In Memoriam: William J. Rae

by Jane Stoyle Welch

Published August 22, 2020

William J. Rae, who was a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, died on July 15 at home at the age of 90.

“Bill was a colleague and a friend who was always ready for a conversation. He had a broad-based knowledge in aerospace engineering, and was always happy to share it.”
Robert Wetherhold, professor
Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

William J. Rae

An expert in the fields of aerospace, flight dynamics and fluid mechanics, Rae joined the University at Buffalo in 1985, and worked for over 30 years as a research scientist and engineer at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory (which later became Calspan).

“Bill often mentioned that his first job title at the Cornell Aeronautical Lab was ‘computer,’ since he began work doing calculations before there were real computers. He (and many others) served as ‘computers’ doing calculations with adding machines and slide rules. The well-known ‘Hidden Figures’ movie depicted that time period showing Katherine Johnson as a ‘human computer’ for NASA,” says Roger Mayne, Emeritus professor of mechanical engineering.

“Among his many professional accomplishments, he was instrumental in bringing Calspan and UB researchers together and deserves a large part of the credit for the creation of CUBRC. Calspan owned and operated some very unique and expensive facilities that could not be duplicated at UB, or most other universities for that matter, and Bill was particularly effective at helping to arrange to make them available to his UB faculty colleagues, enabling and often participating in some truly cutting-edge joint research,” says Joseph Mook, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Rae received numerous awards during his long career at the University at Buffalo, among them the title of SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in 2000, the highest faculty rank in the SUNY system; SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1993; the Most Helpful Teacher Award from the UB chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA); and the Carl Naish Award from the Millard Fillmore College Student Association.

“I first got to know Bill in the early 1980's. In addition to his research interests in the aerospace world and technology, he and I shared a special commitment to teaching - trying to treat students fairly and well whenever possible,” added Mayne.

While teaching the fundamental properties of aerodynamic flight to students in his flight dynamics class in 1995, Rae began developing a theory that explains why a football doesn’t fly like a missile or a bullet. His theory demonstrated that the flight of a football is almost as complicated as the flight of an airplane.

“Bill was a colleague and a friend who was always ready for a conversation. He had a broad-based knowledge in aerospace engineering, and was always happy to share it,” says Robert Wetherhold, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “The students responded strongly to his enthusiasm for his subject and he was always willing to mentor students who wanted to know ‘a little bit more.’ I remember his research work on the aerodynamics of a football—the perfect project to bring dynamics and aerodynamics together in a football-crazy town! He was always friendly with us, his colleagues, even though we come from quite different backgrounds. We mourn the loss of this gentleman from the old school.”

“Bill was a fantastic colleague, eminently qualified as an engineering professor and at the same time, always humble and one of the genuinely nicest and most supportive people I've ever met. His kind and warm support and encouragement of students and young faculty was life-changing to so many. He had a great sense of humor and loved to tell good stories, so in addition to teaching and sharing professional work at the highest levels, he was just simply a pleasure to be around. He made people feel good about themselves and others,” added Mook.

In addition to teaching, he held several administrative positions at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, including associate dean for graduate education and chair of the mechanical engineering undergraduate committee. He retired from UB in 2002.

Rae was inducted into the Niagara Frontier Aviation & Space Hall of Fame in 2016, in recognition of his long career in aviation. Since its inception 35 years ago, the Hall of Fame has served to “… honor and enshrine those men and women, who in their own unique way, contributed significantly to the history and development of aviation and aerospace on the Niagara Frontier.”

Mook added a special memory from Rae’s retirement. “Bill and I started at UB the same year, which was a constant source of mutual kidding due to our 29 year age gap. Together, we were the new kids on the faculty. Many years later, at his retirement, we stood side by side while he remarked, ‘Joe and I started at UB at the same time, and look what hard work will do for you.’ He loved these kinds of quips, and always had a twinkle in his eye.”

Born in Buffalo, Rae earned his PhD from Cornell University in aeronautical engineering in 1960.

Surviving Rae are his wife, Esther Horan Rae, children Barbara (Brian Kelleher), Michael (Tamar Henkin), Matthew (Honey Rae) and Leah; grandfather to Alexander Rae, Andrew Rae and Eleanor Rae Kelleher.