Frederick H. Abernathy of Newton died on February 3 at age 91. He was a first-generation college student who went on to influence generations of students and create a legacy of environmental conservation and multi-disciplinary academic exploration at Harvard University. Those who knew him will miss his keen observations of the world, wide-ranging expertise, love of art and classical music, joy from following the news and sharing insights, and his understated pride in his family’s work to make the world a better place.
Born in Denver, he grew up in New Jersey as his family followed his father’s employment in paper mills, where the complicated machinery sparked Fred’s interest in engineering. He worked his way through Newark College of Engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology doing construction in the summers. After two years at Oak Ridge National Labs, he headed to Harvard where he earned his PhD in mechanical engineering and met a history graduate student, AnnaMaria Herbert, who became his wife of more than 60 years. He created a home base at Harvard, where he remained for 55 years. Fred considered it his responsibility to continually strive for improvement, which included calling out Harvard when it failed to live up to its ideals, making him in turns a thorn or ally of multiple Harvard presidents and deans.
His interests started in fluid mechanics and branched out to robotics, energy, housing, textile and clothing manufacturing, and retail distribution. Long before climate change became a global concern, Fred was known as the "green" man at Harvard, which honored him for his role in reducing its carbon footprint and saving millions of dollars with the 2012 Spengler-Vautin Special Achievement Award. While on leave in the 1970s he served as Director of the Engineering Division of the National Science Foundation and as head of NSF’s Energy Research Office, created during the 1973 global energy crisis. The Engineering Problem Solving and Design Project course he created more than 30 years ago, requiring students to work together through an iterative design process to solve real-world, complex, multidisciplinary problems for real clients, remains mandatory for all engineering majors to this day. In the 1990s, the course examined the conundrum of growing energy use in the dorms and pinpointed students’ all-day use of halogen lamps as the problem. Fred worked with an undergraduate he was advising, Linsey Marr, to ensure that those lamps and bulbs were no longer sold at the Harvard Coop and that thousands of Linsey’s design of a fluorescent alternative were distributed free to undergraduates.
His interests expanded further to the manufacturing process, and in the 1980s along with economist and former Labor Secretary John Dunlop, he founded [TC]2, the Textile Clothing Technology Corporation, a nonprofit funded by industry, labor, and government. In the 1990s, he co-founded and led the Harvard Center for Textile and Apparel Research and coauthored the book, A Stitch in Time: Lean Retailing and the Transformation of Manufacturing–Lessons from the Apparel and Textile Industries. The stereotypical rumpled professor with patches on his tweed jackets, he felt compelled to upgrade his attire while meeting with leaders of the men’s garment industry to try to give the US clothing manufacturing sector a leg up.
Fred took great joy and pride in maintaining the 1870s house on the Charles River in Newton where he and his family lived for 57 years. Although the house was in such bad shape that his parents’ housewarming gift was an electric blanket and storm windows for the guestroom, over the years he used his engineering skills and energy conservation know-how to make the house comfortable and among the most energy efficient in the neighborhood, despite being one of the oldest. In his 80s, he bought a hybrid car and had solar panels installed and enjoyed checking daily - or more! - on their energy output.
He will be missed for his many qualities - always gregarious, never shy, and both whip smart and a workhorse on many topics. He is survived by his wife, AnnaMaria Abernathy; daughters Sarah Abernathy (Jim Butler) of Arlington, VA; Marian Abernathy (Dan Kaplan) of Durham, NC; and Pauline Abernathy of Philadelphia, PA; and three grandchildren (Nicholas Butler, Celie and Alex Kaplan).
Those inspired to make a donation in his memory can contribute to the Charles River Watershed Association
or the Frederick H. Abernathy ’51 and Family Endowed Scholarship
for mechanical engineering students at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
There will be an online memorial service on Saturday, Feb. 12, at 2pm ET at https://bit.ly/35Jg0Sw