Dec 5, 2017 | Atlanta, GA
School of Interactive Computing Professor Jim Foley was in the midst of some well-deserved personal leave earlier this year when he had a realization. He was traveling around the world, skiing, swimming, and playing with his trains, a favorite hobby of his since childhood.
“I was coming back next semester to teach,” he said, referring to his planned return in Spring 2018, “but I said, ‘Wait a minute. I’m enjoying this too much!’”
The College of Computing icon, who came to Georgia Tech in 1991 to establish the GVU Center, instead elected to retire from teaching. It will be a welcome break for an individual who has left a vibrant mark on the College, the School of Interactive Computing (IC), and a number of associated centers, institutes, and labs.
“Jim has always been and always will be my personal role model for thoughtful and graceful leadership,” said Amy Bruckman, professor and interim IC chair. “We’re going to miss him so terribly here at Georgia Tech.”
A Distinguished Career
Foley guided the GVU Center from inception until 1996, helping it garner a No. 1 ranking that final year for graduate computer science research in graphics and user interaction by U.S. News and World Report. He is a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), an inaugural member of the ACM/CHI Academy, and a recipient of two lifetime achievement awards: the biannual ACM/SIGGRAPH Stephen Coons Award for Outstanding Creative Contributions to Computer Graphics and the ACM/SIGCHI Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2008, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and also received Georgia Tech’s highest faculty honor, the Class of 1934 Distinguished Professor Award.
His ability to guide students through their academic journeys was clear from the time he joined the College. He was named the “most likely to make students want to grow up to be professors” in 1992. Mynatt was one of those graduate students.
“I was having trouble,” said Mynatt of her graduate school experience. “I couldn’t find my path, and I was probably a semester away from walking out the door. I walked into his office and asked for a second of his time, said I had my project and my funding and I promised never to bother him, but could he please be my advisor. It was such a tremendous impact on my entire life that he said yes. He’s continued to be my advisor every single day since then.”
Mynatt earned her Ph.D. in computer science shortly thereafter, in 1995, and joined the faculty at Georgia Tech in 1998.
Foley came to Georgia Tech in 1991 after being recruited by College of Computing Dean Peter Freeman and then-Georgia Tech president Pat Crecine. Crecine had been a provost at Carnegie Mellon, where Foley could see the power and influence of having a separate computing college. Foley was excited by the vision of the new College of Computing, which was to push beyond traditional computer science to its interaction with other disciplines.
“Pat pushed a broad vision of computing here at Tech,” Foley said. “He was big on new media and the future of interactive computing, so they recruited me to come and do something here.”
There was already a small but enthusiastic group of faculty devoted to graphics and user interface research at the College of Computing. Foley was able to take that group and the resources provided by the Institute to establish and grow the GVU Center into a nationally prominent organization in an astonishingly short period of time.
“I’ve enjoyed all of my 27 years at Georgia Tech, but those five years really stand out to me,” Foley said. “Those were heady times. There was a lot of excitement. The college was new, the GVU Center was new, we were growing, and we were getting national recognition. It was just very exciting. Everyone was committed, working hard, and making the GVU Center into what it became.”
“Jim was, obviously, the instrumental person in founding the GVU Center,” said Professor Keith Edwards, the current GVU director. “He defined what its mission would be, how its people would work together, and how the community would come together.”
The center changed directors in 1996, when Foley briefly left for Mitsubishi Research, but his impact has been felt continuously in the succeeding years. So much so that in 2008, Mynatt, the GVU Center director at that time, led a fundraising campaign amongst GVU faculty, students, and friends to establish the Foley Scholars Endowment, which funds two $5,000 scholarships awarded annually to GVU-affiliated graduate students.
“I was really overwhelmed by how many contributed to the endowment, and by the continuing contributions,” Foley said. “It has supported 20 awards to some of the strongest GVU students. It’s a very humbling experience.”
‘Remember How We Got Here’
Foley’s career has gone through a number of metamorphoses over the years. He started out as an electrical engineer at Lehigh University, drawing on his childhood dream of being an engineer “of a different kind.”
“I had toy trains and did a lot of electrical wiring as a boy,” he said. “That led me to electrical engineering at Lehigh University.”
There, he was introduced to computers and did some programming. He followed his undergraduate work with a degree in Computer Information and Control Engineering at the University of Michigan, learning about computer graphics and setting up the next stage of his career.
When he was first getting into computing, there were individuals from various fields – electrical engineering, math, physics, and more – beginning to pursue similar fields of study. It was a great foundation in his belief in collegiality and collaboration across research areas.
“I’ve always been a believer in the power of many,” Foley said. “Being able to collaborate with others has been a real high point in my career.”
Indeed, that is one thing that attracted him to Georgia Tech. Edwards said Foley helped make Georgia Tech’s reputation as a leader in collaboration that much more impressive.
“I think one of the things that gets overlooked is that he was instrumental in defining GVU’s culture – that we could have people from great different disciplines come together, respect each other, learn from each other, and work together. Jim was the role model for how to do this, since he lived it every day, and people emulated him because of that. Those seeds really took root because now, 25 years later, I think the cultural influence here in GVU is what he started: An open, collaborative, respectful, and fun group to work with.”
Asked for the message he wants to leave his colleagues and students with at Georgia Tech, Foley offered familiar sentiments.
“Firstly, what I learned from my parents: From my mom, I learned determination and to keep going after my goals,” he said. “From my dad, I learned to be kind to everyone. Be courteous, be friendly.
“Secondly, I recognize that whatever I’ve been able to accomplish has been with the help of many others. None of us have achieved our goals on our own. So, I say to everyone – to my faculty colleagues, to students, to friends: Remember how we got here, and help others achieve their own goals.”