tough issues in my course on engineering ethics and how to better present and analyze real-life cases. He loved to sit in on the courses and commented in detail on our annual reports.

    When in the mid-1990s Harry gave his first endowment to support the teaching of engineering ethics at Cornell and Texas A&M he agreed to call the endeavor the Bovay Program in History and Ethics of Professional Engineering at both universities, even though only the Cornell program had a historian. This showed me the breadth of Harry’s vision for engineering ethics and his strong belief that both programs would benefit by cooperating with each other.

    That was always his main advice—that staff from the two programs should visit and cooperate with each other. Although we used different approaches at the two universities—at Cornell teaching ethics across the curriculum in the Engineering College by combining history, sociology, and philosophy; and at Texas A&M coteaching a required engineering ethics course by an engineering professor (Michael Rabins) and a philosopher (Ed Harris)—visiting each other’s programs, at Harry’s insistence, led to several good outcomes: new teaching methods, common topics and speakers for the Annual Bovay Lecture at each school, and new research in the field of engineering ethics.

    Harry also supported engineering ethics with the endowment of chairs at Cornell and Texas A&M and the establishment of an ethics position at the National Academy of Engineering. Again, his and Mike’s site visits proved crucial to fostering the program here at Cornell and enabling cooperation among the three programs.

    The most memorable occasion of such cooperation was when Harry invited us to his ranch in Texas after a special session held to honor him at the February 2008 annual meeting of the Association for Professional and Practical Ethics, in San Antonio. In the beautiful and relaxing setting of Harry’s ranch, Ed Harris and I, chairs of the Texas A&M and Cornell programs; Rachelle Hollander, head of the NAE engineering ethics effort; and Jimmie Smith of Texas Tech spent a fruitful time talking about our different programs and how to cooperate.

    Harry and Mike Patrick, his chief business partner and friend, mostly listened while we talked shop. They had much more to say when the talk turned toward policy and gave good advice on how to advance Harry’s broad vision of promoting ethics at engineering colleges and professional organizations. That was the last time I saw Harry. He was in good health and as sharp as ever.

    On a personal note, I asked him what his middle initial “E” stood for. He said it stood for “Elmo,” that his father had been named after a novel, St. Elmo (1866), written by Augusta Jane Evans. I later learned that the book, a romance, was one of the most popular novels of the 19th century and that towns, hotels, steamboats, and boys by the score were named Elmo in the late 19th century.

    Harry apparently didn’t much like the name until he read an old copy of the book that I sent him. He wrote back that he thought it was rather flowery but enjoyed reading it and finding out something new about his past. That is how I remember Harry, open to learning something new while remaining true to and promoting his ideals, especially about the importance of ethics in engineering.

    His niece Peggy Kelly wrote that her uncle:

    "Was an outdoorsman, he loved hunting and fishing and was never happier than when he was entertaining friends and family at his ranch. He was never at a loss for words and he always included a joke or two. He was a philanthropist who contributed to causes that he believed in such as the Boy Scouts, the engineering profession, and the small rural communities where he operated businesses. His good work will continue through the efforts of the Harry E. Bovay, Jr. Foundation. He is survived by more friends and family than can be mentioned and his spirit is an inspiration to us all."

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