Colleagues recall Verdeyen's dedication to research, students, and his family.

Former MNTL director Verdeyen dies

ECE Professor Emeritus Joseph T. Verdeyen, a former director of the Micro + Nanotechnology Lab, died February 16, 2016. He was 83.

An alumnus of the University of Illinois, Verdeyen (PhD 1962) began his faculty career at Illinois just as laser technology was emerging from industrial labs such as Hughes, GE, and IBM. He is perhaps best known for developing the coupled-cavity laser interferometer, a major advance in plasma and laser diagnostics. Interferometers are used to make ultra-sensitive measurements of the refractive index of a plasma or a material which allows one to determine physical parameters that are critical to optical devices such as lasers or lamps.

“Joe’s laser interferometer was very elegant and not much different from the ones in use today,” said ECE Professor Gary Eden, a faculty colleague and former student of Verdeyen. “He was such a humble man that he’d never talk about this.”

According to Eden, Verdeyen also was the first to publically demonstrate a thermally pumped carbon-dioxide laser, publishing a paper in Applied Physics Letters in 1969. “Joe discovered that the CO2 laser, which operates in the infra-red, could be driven by temperature,” Eden said. “Unbeknownst to him, this was a classified area of government research. My understanding is that government officials contacted him or visited him in the lab. They were stunned that someone outside a government lab had succeeded in making this laser.”

Always congenial, Verdeyen was a role model to Nuclear Engineering Professor David Ruzic when he joined the Illinois faculty in 1984 as a young assistant professor. “He was a successful experimental plasma engineer, and whenever I would talk to him, I would see what the future could hold,” said Ruzic. “He was always helpful and encouraging—and usually had the right piece of equipment I could borrow! He was a true great not only in his research results, but also in the people he influenced.”

Highly regarded by his faculty colleagues, Verdeyen served as MNTL director for one year (1988-89), also leading the multi-million-dollar NSF-funded Engineering Research Center (ERC) for Compound Semiconductor Microelectronics housed there. According to ECE Professor Emeritus Steve Bishop, Verdeyen shepherded the center through a pivotal year and helped ensure its continued funding.

“The ERC had a mission that included a systems component,” explained Bishop, who succeeded Verdeyen as ERC and MNTL director (1989-2000).  “Joe understood this and he brought in systems-area faculty. After I arrived, he also agreed to become a leader of the ERC’s new supporting technologies research area.”

In addition to his MNTL leadership roles, Verdeyen served as director of the Laboratory for Optical Physics and Engineering (formerly known as the Gaseous Electronics Lab) for more than 20 years.

As an educator, Verdeyen is known for writing one of the most popular textbooks on lasers. First published in 1981 and now in its third edition, Laser Electronics emphasizes real-world applications and problem-solving skills over theory, providing students with an understanding of optical and microwave frequencies.

In the classroom, Verdeyen was an enthusiastic teacher who genuinely wanted students to understand the material. “He took great joy in his role as a professor,” said MNTL Director Brian Cunningham, who took one of Verdeyen’s classes as a student in the 1980s. “Despite being one of the world’s authorities on laser physics, Professor Verdeyen was always someone who was very friendly, patient, and approachable for students.  He is one of the great Illinois faculty who I have tried to emulate since I became a professor myself.”

“Joe was an amazing teacher and he cared deeply about his students,” said Eden. “He constantly challenged the way we were thinking, which made us learn how to defend our positions. He pushed us intellectually, determined that we would not be content with a superficial understanding of why something is the way it is.”

Eden also emphasized the impact that Verdeyen had on several generations of students: “ Everyone who had the privilege of studying under Joe, or working with him, owes him a great debt.”

Verdeyen retired from the Illinois faculty in 1994, but he continued his research on gaseous lasers as a consultant at CU Aerospace in Champaign. He received the ECE Department’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2001. He also collaborated with Bishop and his students on studies of optical emission from rare-earth doped glasses.

“He liked being around students in the lab and he’d stop by and visit with my students, helping them with research problems,” Bishop recalled.  

“The man was loved by so many people,” added Bishop, who enjoyed many rounds of golf with Verdeyen. “To paraphrase Will Rogers’ famous saying about never meeting a man he didn’t like, although the rules of golf prohibit golfers from improving their lie, Joe never met a lie that he couldn’t improve.”  

Outside of his Illinois career, Verdeyen was dedicated to his family and faith. He and his wife Katie were married for 61 years and had four children. In fact, Verdeyen dedicated his textbook to Katie: “…With her enthusiasm, example, and love, it is easy to learn to love God, to love our neighbors, and to keep His commandments. Thank you, honey, for my life!”