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ENG Icon Merrill Ebner Dies at 76

Prof emeritus was to be honored at service recognition dinner

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Photo by Vernon Doucette

College of Engineering Professor Emeritus Merrill L. Ebner, one of the key figures in the college’s transformation and the creator of the field of manufacturing engineering, died on March 27 after suffering a heart attack at a University recognition dinner where he was to be honored. He was 76.

Ebner, who retired from full-time faculty work at the end of 2006 after a 42-year career at BU, was among the longtime Boston University employees and recent retirees who were being honored at the annual Service Recognition Dinner last Thursday night. Ebner collapsed at the event and was taken to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he died.

“Merrill was an icon,” said College of Engineering Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen. “The Boston University College of Engineering would not be where it is today without his numerous and enduring contributions during a career that spanned five decades. Merrill was loved and respected by generations of students and colleagues. I personally will be forever grateful to him for his friendship and mentoring when I first arrived at BU as a junior faculty member 24 years ago. We are saddened by his loss but comforted to know that students will benefit from Merrill’s legacy for many years to come.”

The son of a banker and a music teacher from Pullman, Wash., Ebner attended MIT on an ROTC scholarship. After earning a doctorate in materials science and engineering, he worked at the experimental flight station at Edwards Air Force Base in California during the early days of the jet-powered aircraft.

“Many of them were untried and still in the experimental process — and many crashed,” Ebner recalled in a 2006 article in the Boston University College of Engineering Magazine. “My job was to piece them back together and figure out why they fell down from the sky.”

He moved back to Massachusetts to do postdoctoral research at MIT and start a small company designing disposable plastic medical parts. After a few profitable years, he and his partner sold the company, SRC Medical, which still makes the parts Ebner designed.

Ebner was among a small group of faculty hired in the early 1960s to play a transformational role at the College of Engineering. When he was recruited in 1964, the college had only recently been created, having changed its name from the College of Industrial Technology. Students took notes with fountain pens, and overhead projectors were classroom staples.

In his lab, Ebner was developing a new engineering discipline, focused on product development and design: manufacturing engineering. He was instrumental in defining the discipline as separate from industrial and mechanical engineering, and he led the successful effort to get the manufacturing engineering department accredited at BU. He was its chairman from 1969 to 1986. In 1989, BU awarded the first manufacturing engineering Ph.D. in the United States.

In the early 1970s, enrollment ebbed and the college was at a crossroads. The University looked to Ebner’s skills and engaging personality to turn things around as the college’s dean ad interim.

“I think it is fair to say he was one of three faculty who stepped up to the plate and saved the college when our freshman class bottomed out at 32,” says Professor Emeritus Richard Vidale, a contemporary of Ebner’s.

BU President Emeritus John Silber recalled in 2006 that “the personal attention offered by Professor Ebner and other colleagues created an atmosphere in the school that made it highly attractive to prospective students.”

The new manufacturing engineering department was a magnet for a diverse array of students. Ebner designed the introductory course, which allowed freshmen to get their hands dirty. “They get to think about things and analyze things and also do things,” he said. “It’s been a very durable course.”

Throughout his career, every undergraduate in the manufacturing engineering program took at least one course with Ebner, who never lost his enthusiasm for the subject matter or his ability to connect with students. Just months before his retirement, manufacturing engineering students voted him the department’s best teacher.

Ebner had great impact on generations of students. One of them, Roger Dorf (ENG’70), president and chief executive officer of Navini Networks, in 2003 established the Merrill L. Ebner Fund at the College of Engineering to benefit student-based programs that encourage creative design in manufacturing engineering.

“When it came time to give back to the places that made me,” Dorf said, “he stood out in my memory. He changed the way I look at things.”

In 1996, Ebner took over the college’s Distance Learning Program, which at the time consisted largely of satellite-fed lectures delivered to students gathered in conference rooms. As he prepared to retire in 2006, he was fine-tuning software that allowed students to have real-time audio and video interaction with their professors and classmates from a laptop. That software is now in use.

Even after his retirement, Ebner continued to be a presence at the college. He worked with undergraduates on their required senior design projects, kept a hand in at the Distance Learning Program, continued to foster the development of the Merrill L. Ebner Fund, and worked on translating two-dimensional software images into three-dimensional shapes.

Ebner is survived by his wife of 51 years, June, three sons, a daughter, and several grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held on Thursday, April 3, at 10 a.m. at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 74 Pleasant St., Arlington, Mass., with visiting hours the day before, Wednesday, April 2, from 4 to 8 p.m., at the Saville and Grannan Funeral Home, 418 Mass. Ave., Arlington.

Donations in Ebner’s memory can be made to the Boston University Merrill L. Ebner Fund.

3 Comments

3 Comments on ENG Icon Merrill Ebner Dies at 76

  • Nephew in Austria on 04.01.2008 at 1:37 pm

    Fairwell Onkel Prof. M. Ebner

    The gloomy night is gath’ring fast,
    Loud roars the wild, inconstant blast,
    Yon murky cloud is foul with rain,
    I see it driving o’er the plain;
    The hunter now has left the moor’
    The scatt’red coveys meet secure,
    While here I wander, pressed with care,
    Along the lonely banks of Ayr.

    The Autumn mourns her rip’ning corn
    By early Winter’s ravage torn;
    Across her placid, azure sky,
    She sees the scowling tempest fly:
    Chill runs my blood to hear it rave,
    I think upon the stormy wave,
    Where many a danger I must dare,
    Far from the bonnie banks of Ayr.

    ‘Tis not the surging billow’s roar,
    ‘Tis not that fatal, deadly shore;
    Tho’ death in ev’ry shape appear,
    The wretched have no more to fear:
    But round my heart the ties are bound,
    That heart transpierc’d with many a wound;
    These bleed afresh, those ties I tear,
    To leave the bonnie banks of Ayr.

    Farewell, old Coila’s hills and dales,
    Her healthy moors and winding vales;
    The scenes where wretched Fancy roves,
    Pursuing past, unhappy loves!
    Farewell, my friends! farewell, my foes!
    My peace with these, my love with those –
    The bursting tears my heart declare –
    Farewell, the bonnie banks of Ayr!

    We’ll miss you soo much!. A.

  • Anonymous on 04.01.2008 at 3:50 pm

    A Mournful Freshman

    I met Professor Ebner just a few short weeks ago at a department meeting. At the time, I had no idea he had such an impact on the development of the School of Engineering, but I could tell he was very enthusiastic about the department, more enthusiastic than any other person in the room. It’s incredible how a man who has been so involved for so many years maintained his passion and was able to pass it on to so many people, myself included. I am truly sorry I wasn’t able to get to know him better. BU has suffered a great loss.

  • Anonymous on 04.08.2008 at 11:03 pm

    Merrill Ebner

    Merrill’s classmates and neighborhood friends from Pullman, Washington will grieve his loss. He was a very special person, so skilled athletically as well as being academically gifted, yet so “humble”. We all have many fond memories. . .as children, the “Taffy- pulls” at his house, playing “Kick-the-can” on neighborhood streets in the evening; watching his performance on the high school football turf, appreciating his leadership roles in our school, to mention just a few. May he rest in peace!

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