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A life well lived, and a degree well deserved
As an engineer and passionate environmentalist, Trevor Williams was one of those guys who spent every spare moment trying to spread the bright ideas of sustainability and conservation.
He and his wife Valerie had helped launch the Oak Bay Green Committee and a soft plastics recycling depot in their adopted municipality. They spoke to students around the region on ideas to make the planet better for all. He was well on his way to receiving his PhD in mechanical engineering and starting a new job at an aerospace firm in Germany, when regular life just stopped.
Last November, doctors diagnosed the 47-year-old native of Wales with terminal cancer. On Jan. 11, he died in Royal Jubilee Hospital.
But within the week before his death, his colleagues and academic administrators at the University of Victoria worked at institutional light speed to make sure Williams received his doctorate.
After his diagnosis, one of Williams’ final wishes was to complete his PhD, which focused on modelling how smart electrical grids could manage irregular renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.
His advisor, assistant professor Curran Crawford, and mechanical engineering department chair professor Zuomin Dong visited Williams in hospital on Friday Jan. 4, and set into motion one of the fastest turnarounds – if not the fastest – of a dissertation to convocation in UVic history.
Williams had completed the bulk of his degree work, but his dissertation needed a formal defence. After a frenetic weekend assembling his papers, on Monday morning Crawford and Dong pressed Williams' case with the deans of engineering and graduate studies. That night two professors formally presented Williams’ body of research to the deans.
“We examined the quality and quantity of his work,” Dong said. “We recognized that he made a real contribution to the field ... there was more than enough original contribution to justify a PhD.”
That night, the dean of graduate studies wrote a memo to the UVic vice-president academic (Provost) and the senate committee on academics articulating the high quality of Williams’ work and requested the degree be granted.
Early Tuesday morning the senate committee and Provost held an emergency meeting, and Dong was astonished to find the PhD signed and framed in his office by 10:30 a.m. “In 24 hours the university came out with the degree. I was very impressed,” Dong said.
Two days later on Jan. 10, 60 friends, colleagues and family crowded the seventh floor of the Jubilee Hospital for a special convocation ceremony, where David Capson, dean of the faculty of graduate studies, awarded Williams his doctorate of mechanical engineering.
“It was a very beautiful ceremony. Many friends and family, lots of the university community and colleagues and PhD advisors. It was quite lovely,” Valerie Williams said. “The university did an extraordinary thing. It doesn’t happen all that often. It speaks to how well liked Trevor was and how extraordinary his work was.”
Williams passed away the next day, surrounded by his friends and family, including his two brothers and mother who arrived from Wales two days earlier.
“What surprised me more than anything is the overwhelming support he received from the university to make his dream fulfilled at the end of his life,” Valerie said. “Everybody helped. It wasn’t just his PhD advisors, it was the administration and fellow students who said Trevor deserved his PhD. He was well loved.
Valerie said her husband left an indelible mark on the world, and will be remembered as a man who followed his conscience. He was featured in a 2008 CBC News story for resigning from MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates in Vancouver when it appeared the company’s aerospace division – and Williams’s contribution to the Radarsat-2 satellite – might be sold to a U.S. military contractor (the federal government eventually quashed that deal).
While living in Oak Bay, Williams and his wife lobbied for tree protection bylaws, the anti-idling bylaw in the Capital Region, founded the local green committee and started the environmental advocate website greenmuze.com. Prior to living in Victoria, he had worked as a satellite engineer for 23 years for companies in the U.K., France and Spain.
“I kept reminding him that in the end, he lived an extraordinary life and contributed so much to the planet and community,” Valerie said. “He lived a life most people only dream of, just shorter than expected.”