Thomas Stelson, 1928 - 2005

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Thomas Stelson was a distinguished Civil Engineer who served as the Dean of Georgia Tech's College of Engineering from 1971 to 1974, as Vice President for Research from 1974 to 1988, and as Executive Vice President (the old terminology for Provost) from 1988 to 1990.  During the 70's and 80's, he oversaw a vast expansion in Tech's research expenditures, which went from $8 million to about $120 million (a factor of 14) in little over decade.  This is the era when Tech went from being primarily teaching-oriented university to a major research institution.

Stelson helped the School of Mathematics create the Center for Dynamical Systems and Nonlinear Studies, and he endowed the School's Stelson lectures in 1988 in honor of his father, Hugh Stelson, who was a mathematician. Hugh Stelson earned his doctorate from the University of Iowa in 1930 and went on to teach at Kent State University and Michigan State University.  He worked on problems related to interest rates, annuities, and numerical analysis.

Stelson left Georgia Tech in 1990 as a founding member of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, as its Vice President for Research and Development. He also served as assistant secretary for conservation and solar energy in the Carter administration.  Stelson was known as a visionary, with a strong management style and a wide-ranging set of interests.

Stelson passed away in 2005. He is remembered in an article from the December 2005 Georgia Tech Whistle.


An obituary, written by Kay Powell, appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on November 17, 2005.


Dr. Thomas E. Stelson got excited about new ideas and found millions of dollars for Georgia Tech to fund them.

As Tech's vice president for research since 1974, he had increased research spending from $8 million a year to $112 million a year by 1988. Dr. Thomas E. Stelson helped Georgia Tech increase research spending.

"He was the perfect guy to set the course for research at Georgia Tech," said Dr. Art Koblasz of Sandy Springs, a Tech professor. "He could motivate, steer and keep order."

Dr. Leroy Emkin of Marietta, a civil engineering professor at Tech, said Dr. Stelson's contributions to the university were "monumental."

"Georgia Tech in the late 1960s was not recognized as being among the top engineering schools in the country in graduate and research programs," he said. With Dr. Stelson's contributions, he said, Tech soon went from essentially unranked to one of the top five in the nation.

Dr. Stelson, 77, of Sandy Springs died Sunday of complications from brain surgery at Piedmont Hospital. The body was cremated. The memorial service is at 1 p.m. Jan. 7 at Sandy Springs United Methodist Church. Sandy Springs Chapel Funeral Directors is in charge of arrangements.

Dr. Stelson was as effective at making the faculty shine as he was in securing grant money to enhance Georgia Tech's reputation and education.

"He had such a broad breadth of knowledge," Dr. Koblasz said. "What's amazing is how brilliant his insights are about other subjects."

Dr. Stelson quickly rose from head of Tech's civil engineering department in 1970 to vice president of research to executive vice president of Georgia Tech at his retirement in 1990.

In 1980, he took a leave of absence from Tech to become assistant secretary for conservation and solar energy during President Jimmy Carter's administration. "They were rethinking energy use policy, and he was right there in the thick of it," said his son Dr. Kim Stelson of Edina, Minn.

It was a "huge disappointment" when he was not named Tech's president in 1987, his son said, adding, "That really was an ambition of his."

Dr. Stelson worked with the new president, John Patrick Crecine, before taking a job as the founding administrator of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"The university at Hong Kong at that time was the largest new initiative in higher education in the world," his son said. "They sought him out."

He thought of worldwide problems and how to solve them, including signing a contract between Tech and China to develop science and technology in 1985. The exclusive contract was the only one of its kind in the nation.

The whole outdoors was his recreation lab. He planted 1,000 trees on his Pennsylvania farm, creating a dedicated green space woodlands. "He had the foresight to get the mineral rights," his son said. Dr. Stelson relaxed by camping, hiking, pruning trees and chopping firewood.

Most recently, he was excited about designing an immersible house. After Katrina hit, he and Dr. Koblasz talked extensively about creating a house that could be immersed, pressure washed a week later and ready to be put back in service.

"New ideas, new arrangements. This is what drove him, excited him," his son said.

Survivors include his wife, Constance Anne Semon Stelson; a daughter, Rebecca Opich of Rosenberg, Texas; two other sons, Thomas Semon Stelson of Kirtland, Ohio, and Arthur Wesley Stelson of Austell; three sisters, Glenda Green of Newport News, Va., Ann McKim of Towson, Md., and Mary Parks of Omaha, Neb.; and seven grandchildren.


  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created By: nmcleish3
  • Created: 04/12/2017
  • Modified By: nmcleish3
  • Modified: 04/12/2017


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