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Alumni Magazine

Bilbro Faculty Senior Award honors student resilience

Carla Savage, left, and Griff Bilbro with their children, Rebecca and Lucas.
Carla Savage, left, and Griff Bilbro with their children, Rebecca and Lucas.

Professor Griff Bilbro could explain complex physics and electrical engineering concepts in ways that made them accessible to just about anyone — “an uncanny ability to share some of the most complicated ideas as if they were drawn in crayon and stick figures,” as one of his former students put it. He was positive, he was compassionate, and he was considerate of each student’s learning style and situation.

Bilbro, who passed away in 2016, left a mark on hundreds of NC State University students, especially those in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), where he worked for 32 years. He worked with dozens of Ph.D. students and taught many undergraduates. He influenced some students to pursue academic careers, helped others realize it was possible to finish their degrees and succeed in industry, and made students feel like their success mattered.

“He had such respect for his students,” said Carla Savage, who was married to Bilbro for 34 years and is a professor emerita of computer science at NC State.

Griff Bilbro
Griff Bilbro

Bilbro taught two physics-heavy classes, ECE 422: Transmission Lines and Antennas for Wireless and ECE 403: Electronics Engineering, to juniors and seniors. The students worked hard to succeed in those challenging classes, many while working multiple jobs, supporting families or coming back after time off from classes.

To honor his dedication to his students’ wellbeing and success, Savage created the Griff L. Bilbro Faculty Senior Scholarship, which is given to a student who receives the ECE Faculty Senior Scholar Award to partially support the student’s needs in their final year of undergraduate studies. The first was awarded last year.

Both Bilbro and Savage always wanted to help students get everything they could out of their education, and they recognized that easing the financial burden could help make that possible“I wanted to memorialize the students and their hard work and resilience,” Savage said. “I know that word is overused now, but they were really tough and strong and worked hard, and Griff was so supportive of them. I wanted to honor that. I thought that captured his spirit more than anything.”

An unplanned teaching career

Bilbro and Savage met as undergraduate students at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He majored in physics, and she majored in mathematics. During their second year, they were in the same symbolic logic class, which ended in the early evening.

“If we walked slowly enough, the cafeteria was open for dinner, so we’d have dinner together,” Savage said.

Both attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for graduate school. Bilbro earned his M.S. in physics in 1975, and Ph.D. in physics in 1977. Savage earned her M.S. and Ph.D. in mathematics, also in 1975 and 1977.

After Illinois, she knew she wanted to teach at a university. He wanted to move away from cold weather. They spent one year together in Austin, Texas, for her postdoctoral position, and then moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where Savage joined NC State’s Department of Computer Science in 1978 and Bilbro worked for RTI International. Their children, Rebecca and Lucas, were born in 1982 and 1984.

I wanted to memorialize the students and their hard work and resilience. …Griff was so supportive of them. I wanted to honor that.”
– Carla Savage

Bilbro also joined NC State in 1984 and enjoyed a 32-year career with colleagues and students in the ECE department.

“Whenever Griff met someone and heard about their problems, he would think, ‘Oh, you know, I know what we can do. We could apply this, we could model it this way,’” Savage said. “He really enjoyed applying math and physics to solve problems in engineering.”

His research interests were broad, beginning with his early work in phase transitions with William McMillan at Illinois, through his work in image processing algorithms and neural networks with Wesley Snyder at NC State, and his later work with Robert Trew in semiconductor device modeling.

He loved research — more than anything except for his kids and even more than going on vacation, Savage said — and this led to his love for teaching, too.

Bilbro had a long record of outstanding teaching and was elected to the NC State Academy of Outstanding Teachers in 2001. He was named the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Undergraduate Teacher of the Year in 2006.

The pair enjoyed working at the same university, and they maintained separate schedules to stay flexible for their children. Some students took a class taught by Bilbro and a class taught by Savage without knowing they were married. But they would sometimes meet for lunch or to stroll around campus together.

Nino Masnari, who was dean from 1996 to 2006, once told Savage that people in his office liked seeing her and Bilbro holding hands and walking through campus.

“I was really embarrassed,” she said. “I wasn’t even aware that we did it. You know, it wasn’t a public display of affection. I don’t remember doing that. But it must have been unconscious sometimes.”

They talked often about their teaching and strategies. Sometimes one would ask the other for advice, though Savage remembers it was usually her asking him how he might approach a situation.

“He really could make hard things easy,” she said. “For anybody, even my family, you know, at Thanksgiving dinners. Everybody has a story about Griff. He would never talk down to anybody. He always assumed that whatever he wanted to say, he could say it in a way that you would understand. That’s who he was.”