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James Edward Monson

Longtime Harvey Mudd engineering professor, traveler, birder, volunteer

On January 1, 2021, Jim Monson died quietly and peacefully at home in Point Reyes, California, surrounded by his three children and Julie, his wife of 65 years. He led a full life, of teaching, research, caring for his family and volunteering in the communities in which he lived.

Born in Oakland on June 20, 1932, Jim’s family moved frequently. His father, Col. George Monson, a U.S. Marine, was often transferred because of World War II, from coast to coast, and even to Saipan, a U.S. commonwealth in the Northern Mariana Islands. He attended New Mexico Military Institute, and then Stanford University where he majored in electrical engineering, earning his MS degree in 1955. 

In 1954, he married Julie Conzelman, also a Stanford student. His first job was with Bell Telephone Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Deciding to get his PhD, he returned to Palo Alto, and was able to continue his studies and research while working part time at Hewlett Packard.  

In 1961, he decided to teach and began his academic career at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont. Because this small college of engineering and science had begun only a few years earlier, he and his few colleagues created an innovative curriculum in engineering, with components of the humanities. He remained at Harvey Mudd for 35 years and loved it.

Early in his career at Harvey Mudd, he began working with colleagues in industry on the challenges of the evolving technology in magnetic recording. He solved problems and invented solutions, working with engineers from around the world, who worked with Siemens, Mitsubishi, and other international corporations. His travels included annual international conferences (International Magnetics Conference of the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers) and led to numerous connections and friendships, especially in east and west Europe and Japan. He used his sabbaticals, every seven years, to teach or do research in Dublin, Montenegro (twice), Japan (twice) and Paris, learning languages along the way.

In 1968, the family discovered Point Reyes, and returned to an A-frame at the top of Vision Road every summer for 20 years. When he and Julie decided to retire, this was where they wanted to live. It was an auspicious choice for both, as they became involved in the community, made many friends, and explored this special corner of Northern California, both the natural beauty of the coastal area and the cultural treasures of San Francisco. 

An avid birder, Mr. Monson watched birds for decades and always developed special friendships with others, often retired friends, especially throughout West Marin.  

He served on the board of Coastal Health Alliance for six years, two terms as president; then on the board of West Marin Senior Services, also for six years; and was then appointed to serve on Marin County’s Commission on Aging. Again, he developed many friendships with his working colleagues. He was always highly respected for his calm, clear thinking, his tolerance and thoughtful manner in handling complex issues.  

Because he missed his associations with students, he volunteered as a tutor in math and physics at Tomales High School for 10 years. His Wednesdays were spent on campus, in the classroom and with afterschool tutoring. 

In March 2020 he and his wife were honored by the West Marin community for their many local volunteer contributions at the annual Dance Palace Awards Banquet, receiving recognition from state and local elected officials and community leaders.

In the 1960s, the family began regular visits to a spectacular section of the Mojave Desert near Yucca Valley that belonged to his wife’s family since 1940. In 1978, they were able to acquire ownership and began a series of improvements to make it more comfortable for frequent family visits. This desert hideaway became a family favorite for holiday gatherings.   

He was an exceptional father to his three children, always supportive, generous, tolerant and kind. The couple had a long, loving relationship that changed and grew over their years together.   

He is survived by his wife, Julie, and his children John (Susie Helfrey), Jamie Monson and Jennifer Monson; and grandchildren James Monson, Elizabeth Monson, Eddie Monson and Jenny Monson-Miller.

Contributions in his honor may be made to the Jim Monson Scholarship in Engineering, c/o Inverness Garden Club, at https://igcscholarships.org/make-donation, or by check to PO Box 203, Inverness, CA 94937.


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