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Pioneer in online computing, emeritus professor Bill Rowan Jr. dies

William (Bill) H. Rowan Jr., 81, died Jan. 6, 2015. Rowan’s ties to Vanderbilt run deep and wide – as an alumnus, as a faculty member, as an alumni volunteer, and as a donor.

Bill Rowan Jr.

Rowan (BE ’55, Professor Emeritus) joined the engineering faculty in 1964 and became the first department chair of computer science.  A few years later, recognizing the importance of evolving technology that anticipated the emergence of electronic networks, he developed a pioneering business in online computing.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Rowan studied civil engineering. Rowan Sr. was a Vanderbilt engineering professor. At Vanderbilt, Rowan Jr. was an Army ROTC student, which obligated him to two years of active duty service as a 2nd Lt. after graduation. He graduated magna cum laude in 1955.

Rowan worked for Boeing in Seattle from 1955-57 and earned his pilot’s license during this time. He served in the United States Army in the Corp of Engineers with the 4th Armor Division stationed in Ulm, Germany from 1957-59.

After completing his military service Rowan returned to Nashville and took a job as an electronics engineer with the Tennessee Highway Department. In September 1959 he took a one-year appointment as an instructor of mechanics at Vanderbilt School of Engineering while continuing as a consultant for the state.

In 1964 Rowan joined the Vanderbilt faculty as an assistant professor of civil engineering and engineering math. In 1965 he received his Ph.D. from North Carolina State University where he was a Ford Foundation Fellow and member of the Phi Kappa Phi honor society.

Rowan received a NSF Initiation Grant in 1967 to study matrix, finite element, and computer methods of structural analysis. He was also appointed staff consultant to AVCO Aerospace Division and named director to Vanderbilt’s new Information Engineering program.

In 1967 he joined with a group of professors to put together a series of short courses to teach practicing engineers on topics of finite element and computer methods of structural analysis and design. In 1969 the group was awarded an NSF grant to teach this material to faculty members from other universities.

Rowan founded On-Line Computing, Inc. in 1969 to provide computer software and consulting services. In 1971 he submitted a proposal to the Vanderbilt Graduate School to offer a master’s degree and a Ph.D. degree in information engineering, which was approved and became systems and information science.

In 1977, Rowan initiated the formation of the Computer Science Department. He grew interested in relational databases and did research and taught in this area. He remained a full professor in the Computer Science Department until he retired as Professor Emeritus in 1996.

He co-authored and co-edited two books and was honored in 2008 by the Vanderbilt School of Engineering as a member of the Academy of Distinguished Alumni. He supported the Rowan Scholarship fund.

He is survived by his wife, Sarah Rowan, two children, five grandchildren, one great grandchild, and one brother.

Brenda Ellis, (615) 343-6314
Twitter @VUEngineering