University of Rochester

Inspirational Educator, Optical Scientist, M. Parker Givens Dies at 96

January 14, 2013

M. Parker Givens, former acting director and professor emeritus of the University of Rochester's Institute of Optics and a renowned teacher to generations of students, died peacefully on Jan. 11, 2013 at age 96. Givens was a professor at the University since 1947.

Although Givens "officially" retired in 1981 at the mandatory age of 65 (at that time a federal law), he continued to teach for another 22 years, being primarily responsible for the senior laboratory course.

Professor Robert Boyd, who held the M. Parker Givens Chair from 2001 to 2011, recalled Givens as an inspirational and dedicated instructor, "He truly believed in educating students."

The chair was endowed in 2001 by James Wyant '69, a University Trustee, professor at the University of Arizona and a former student of Givens. "Givens was a fantastic professor and I was very fortunate to have him as my major professor," Wyant reflected. "He seemed to know everything and he could explain the most difficult subject in simple, clear terms, and he was always willing to help the student."

The Givens Chair is currently held by The Institute's director Xi-Cheng Zhang. Zhang described how during a visit last year they had "shared stories of research and of Givens' enjoyment of teaching." Zhang added that "Givens' contribution to The Institute was instrumental in helping us to earn and retain such a stellar reputation as the Institute has become known for."

Right up until his final retirement, "he was loved and respected by the students," writes Carlos Stroud in A Jewel in the Crown, a history of The Institute. "Even in the last year, students were in awe when he walked over to the balky experiment that they had unsuccessfully toiled over all afternoon, and with one little tweak of a knob he made it work."

On the occasion of this final retirement, Givens reflected on his time at the Institute and teaching. "I don't think we ever had the attitude at the Institute that research came first and teaching second," he said. "We tried to do the best we could at educating the students, and we were willing to talk to them outside the classroom, and they seemed to appreciate that. It was no big deal as far as we were concerned. I think we just thought that was the way it ought to be."

Givens credited the high caliber of his optics students over the years with providing the push to constantly expand and deepen his knowledge of the field.

A native of Richmond, Va. he graduated in 1937 from the University of Richmond. Givens received his Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1942, where his fields of interest were the optical properties of metals and vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopy. After his Ph.D., he became an instructor of physics at the Pennsylvania State College from 1942-46. Prior to joining the University of Rochester he also spent a year with the proximity fuze group of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. During his time at the University he also served as Acting Dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science in 1984-1985.

His initial appointment in 1947 was "apparently met with considerable skepticism" because he was primarily involved, at least initially, in pure research, notes Kenneth Teegarden, former Institute director in A Jewel in the Crown. This was a "radical departure" from the "applied" direction of the Institute at the time. However, Brian J. Thompson, former Institute director and provost emeritus, wrote that Givens "brought a broad point of view to the full range of physical optics knowledge and research problems."

Along with former director Robert Hopkins, Givens received a 1963 NSF grant to develop new teaching experiments and demonstrations using the then newly developed optical laser. Hopkins, Givens and others equipped a traveling unit thus the origin of the "laser road show" that was taken to several universities and an NSF institute for high school teachers.

A 1963 visit to Nantucket, Mass., resurrected a childhood fascination with bees, and he kept bees for the next 30 years. Each season, Givens harvested several hundred pounds of honey, most of which he used himself or gave away at the Institute.

He is survived by his daughter Jean F. Givens of Lexington, Ky. He is predeceased in 1979 by his son Robert P. Givens, in 1989 by his son R. Wayne Givens, and in 2007 by his wife of 65 years, Gene M. Givens.

The University will be lowering the flag on Jan. 16 in honor of Givens.

He will be interred in Crewe, Va. A memorial service will be held at Community Christian Church, 2647 Chili Ave., on Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 5:30 p.m. A reception will follow. To share a memory of Givens or to send a condolence to the family visit