Engineering News

Professor Emeritus Charles W.N. Thompson Passes Away

Remembered for contributions in research, teaching, mentorship, and by promoting diversity

Charles W.N. Thompson, seen here with students, passed away at age 95 after a distinguished career at Northwestern.Charles W.N. Thompson, seen here with students, passed away at age 95 after a distinguished career at Northwestern.

Charles W.N. Thompson, professor emeritus of industrial engineering and management sciences at Northwestern Engineering, passed away at age 95 on June 13, 2020. Thompson will be remembered for his contributions to his field through research, teaching, mentorship, and his efforts to promote diversity in engineering.
 
A member of the McCormick School of Engineering’s faculty for 47 years before retiring in 2016, Thompson’s research interests included unstructured problems, systems design, and organization theory. He became a pioneer in “field research methods,” the process of improving organizations and systems by observing and surveying them as opposed to running experiments on them. 

Charles W.N. ThompsonTo keep up with the evolving field of industrial engineering, Thompson developed new courses for his students, who ranged from undergraduates to graduate students. His popular classes included IEMS 392: Systems Project Management and IEMS 411: Field Research in Organizations. Students in his courses designed and developed several systems still in use at Northwestern, including the Wildcard–the University’s official ID–and NUtopia, which served as a precursor of the current online undergraduate advising system in Northwestern Engineering.
 
When he arrived at Northwestern, women were scarce among both faculty and PhD students. It troubled Thompson. He spent his career working to improve those numbers, and he was proud that half of the 28 PhD candidates to graduate from his laboratory were women.

“Charlie had a rich understanding of designing and managing practical engineering systems. He often conveyed this understanding to his students through stories based on his wealth of experience,” said David Morton, David A. and Karen Richards Sachs Professor of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences and chair of the department. “Students appreciated his teaching all the more once they entered the workforce and needed to design and manage such real-world systems.”
 
Born in 1924 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Thompson earned his bachelor’s degree in 1943 from Kutztown State Teachers College (now Kutztown University), launching a varied career. He served as a US Air Force engineer in World War II and the Korean War. Once his military commitment ended, he continued living on the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, as a civilian consultant. Also, he served as a criminal attorney after graduating from Harvard Law, received an MBA from Ohio State University, and even served as a spy.
 
In 1969, Thompson received a PhD in industrial engineering and management sciences from McCormick, subsequently joining the faculty as an associate professor, and eventually becoming a full professor. A prize in his name is awarded each year to the best design projects in IEMS 394: Client Project Challenge.
 
“Charlie was completely intertwined in the fabric of McCormick and is one of the faculty members who comes up often in stories from alumni and friends,” said Dean Julio M. Ottino. “His wealth of life experiences helped him to connect to students in the classroom in memorable ways.”
 
Thompson was predeceased by wife Alice and his parents Richard Nelson Thompson and Helen M. Thompson. He is survived by sister Francella Heighes; sons Charles Jr., Richard, and Joseph, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Funeral services were private with interment in Memorial Park Cemetery in Skokie, Illinois. A celebration of his life is being planned for a future date.