Reflections: Jack D. Gaskill

    Date Posted: 
    Thursday, February 4, 2021

    OE Editorial Collection CoverOE Editorial Collection Cover

    By: Tammy Orr

    By definition, an editorial is a newspaper or magazine article that gives the opinion of the editor. These short articles are meant to articulate a point of view and often recommend a course of action. The best editorials are not necessarily the ones written following strict guidelines or with the biggest vocabulary, but ones that possess an unforgettable personality, much like that of their author.

    In preparation to write this biography of Professor Emeritus Jack D. Gaskill, I read through more than five years of editorials he had written from July 1985 to December 1990 as Editor for SPIE’s research journal, Optical Engineering. Written on a variety of topics—and with humor woven throughout each personal narrative—I found all 56 to be extremely engaging, while remaining informative as well.  

    Consistent with his writing personality, Jack frequently used humor during his 31 years at the Optical Sciences Center (OSC) to establish rapport with students, faculty and staff. Aside from his quick-witted personality, it is his immense dedication to students and to optics education that many remember the most.

    Jack’s concern for his students was constantly apparent. Not a day went by that he did not approach each of his students and say, ‘have you heard the story about …?’ And he would proceed to tell a tale, often with a little humor, that would provide profound insight into life. 

    (Brian Hooker, PhD 1974)


    Born 9 December 1935 to John and Margaret Gaskill, Jack and his brothers Dick, Bob and Bill grew up on a small farm in Fort Collins, Colorado, where they raised chickens, rabbits, horses, cows and sheep. Jack’s father was head of sugar beet production research at USDA’s Crops Research Laboratory, located on the edge of the campus of Colorado A&M University (now, Colorado State). Jack fondly recalls eating a lot of sugar beets as a kid and serving as a horse-riding delivery boy for nine days for the Denver Post during the blizzard of 1949.

    About four feet of snow fell during the blizzard in 1949, but the wind piled some drifts as high as 30 feet. We heard stories of cars, trains, livestock, houses and barns buried under several feet of snow. I think it was almost July before the last of the snowdrifts melted.

    In 1953, Jack accepted a wrestling scholarship from Colorado A & M and enrolled as a freshman electrical engineering student. As an Aggie wrestler, Jack placed second in the Skyline Conference Championship in 1955 and 1956, at 147 pounds. He was awarded his B.S. in Electrical Engineering in June 1957 from Colorado State University—Colorado A&M had become Colorado State in May. As a ROTC graduate, Jack also received his military commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force.

    Before reporting to Lackland Air force Base (AFB) in San Antonio, Texas, Jack worked as an electronics engineer at Motorola Inc. for six months, in the newly incorporated town of Scottsdale, Arizona. Motorola’s Government Electronics Division had brought engineers and technicians to this transitioning ranching town to provide NASA with a variety of communications and tracking equipment. Jack’s primary project involved upgrading vacuum tube electronics to transistor electronics.


    After completing Officer Training School at Lackland AFB, Jack was transferred to Spence AFB in Moultrie, Georgia, for primary flight training; then to Vance AFB in Enid, Oklahoma, for basic training on jet planes. Upon graduating from jet pilot school and receiving his wings, Jack was selected for an instructor-pilot training program at Craig AFB near Selma, Alabama. It is there that Jack learned to teach the subjects of flight planning and air traffic control, and where he also learned an important lesson of teaching, “a little humor goes a long way in holding the attention of a classroom full of young airmen.”

    In 1963, Jack left the Air Force to study transistor circuit design at Stanford University. However, when he arrived on campus, he was informed that his assistantship had been moved from the electronics lab to the recently-built laser lab. Extremely disappointed at first, Jack now considers the change to be his “lucky fall into optics” as he began to “see the light.” Jack’s research adviser, Professor Joe Goodman, remembers Jack as a serious scientist/engineer.

    I recall Jack spending many nights in the Stanford foothills area of the Santa Cruz Mountains doing interference measurements in the presence of atmospheric turbulence. We were investigating how well one could measure fringes produced by two coherent point sources, and how one could deduce atmospheric turbulence parameters from such measurements. This was pretty difficult stuff, and Jack performed extremely well in both the experimental work and the theory that accompanied it.

    (Professor Emeritus Joseph W. Goodman, Stanford University)


    In 1968, just as Jack was finishing his PhD in Electrical Engineering at Stanford, the Optical Sciences Center (OSC) at the University of Arizona was making plans to move into its soon-to-be-completed 80,000 square-foot building. Given that OSC was originally established to fulfill a national need for more highly trained engineers and scientists in the field of optics, and many of OSC’s first students were U. S. Air Force officers, Jack—with both Air Force and extensive teaching experience—was an obvious choice to join the faculty as an assistant professor.

    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 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 (PhD 1969). After that day, Jack’s standard pre-joke became, “Okay, I’m getting ready to tell a joke. Bob, start laughing.”


    Over the years, many students, faculty and staff would pay witness to Jack’s incredible propensity to laugh often, tell humorous stories and deliver the more-than-occasional practical joke—earning him the nickname, Dr. Rascal, by four-year old Robin Breault.

    When my daughter, Robin, was young, OSC would hold an annual foot race around Saguaro National Park, East. Jack was never content just to participate—he frequently challenged others to bet on the outcome.

    During one of Jack’s more creative challenge ‘foot’ races, he started out as a sprinter; jumped off the trail; dressed up as a black-bearded long-haired hippy; grabbed a bike he (and his accomplice, Ron Fronczek, MS 1975) had stashed; raced around most of the course; then discarded the bike and the disguise close to the finish. Spectators (friends and family) were amazed when Jack ran across the finish line way ahead of the other runners!

    After the other runners finished, Jack dressed as a hippy again, rode past all and stared us down. I didn’t even recognize him, and he terrified my daughter! He later took the costume off and we all had a good laugh. Robin was just learning to read and the name ‘Gaskill’ was not a known word, but ‘rascal’ was part of her vocabulary, so she aptly called him, ‘Dr. Rascal.’ The name, good-humoredly, stuck with many at OSC.

    (Bob Breault, PhD 1969)

    Many stories of Jack’s challenges and pranks can be enjoyed in the column, Light Moments—a series of short, light-hearted articles written in honor of OSC’s 50th anniversary.


    In addition to training future optical engineers, Jack always sought to encourage young students through a scientific outreach program—a pursuit he felt critical to engaging the next generation to pursue careers in science. For some, explaining a subject such as holography to early learners could be challenging—but drawing upon his natural ability to tell a compelling story—Jack easily enlightened students at schools throughout Tucson.

    At an 8:10 assembly, Dr. Gaskill explained that ‘holography is a new method for making pictures where, in essence, you store light waves and take them out later to look at them.’ He illustrated this with a story of a rock-and-roll group that was playing their music outdoors in subzero weather. It got so cold that the notes froze before anyone could hear them, but when the sun came out and the instruments thawed, the music came out just as it had been played.

    (‘Optical Sciences Center newsletter,’ Sept. – Nov. 1969)


    In 1973, Vice Chairman and Administrator of Academic Affairs (now, Academic Programs), Robert H. Noble, left OSC after accepting a faculty position in Puebla, Mexico. OSC’s director, Peter Franken, appointed Jack as the new Associate Director of Academic Affairs—a position Jack would keep until he stepped down in 1993. In this position, Jack was responsible for further shaping the graduate program; founding the Industrial Affiliates program in 1980; and leading the effort, along with OSC’s director Bob Shannon, to establish an undergraduate degree program in 1989.

    Over those 20 years, Jack instilled within OSC a strong tradition of student support, recruitment and retention. He also continued to inspire students by teaching courses related to coherent imaging and holography.


    My first class at OSC was Jack Gaskill’s Fourier Optics class in the fall of 1977. It was rigorous and thoroughly entertaining. We did problem sets until we had perfectly-harmonic Fourier spectra coming out of our ears. Sketch-plotting every result deepened our conceptual feel. In class, Jack constantly told jokes. He also insisted that ‘light travels from left to right, from Speedway to Broadway.’ Drawing optical-systems the other way was ‘obviously wrong.’

    (Jack Jewell, PhD 1984)


    After teaching his Fourier optics course for almost 10 years—Jack felt that most textbooks on Fourier analysis contained very little material about optics, and most of those devoted to optical applications of communication theory assumed that the student had prior familiarity with Fourier analysis and linear systems. To remedy this, Jack wrote Linear Systems, Fourier Transforms, and Optics directly from the course material he had assembled over the years.

    Published in 1978, the book provides an understanding of basic mathematical concepts before focusing on Fourier analysis and the characterization of such systems by mathematical operators. Each chapter has a list of references and problems for the student, and the book has a complete index—making it useful as a desk reference for optical engineers and scientists—as well as a textbook.

    Jack and I both arrived in Tucson in the Fall of 1968—he as a young assistant professor and me as a new graduate student. I took his two courses, ‘Linear Theory in Optics’ and ‘Applications of Coherent Optics,’ the first time he taught them in the 1969-1970 academic year—long before his popular textbook was written.

    Years later, I would be teaching Fourier Optics at the University of Central Florida College of Optics and Photonics (CREOL) from his textbook, and Jack and I would jointly supervise one graduate student’s PhD dissertation. I have come to regard Jack as a valued colleague whom I can call for both technical and personal discussions.

    (Jim Harvey, PhD 1976)


    Now hear this! That long-awaited movie, ‘Revenge of the Nerds,’ opened in Tucson last Thursday. This modern non-classic was filmed on the UA campus—right down in OSC’s parking lot, in fact. And, most significant to OSCers, it marked the Twentieth-Century Fox screen debut of Jack Gaskill, type-cast in the role of a professor (nerd, no doubt).

    (‘Oscillations,’ 27 July 1984.)

    Revenge of the Nerds was a 1984 teen comedy directed by Jeff Kanew and starring Robert Carradine, as Lewis Skolnick, and Anthony Edwards, as Gilbert Lowe. The movie follows the tale of two young freshman, Lewis and Gilbert, who go off to college only to find themselves thrown out of their dorm by football players whose fraternity house suffered a fire.

    Filmed on the University of Arizona campus, some parts of the campus and the buildings are very recognizable. The dorm that the freshmen were kicked out of was Cochise Hall and the gym they were forced to live in was Bear Down Gymnasium. Other sites included are the Computer Center, the Arizona Stadium and the Memorial Fountain in front of Old Main. The fabricated name of the school, Adams College, made it easy for filmmakers to utilize the Arizona A’s on campus.

    Once it was announced that filming would begin, at least 1,500 students, faculty and staff showed up to audition to be in the movie, as about 4,000 people in the area were expected to be needed as extras. The highlight of the production—at least for those that were at OSC at the time—was 26-plus minutes into the film when Gilbert is talking with his girlfriend, Judy, on the steps of Forbes Hall and out walks a professor carrying a briefcase. Jack remembers the experience as “a lot of fun,” and still watches the movie on DVD from time to time—his only regret is that he cashed the $25 check he received as compensation.


    Throughout his career, Jack realized the importance of being involved with professional societies for himself and for OSC students. He was elected a Fellow of both the Optical Society of America (OSA) and the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE). After serving as Editor for SPIE’s research journal, Optical Engineering, Jack was awarded the SPIE President’s Award in 1990 for his unique and meritorious service of outstanding benefit to the Society. He was elected President of SPIE in 1995—an experience he describes as “one of his best.”

    As President of SPIE, I was given opportunities to visit other universities and industrial companies that were involved in optics. I traveled throughout Europe and Asia, places I might not have visited otherwise. I also was introduced to some incredibly accomplished individuals that I might not have met otherwise.

    Additionally, over the years, Jack taught more than 40 off-campus short courses on Fourier optics and related subjects. In 2003, Jack received the SPIE Directors’ Award for his many years of service to the Society.


    Jack D. Gaskill Graduate Student Scholarship, 2015

    Jack D. Gaskill Graduate Student Scholarship, 2015

    In 1999, Jack and his wife, Sandra, commemorated his retirement from OSC by contributing a generous gift to be offered as an undergraduate student scholarship in optical sciences. Many alumni followed his example by also making contributions, which then endowed the Jack D. Gaskill Undergraduate Scholarship.

    In 2015, colleagues, friends and alumni further honored Jack for his contributions as a professor, adviser, mentor and administrator by also establishing the Jack D. Gaskill Graduate Student (FoTO) Scholarship.

    In my first semester at the Optical Sciences Center in 1971, I took a class from Dr. Gaskill on Linear Systems, Fourier Transforms and Diffraction. His humorous personality—starting each class with a joke—left an impression on me. So, in my second year, I requested him to be my adviser, and he immediately accepted.

    Years later, as the word ‘guru’ became popular in the American vernacular, I started introducing Jack as my Guru. To this day, I feel very emotional whenever I think about Jack and the profound impact he had on me, first as an adviser, then as a friend.

    (Virendra Mahajan, PhD 1974)


    Coinciding with the writing of this bio, SPIE has created a PDF collection of Jack’s Optical Engineering editorials. This collection can be viewed here. The collection is also featured on their SPIE Digital Library.