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In memoriam: Joe Yaver, SPIE leader and visionary

30 November 2016

Joe Yaver
Joe  Yaver

Joe Yaver, Executive Director of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, from November 1969 until 1993, died unexpectedly in his sleep at his home in Bellingham, Washington, on 29 November. He was 83.

Yaver is credited with building the foundation for SPIE’s current multidisciplinary, international scope, and shaping its place in the photonics industry. Among many milestones and accomplishments during his tenure, he was instrumental in:

  • partnering with other societies and associations to establish major conferences at venues in Europe and Asia, in line with the Society's role as an international organization
  • expanding the scope and reputation of the unique series Proceedings of SPIE, the foundation of today's SPIE Digital Library with more than 10,000 volumes published as of this year, in support of the Society's goal to provide the latest optics and photonics developments to the largest number of people
  • moving SPIE headquarters from Los Angeles to Bellingham in 1977, and establishing the current headquarters campus in 1983
  • growing membership from 1,200 in 1964 to 12,000 in 1993
  • launching OE/LASE in Los Angeles (the precursor of SPIE Photonics West) and Technical Symposium Southeast in Orlando (precursor to SPIE Defense and Commercial Sensing) in 1986.

In recent years, Yaver turned his energies to his local community, becoming an activist in protection of the environment, working to bring economic prosperity to the area, and helping organize the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention in Bellingham.

"Joe was a great neighbor and community activist," said friend and neighbor Gil Lund, Jr. "I credit the green spaces around Fairhaven to his relentless rallying cries. Bellingham owes him a big salute."

“Joe will be missed by his many friends and former coworkers in Bellingham,” said Arlan Norman, Professor Emeritus at Western Washington University and chair of the Spark Museum board of directors. “His leadership at SPIE, his active involvement in community affairs, and his years of support and service to Spark are among his many contributions to the community. For those of us who knew him quite well, he was a friend and a person who was always fun to be around. He will be greatly missed by all of us.”

Yaver wrote of his passion for the Society and the field of optics and photonics in From Photography to Photonics -- 50 Years of SPIE, the SPIE anniversary book published in 2005:

"SPIE introduced me to a world that was destined to be one of the great enabling technologies of the century. It provided me with an opportunity to meet many of the leading figures in one of mankind's greatest achievements: the exploration of space." He recalled the honor of meeting many of the field's luminaries, such as Harold "Doc" Edgerton, Rudolf Kingslake, Brian Thompson, Lewis Larmore, astronaut Walter Cunningham, who came to annual meeting in Anaheim "with a piece of the moon," and Shuttle Columbia astronauts Ken Mattingly and Henry Hartsfield, Jr., who presented SPIE with patches from their uniforms at one annual meeting.

"I was proud to be part of SPIE's pioneering endeavor to build bridges to the scientific communities in Europe and Asia and to be the first American-based technical society to establish a chapter and office in what was then the Soviet Union, under Mikhail Gorbachev," Yaver said.

View the Joe and Agnete Yaver
video interview with
Chuck DeMund
 [43:12] 

Yaver's passing “was a shock to us all,” said SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs. “I was bantering with him a few weeks ago at a Spark Museum board meeting. He told me he was still monitoring SPIE with ‘great pride’ and with the endless anxiety that was so Joe. I am deeply grateful for what he did for SPIE, for our entire community, and for all the staff over the years. I am humbled by his extraordinary legacy with our organization, and for his guidance since I took his old role in 1999.”

Several SPIE Past Presidents and others joined Arthurs in remembering Yaver and expressing condolences to his wife, Agnete Yaver, who worked alongside him in building SPIE and advancing its mission.

Speaking from the "Yaver years":

Joe Yaver at his desk at Lairmont Manor

Joe Yaver at his desk at
Lairmont Manor, c. 1980

Chuck DeMund, 1973-74 President, shared a glimpse into Yaver’s roots.

“When Joe joined us, his prior experience was with a minor non-profit in a fundraising role. Joe confided in me that -- and perhaps this should come as no surprise to anyone who knew him -- he had always wanted to be an actor.

“On a rainy evening in the early '70s we were in Manhattan for an early SPIE seminar. With time on our hands, Joe asked if I wanted to take a walk. I followed him many blocks and he stopped to stand in front of a very unremarkable building. He proceeded to tell me that this was where he had studied acting under one of the greats, Sanford Meisner. The emotion evident in what may have been his first return visit to this personal ‘shrine’ was something I never will forget.

“In Meisner's view, great acting depends on ‘the actor's impulsive response to what's happening around him.’ Evidently Joe learned more than a little from his mentor. He ‘acted’ his way through many situations, many involving people and technologies that he only knew a little of, almost always with palpable success.

“Joe's theatrical skills are what I will remember best. SPIE certainly owes him many resounding curtain calls for sensing where the audiences for our ever-growing capabilities were and how to get them into our ‘theater’."

Brian Thompson, 1975-76 President, remembered Yaver's "dedication to our Society. A major highlight of those years was working closely with (and for?) Joe and helping his well-constructed dream for SPIE become true. The main problem we faced was needing to restructure our headquarters and increase its staffing, which was impossible to do while based in L.A. Joe’s solution was to move our headquarters to a much more affordable location. Joe’s efforts were successful — we moved to Bellingham and became a very welcome addition to the community, and what we have today is that dream come true."

Joe Houston, 1977-1978 President, recalled Yaver's humor and his unique ability to see the future in practical terms.

“I remember clearly the occasions when he began an assessment of a difficult situation with the words, ‘as my father used to say to me...’. One of his wonderful talents was his ability to gather gifted people and guide them in accomplishing impossible tasks. He took on the world knowing that he had the backing of his loyal band of collaborators.

“One of his favorite immutable, invincible, fictional characters was Don Quixote. Many are the times that working alongside Joe on a grand plan, one felt like Sancho. Joe gave fully of himself on every occasion. We could never get enough of him and will never get over him!”

Andy Tescher, 1981 President, noted that, in addition to being “multitalented, dedicated, and a visionary (which would be an understatement), more importantly, Joe was the right person at the right time for the Society. His talents were closely attuned to SPIE’s need at its critical growth period.”

Less understood was Yaver’s understanding of financial issues and the occasional need to resort to unconventional methods, Tescher said.

As an example, he recalled, “Joe and I stayed at the New York Hyatt Regency on the way to Europe. Although I did not question his choice, he volunteered information regarding the cost of a rather upscale accommodation. His approach for getting a reasonable price was to call ahead to the marketing department manager and make an appointment to review the facility for a possible future meeting. Invariably the manager would arrange for complimentary accommodation. Did Joe outsmart the owner of the hotel?

“Looking back, my only regret is not to accept his numerous invitations to go fishing with him (but I really don’t like fishing!).”

Joe Yaver at a podium

Joe Yaver speaking to
an SPIE audience, c. 1990

"Joe was an amazing person who did amazing things," said James Wyant, 1986 President "He had a great impact on the world of optics." In From Photography to Photonics, Wyant called Yaver a “genius” at building relationships with the optics community around the world.

Barry Johnson, 1987 President, recalled Yaver’s graciousness — and persuasive abilities. “Back in 1972, while on a trip to California, I decided to visit the SPIE headquarters and was quite surprised to learn that it was in just two rooms, and the staff comprised three people that included Joe and Agnete.

“They were most gracious and I spent almost two hours with them learning about the operation and Joe's vision. As everyone knows, Joe could be most persuasive and got me to agree to write a column called the 'Infrared Forum' which ran in almost each issue of the Optical Engineering journal until about 1980.

“Joe loved SPIE as if it was a family member and he is one of the main reasons why SPIE lived through and grew in the 1970s. He had the wonderful support of Agnete to devote himself to the Society. He was a great friend.”

Bill Wolfe, 1989 President, recalled negotiating with Yaver, with partners in Germany and in Boston. “We also argued about the future of SPIE in Orlando, his successor, and a host of things. Joe was tough but he was fair and he was determined. I have not kept track of who won those arguments, but SPIE always did. I think there is little doubt that he ‘made’ SPIE. I am proud to be associated with him (another New York guy) and with SPIE.”

Emery Moore, 1990 President, said he considers that of three great mentors he had in his life, “Joe was certainly one, if not the best, of them. There are many accolades that could be heaped on Joe and also his close partner Agnete). The loss of Joe is a great loss to both Tina (Kidger, owner of Kidger Optics Associates) and me.”

Bob Sprague, 1991 President, remembered Yaver as “a driving force during many years of SPIE from its infancy to the amazing organization it is today. I worked with him very closely as president and all my years on the board and he was a tireless advocate for SPIE. I really enjoyed all those times and found them extremely productive.”

Edmund Akopov, 1992-2007 SPIE CEO in Russia, called Yaver’s death “a great loss to all of us who knew and appreciated this unique personality. SPIE made a giant leap during his tenure, and he laid a foundation of its contemporary shape.

“I first met him in West Berlin in Spring 1992 in the EUROPTO office, where he arrived from Paris interested in meeting ‘the guy the Russians had hired as their Chapter’s executive director’. When he had called me previously at home in Moscow, his first words were ‘You can call me Joe’.

“He was a leader among those who made SPIE the first American-based technical society to establish a Chapter in what then was the USSR before its collapse. He understood the importance and worth of technical cooperation with the former Cold War foe, due to promising changes. Time has shown he was right.

“I am proud to have been his friend for many years, listening to his advice and spending many hours in talks and discussions, sharing opinions and sometimes ‘crossing intellectual swords’, as he liked to say.

“Once I asked him how he dared to enter the world of optics and photonics, very far from his previous expertise. His answer was, ‘I just read the books’.”

More recent SPIE Presidents and colleagues also paid tribute to Yaver and his legacy.

Yaver was a complex person, recalled MJ Soileau, 1997 President, “the kind of person of whom one always remembers the first meeting.”

“For me it was in 1987 in the earliest days of CREOL. My old colleague from China Lake, Hal Bennett, was SPIE Vice President. Joe was trying to generate some sort of buzz for the Orlando meeting, which was then called Aerosense. He offered to do a deal with CREOL. If I would pay the registration for one student, he would allow ALL of our students to attend the conference. We did this and for many years the growth of CREOL tracked the growth of the Orlando meeting. Joe was a ‘damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead’ kind of guy, always determined to figure out how to make something work.

Joe Yaver with guests at SPIE headquarters, c. 1995

Joe Yaver with guests at
SPIE headquarters, c. 1995

“An important part of Joe’s personality was that of a New York hustler, pushing hard, but always finding a way to make a deal work. Another example was negotiating a deal with CREOL to migrate what we called our Winter School of short courses to the Aerosense meeting. It was a money-loser for us as a standalone activity. Joe wanted us move it to Aerosense to share risk and benefit. The university would not allow risk. Joe came up with a formula of asymmetric benefit but zero risk for us. Deal!

“When Hal nominated me to be on the Board, I accepted. Then I got a call from Joe saying he supported Hal’s selection, but I needed to join the society in order to serve on its board! Of course I did join and the streetwise New York boy and this country Cajun became great friends. Like all who knew Joe, I have great respect for his accomplishments, great memories of his friendship, and to a large extent owe part of my professional growth to my association with him.”

"I remember being introduced to Joe out by the pool at the Town and Country Resort and Convention Center in San Diego when I first started attending the SPIE annual meeting," said 2000 President Don O'Shea. "He was sitting under an umbrella holding council and court. Having just met me, he confided in me as though I were an old friend on the parlous state of SPIE and enlisted my help in some project that he was starting up. Were it not for Joe, many of us would never have had the opportunities to engage in optical engineering and help his…my…our society grow and thrive."

Richard Hoover, 2001 President, also recalled a first meeting with Yaver at the Town and Country, shortly after he was invited to organize the first SPIE conference on x-ray optics.

“Joe was on his way to the exhibitor reception and asked me to come along,” Hoover said. “I told him I would love to go but I didn't have a ticket. He broke into a broad grin and said, ‘Come with me and we will crash the party!’ At that moment I realized I did not need a ticket. Joe's love and enthusiasm for SPIE was truly contagious and his contributions to this Society were truly immense. He always showed great kindness.”

Jim Harrington, 2002 President, recalled first his meeting with Yaver, when “Larry DeShazer and I were seeking a home for a new conference on Infrared Fibers. We first tried another society but were told that this was not a topic that the organizers wished to have as a conference. We approached Joe. One of his most remarkable traits was his ‘let's do it approach’ to bringing new conferences to SPIE. We found our SPIE home in 1980 and never left.”

"Joe was an accomplished and effective CEO," remembered Elizabeth Rogan, Chief Executive Office of The Optical Society since 2002. "Jarus (Quinn, former OSA Executive Director) and Joe started working for the societies the same year, retired within a year of each other ... and passed away close to the same age."

Malgorzata Kujawinska, 2005 President, remembered Yaver as "a very special person for me personally and for the optical community in Poland and in the whole of Eastern Europe.

“His role in establishing direct international links between SPIE (which at the beginning was mainly U.S.-based) and the optical community around the world was, in my opinion, among his main contributions. He had deep understanding of the importance of international links and cooperation. He had also a vision and understanding of how these could be realized despite different political systems (just remember how the political world looked in the 1970s and ’80s) and financial conditions.

“He initiated the concept of SPIE national chapters and later SPIE student chapters. He was personally involved in establishing the foundations of these structures, helping financially, being flexible in organization, and building friendship bridges between nations and between individual persons.

“I strongly believe that his personal vision of SPIE as the international society paved the way to SPIE’s position on the international scene now. The international friendships and understanding which he initiated are the foundation of today's SPIE.”

Brian Culshaw, 2007 President, remembered Yaver’s “wit, dedication, humor and energy. He established the SPIE culture and was certainly one of, probably the, principal initial draws towards SPIE as far as I was concerned. He'd take risks and he'd cheer on those who worked with him with great energy — a man to be remembered with fondness and admiration, one whose legacy for sure lives on in Bellingham.... and probably throughout most of the optical engineering world.”

Joe Yaver at a retirement party at SPIE headquarters

Joe Yaver at a staff retirement
party at SPIE headquarters,
c. 2002

Kevin Harding, 2008 President, noted that Yaver was “a key player in making it possible to do all the things we have done through SPIE for our field today. Every technology movement needs its visionaries. Joe created the means for those visions to spread.”

“Clearly, Joe exemplified brilliance and persuasiveness on many fronts, and he inspired a long line of leaders within our mutually cherished SPIE community” said 2010 President Ralph James. “He generously gave us his gifts of wisdom, business skills, and improvisation that were both innovative and creative. We are all fortunate to have the privilege of knowing Joe and walking a path that he worked so brilliantly to light.”

Eustace Dereniak, 2012 President, was among those who called out Yaver’s vision, positivity, and optimism: "SPIE was Joe's creation and love, and we will surely miss his support and input.”

Bill Arnold, 2013 SPIE President, remembered Yaver as “a good friend and mentor. Joe was always interested in what was going on with the society and had excellent insight into the skills needed to continue to build the success of the organization. He gave me a management book from his library which I treasure (I think he thought I needed a crash course when he first met me). We will miss him greatly!”

Philip Stahl, 2014 President, recalled three Yaver memories: “his succinct summary of 'what is SPIE' in his remarks at the 50th anniversary banquet; the consummate 'sales guy' holding his annotated research notes about every member of the Board of Directors during a board social function; and when he addressed me as 'Mr. President'. SPIE exists because of Joe Yaver.”

The outpouring of comments and memories that is now flowing from those who worked with Joe over the years gives testimony to the tremendous impact he has had on our Society, and our field, said current SPIE President Robert Lieberman.

“I feel greatly privileged to have known Joe, and in fact to have ‘grown up’ with his support and guidance,” Lieberman said. “I first met him as a newcomer to photonics, and was amazed that the exalted Executive Director of SPIE would spend an hour talking at length to a kid only a few years out of grad school about organizing a conference on biosensors. Later on, as I got to know him better, I realized this was entirely in character for Joe -- tireless, dedicated to SPIE, and cheerfully willing to help others. Finally, as a director and member of the presidential chain, I benefited tremendously from his wise counsel, voluminous knowledge, boundless energy, and ready wit. Even during retirement, Joe was an invaluable resource and constant supporter of the organization he molded and brought to the doorstep of the 21st century.

“Joe Yaver will be sorely missed by the SPIE family, and fondly remembered all who knew him. I salute him and his many accomplishments that will live on, though he has passed.”

Joe Yaver with blueprints for SPIE headquarters in Bellingham

From a two-room office to a hilltop campus serving an international
community: Joe Yaver, at left, reviews blueprints and site plans
for the current SPIE headquarters in Bellingham, completed in 1983.