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In memoriam: Paul Yoder, optomechanical pioneer

01 June 2016

Paul R. Yoder, Jr.Paul R. Yoder, Jr., optomechanical engineer and teacher of many SPIE courses in optics, died on 26 May 2016 in Norwalk, Connecticut. He was 89.

Yoder received his bachelor's degree in physics from Juniata College (1947) and a master's in physics from Penn State University (1950). He designed optical components and instruments used by the US military and NASA for satellite intelligence gathering during the Cold War (including the now-declassified KH-9 Hexagon spy satellite project), and for the medical community for laser eye surgery. He held various technical and engineering management positions within the US Army's Frankford Arsenal, Perkin-Elmer Corporation, and  Taunton Technologies, Inc., which pioneered the research and development of human corneal reshaping using excimer lasers as a means of correcting refractive vision errors -- the foundation for what is now known as LASIK vision correction. He was awarded 14 US and several foreign patents.

Yoder was a fellow of SPIE and the recipient of the SPIE Directors Award (1996 and 2007) and the SPIE George W. Goddard Award (1999). He also received the OSA Engineering Excellence Award. His contributions to SPIE and to the discipline of optomechanics were legendary. He served as conference chair for the early meetings on the topic, and continued on the program committee of the biannual SPIE conference until his death.

Roger S. Reiss, another pioneer of optomechanics, remembered Yoder's willingness to assist and share information.

"I called Paul to ask him if I could borrow (and we all know what 'borrow' meant) one of his illustrations," said Reiss. "He laughed and said ‘Roger, I borrowed it from someone and I do not even remember who it was...so it is yours to borrow from me...just make sure it is modified or redrawn.’ Thank you, Paul, you and your wisdom will be missed."

SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs called him "a true gentleman indeed." Yoder's history with the society goes back at least to the 1970s, when he chaired conferences at the SPIE annual meeting (now called SPIE Optics + Photonics), and began teaching courses. Over the next four decades he taught more than 100 of them, including some of the very first courses on video.

Among his first publications on optomechanical engineering was a collection of 11 papers on the topic in the March/April 1981 edition of the SPIE journal Optical Engineering. Don O'Shea, professor emeritus of optical engineering at Georgia Tech, said these papers "represented a contemporary launch of the topic, and the booster for this launch was Paul," O'Shea said. "In the months and years since the original volume, Paul was a source of information and insights into the mechanics of optomechanics. He was unfailingly helpful to me and a great conversationalist. To my mind, Paul established the modern field of optomechanical design and all of us in SPIE and the field of optical engineering are in his debt."

Yoder was the author of two Tutorial Texts, two Press Monographs and one Field Guide, all for SPIE Press. He was a symposium chair, and conference and session chair multiple times. Shortly before his death, Yoder expressed his gratitude for the long history of opportunities and friendships he developed through his many years with SPIE.

"Despite his rapidly failing health he wanted me to make sure to contact the SPIE and convey both thanks and appreciation for his long involvement with the society," said his friend and co-author Dan Vukobratovich. "He considered his membership and participation in SPIE activities to be one of the highlights of his professional career, and cherished many of the staff and other members as friends. He certainly inspired my own involvement in the SPIE."

Kathleen Robinson, SPIE Manager of Education Services, worked with Yoder for more than three decades. "I feel certain the appreciation and gratitude go both ways here," she said. "He was one of those old-school kind of guys who felt a commitment to give back."

Yoder's contributions to optical and optomechanical engineering will be long-lasting, according to Vukobratovich.

"Paul was an ideal collaborator with never a serious disagreement between us," he said. "Paul's courses and books helped spread knowledge about optomechanics worldwide; almost every optical engineer has a copy of one of Paul's books as a reference. Not so well known are his activities in developing the technology associated with laser eye surgery, which enormously improved the daily lives of many with visual impairment."

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in his memory to the Wilton Congregational Church or the Paul & Betty Yoder Foundation (PO Box 1065, Edgemont, PA 19028-1065), a private charitable trust that supports the education of women in transition.

There will be a memorial service celebrating his life on Sunday, June 5th at 5 pm at the Wilton Congregational Church, 70 Ridgefield Rd., Wilton, CT. A reception will follow.