In Memoriam: Jack D. Gaskill

    Date Posted: 
    Thursday, January 27, 2022

    Emeritus Professor Jack Gaskill passed away peacefully in the early morning hours of January 24th, 2022. Jack was a quick-witted, invested, professor dedicated to his students and optics education. Upon completing his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at Stanford University in 1968, Jack joined the faculty as an assistant professor at the newly established Optical Sciences Center (OSC).

    His arrival at OSC is best summarized with a quote from Tammy Orr’s Reflection’s article on Jack,

    Consistent with his research in holography and optical information processing, the first course Jack taught was one on the applications of Fourier theory in optics. And, consistent with his teaching style in the Air Force, Jack began his first class with a joke.

    Jack: A man walks into an exotic pet shop to buy a unique birthday gift for his wife.

    Student: (Laughing and groaning.) Oh, no!

    Jack: Young man, what do you mean ‘oh, no?’ I just started my joke.

    Student: Excuse me, professor Gaskill, but I have heard you tell this joke before.

    Jack: That’s impossible. This is my very first day teaching at OSC, and I haven’t told this joke to anyone since arriving in Tucson.

    Student: But sir, I was in your ground school class six years ago at Vance AFB, and you told the same joke then!

    The young student was Bob Breault (Ph.D. 1969). After that day, Jack’s standard pre-joke became, “Okay, I’m getting ready to tell a joke. Bob, start laughing.”

    Along with adding humor to OSC, Jack had a significant impact on the center when he was appointed the Associate Director of Academic Affairs in 1973. Jack continued in this role until he stepped down in 1993. In twenty years, Jack shaped the college’s graduate program; founded the Industrial Affiliates program in 1980; and led the effort, along with OSC’s director Bob Shannon, to establish an undergraduate degree program in 1989. Student support, recruitment, and retention were among his main goals in guiding and leading the growth and success of the students, and ultimately shaping the future of the Wyant College.

    After Jack’s retirement, his dedication to support student success was well noted by a generous gift made by Jack and his wife, Sandra, to establish the Jack D. Gaskill Undergraduate Scholarship. This commemoration of his retirement set off a flurry of additional gifts made by Jack’s former students and colleagues to further strengthen the scholarship’s endowment, which supports undergraduate students in optical sciences. In 2015, colleagues, friends and alumni once again honored Jack for his commitment to further students’ academic and research interests by collectively establishing the Jack D. Gaskill Graduate Student (FoTO) Scholarship. This scholarship is awarded to a first-year PhD student at Wyant College.

    To make a memorial gift to either of these scholarships as a tribute to Jack, please visit Make A Gift . In the section noted as “other,” please indicate which Gaskill (undergraduate or graduate) scholarship that you wish to support. A charitable tax receipt will be sent by the UA Foundation for your donation.    

    Our hearts and deepest sympathy go out to Jack’s wife, Sandra Gaskill, and their extended family and friends. Jack will be missed and remembered for his many contributions and impact on the bright future of the Wyant College that he helped create. Please find more about Jack in two articles here, Reflections by Tammy Orr and Etendue by Kaye Rowan.

    Details on a Celebration of Life will be added to this article when more information is available.



    Several of Jack’s colleagues, students and friends have already submitted memories which we are including here. Additionally, we would like to collect memories from others who would like to contribute. These will be published at a time closer to Jack’s memorial service and can be emailed to Tammy Orr at

    Jack used to say that he was my second Ph.D. student and my first mistake. He was my second student, but there was no mistake. Jack’s words were indicative of his great sense of humor.

    Jack did his Ph.D. research in the very early days of holography. His task was to experimentally and theoretically investigate the limitations posed by a turbulent atmosphere in recording holograms over horizontal paths. The idea was to send both the reference wave and the object wave along nearly identical paths and to study the formation of fringes as the two paths were angularly separated. He spent quite a few nights alone in the Stanford hills where his experiment was set up. After obtaining experimental results, he modified Tatarski’s theory to apply to the geometry of his experiments. It was a very good thesis, and the work was published in “JOSA.”

    I never saw Jack in a down mood. He was always positive and loved to joke. While I hadn’t seen him in a few years, I will nonetheless miss knowing that we can no longer count on his jokes to cheer us up. I send my condolences to Sandi, others in his family, and all his good friends. (Joe Goodman, William Ayer Professor Emeritus, Stanford University)

    I was very sad to hear of Jack Gaskill's passing. Throughout Jack's career at the Optical Sciences Center (OSC), he was often the spirit of the organization. He will be remembered by all of us as the ringleader in many escapades and adventures, and especially for his role as a strong advocate for the students. (Bob Shannon, Former Director and Professor Emeritus, OSC)

    My wife, Anne, and I were very saddened to learn of Jack's death. Not unexpected, but a reminder that good things come to an end. We visited Jack for lunch in December, bringing him several chocolate muffins filled with chocolate chips. The nursing home staff also knew of his love of chocolate and brought him a serving of chocolate ice cream to eat with the muffins. His love of chocolate was legendary.  

    We first met Jack in 1968 and kept in touch with him for the next 53 years, often getting together for hiking, biking, skiing, shooting pool, etc.  when he was in Colorado, or we were in Arizona. On one hike in Colorado, we took photos of colorful Aspen leaves and wrote an explanatory article that was published in “Optics News.”  Other outings showed Jack's competitive, athletic spirit, such as the time we biked the Morgul Bismarck near Boulder, and Jack made repeated ascents of The Wall while I struggled to get up it once.

    And perhaps the most common phrase from Jack, a man with a well-developed sense of humor, was: "Have you heard the one about...?" 
    (Brian Hooker, Ph.D., 1974, OSC)

    Jack came to OSC at just the right time. He did an amazing job with our students in two waysby mentoring them and by teaching them Fourier optics. Many of my students used those techniques in their research, and there was many a time that Jack and I negotiated for a good time for a student exam. Of course, we all remember his humor and his rapport with the students. Bob Breault’s young daughter, Robin, summed up the fun we had with Jack best"Mom, can we throw Dr. Rascal in the pond?” (Bill Wolfe, Professor Emeritus, OSC)

    Jack was not only a fantastic instructor of Fourier Optics, but a wonderful, well-respected mentor of graduate students, always genuinely interested in their lives and involved in their extra-curricular activities. True to his caring nature, Jack paid me as a TA when I was not helping him grade. (Eustace Dereniak, Professor Emeritus, OSC; Ph.D., 1976, OSC)

    I have many good memories of Professor Gaskill. We had both served in the militaryhe in the Air Force and I in the Armyand had both been to graduate schools before meeting at the Optical Sciences Center in the spring of 1971. We started our academic relationship in the fall of that year when I enrolled in his four semester-hour course.

    Between the homework he assigned and the five semester-hour course I was taking from Professor Meinel, I spent 8am to 10pm at the OSC Monday - Friday. Very enjoyable time and I developed a great respect for all the professors, especially Professor Gaskill. When I suggested a dissertation topic, Professor Wyant was listed as my dissertation advisor, but Professor Gaskill played an integral and essential role.

    I was working at the Army's White Sands Missile Range by that time and writing software that was of interest to Professor Gaskill. He invited my co-worker, Ron Hayslettwho had earned an Optical Specialist degree in 1973, and me to contribute to his forthcoming book. Very significant honor. Nothing but good memories about Professor Gaskill. (Bill Swantner, Ph.D., 1978, OSC)

    As a student at OSC, I was fortunate to have many excellent professors but a couple really stood out. Jack Gaskill was one of them. He often started his classes with a joke or humous story. His lectures were always superb, and he was never presumptuous about what his students did or didn't know. He started from the basics and rolled through increasingly difficult concepts with each lecture. To hammer it home, he always assigned homeworka LOT of homework. Every night we worked hours of problems using Fourier math until we could do it in our sleep! The net effect was that students who graduated from Jack's classes came away knowing the material very well. Even after 40 years, I can still work problems in Fourier spaceand that is a direct result of Jack's skill as a teacher.

    Jack's antics to ‘cheat’ in the annual OSC foot race are legend and, for many years, he put up with being tossed in the pond at Fort Lowell Park by the students as ‘punishment.’ His legacy as an educator will live forever in the memories of his many students. He was one of a kind and he will be missed. (John Hayes, Ph.D., 1984, OSC)

    While I didn’t have the pleasure to see Jack in action in the classroom, I did get to enjoy his humor and witness his love for students. With Jack’s passing, we lose part of the heart and soul of OSC.  He will be missed greatly. (Tom Koch, Dean, Wyant College of Optical Sciences)

    With Jack’s passing away, I have lost my former adviser and friend. As a foreign student from India, I learned a lot of things from Jack. I loved the fact that he would tell a joke before starting his class. Although I did not understand those jokes, his sense of humor led me to choose him as my advisor. After I defended my Ph.D. dissertation in 1974, he took my wife, my 5-year-old son, and me to dinner. After we were done eating, he said that we could take our extra vegetarian meal home in a ‘doggy bag.’ I responded by saying that we did not have a dog. He burst out laughing and explained the concept of the doggy bag. (Vini Mahajan, Ph.D., 1974, OSC)

    Whenever I think of Jack, I think of all the fun we had together over the years. The last time Tammy and I visited Jack, in December 2021, Sandi had brought a couple of old photo albums. Jack and I had the best time reminiscing—and even though he wasn’t in the best of health, his humor still shined.

    One of Jack’s favorite jokes, at my expense, was that the ‘C’ in my name stands for ‘cheap.’ Not sure where he came up with that rumor, but it probably didn’t help that I once accidentally sent him a Christmas card without affixing a stamp to the envelope—what a laugh Jack and I had when he told me the card arrived ‘postage due!’

    Along with Jack’s humorous side, I will always remember him as an incredible associate director of Academic Affairs (now, Academic Programs). Jack took a personal interest in every student—remembering not only their names, but the name(s) of their spouse and any children they had. That always impressed me. Actually, numerous things impressed me about Jack, and I will always consider him, not only a colleague, but a valued friend. (Jim Wyant, Professor Emeritus, OSC)