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Joseph Platt, Harvey Mudd College founding president, dies at 96

Joseph B. Platt, founding president of Harvey Mudd College (HMC) died at his Claremont home on Tuesday, July 10, 2012 after a period of declining health. He was 96. 

An accomplished physicist, Mr. Platt took the helm as HMC’s founding president in 1956 and led the institution through 2 decades of growth to national acclaim as a premiere engineering, math and science college.   

After stepping down from HMC, Mr. Platt served from 1976 to 1981 as the eighth president of Claremont Graduate School and University Center (now Claremont Graduate University). He returned to HMC in 1981 as the senior professor of physics and taught well into his 90s.   

“Many of us knew and loved Joe,” said Maria Klawe, HMC’s fifth president. “He had a profound impact on all our lives here at HMC, thanks in large part to his vision and incredible energy. Joe developed the mission for HMC that we embrace today—to prepare socially responsible engineers and scientists in an educational culture of collaboration and fun. We will dearly miss his joyful sense of humor and that mischievous twinkle in his eye.”   

Mr. Platt was born in Portland, Oregon and grew up in Rochester, New York. After graduating from the University of Rochester in 1937 with a degree in physics, he continued his work in physics at Cornell University, earning a PhD in 1942. He then went on to his first teaching job at the University of Rochester.

During World War II, on leave from the university, he worked in the Radiation Laboratory at MIT and put his knowledge of radar devices to practical use for the US Air Force in the European and Pacific theatres.

In 1946, Mr. Platt returned to civilian life and the University of Rochester, but from 1949 to 1951 he was loaned to the Atomic Energy Commission as chief of the Physics Branch, Research Division. Returning once again to his alma mater, he became a professor of physics and worked on the design and construction of the 240-million-volt synchrocyclotron.   

In 1956, he received the call to come west and help found a college. Drawing upon his educational background and prior experiences plus a multitude of talents, he established Harvey Mudd College and, over the next 20 years, guided it toward its status as one of the foremost engineering, science and mathematics colleges in the country.

When Mr. Platt opened HMC’s doors in 1957, the college had 7 faculty members and 48 students. Twenty years later, when he stepped down, HMC claimed about 1,000 graduates and a national reputation as a top college among its peers.   

Mr. Platt’s other commitments during his career included serving as a science advisor to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization); board member and chairman, ANSER (Analytic Services, Inc.); multiple roles, National Science Foundation; member, California’s Select Committee on Higher Education; trustee, China Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture; member, board on Science and Technology for International Development, National Academy of Sciences; trustee, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; trustee, the Aerospace Corporation; director, Bell & Howell Corporation; director, Jacobs Engineering Corporation; director, Automobile Club of Southern California; and several assignments within the President’s Science Advisory Committee. He also maintained membership in numerous physics and engineering societies.   

Mr. Platt is survived by his wife, Jean Ferguson Platt of Claremont; his daughters and sons-in-law, Ann Platt Walker and Richard Walker of La Jolla and Elizabeth Platt Garrow and Thomas Garrow of Willowbrook, Illinois; and his grandchildren, Stephen Cavell Walker, Jay Bradbury Walker, Jennifer Elizabeth Garrow and Erin Alexander Garrow and their families.   

A private, family memorial will be held, and a public celebration of Mr. Platt’s life will take place in the fall.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be sent to the Jean and Joe Platt Endowed Scholarship at Harvey Mudd College, 301 Platt Blvd., Claremont, CA 91711; or to Claremont United Church of Christ, 233 W. Harrison Ave., Claremont, CA 91711.   

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