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SMU alumnus, LED light inventor dies at 83

SMU alumnus Gary Pittman planned to receive his honorary doctorate from SMU in May 2014 but unfortunately, due to complications related to congestive heart failure, didn’t get the chance. Pittman, 83, passed away Oct. 28, 2013 in Richardson, Texas and now the SMU community has the chance to remember Pittman’s legacy.

After graduating from SMU in 1953 with a degree in chemistry, Pittman worked for Texas Instruments where he and Bob Biard, his co-inventor, received the patent for the infrared LED, making it possible for TI to market the first commercial LED product.

Biard, who received his honorary doctorate from SMU last May, will give a talk Monday, on the Invention of the LED in room 112 of the Jerry R. Junkins Building. Following Biard’s talk is a memorial service for Pittman at 4:00 p.m. in the Palmer Conference Center on the fourth floor of Caruth Hall.

In addition to his honorary doctorate, SMU also honored Pittman with the Lazenby Outstanding Alumnus Award from the SMU Chemistry Department and the SMU Distinguished Alumni Award. Those closest to Pittman describe the inventor as brilliant yet kind.

Sogand Shoja met Pittman when he interviewed her for a position at Honeywell Electronics where Pittman was the vice president after leaving TI in 1969.

“I was looking for a job and there was a position at Honeywell where Gary was the vice president in 1986,” Shoja said. “So I passed the first level of interviews and the second level was with the VP.”

According to Shoja, Pittman was her mentor with whom she credits her professional success.

“He was my mentor, I owe him my professional success. I am quite successful as a women engineer and I’m very lucky he was in my life,” Shoja said. “He had this amazing and brilliant mind if he delved into a subject he knew everything about it. He would find ways to relay that powerful knowledge to his audience. It was an enlightenment period for me. He was an anomaly. I would call him a genius.”

It was because of Shoja that Gary Evans, an SMU professor of electrical engineering, met Pittman in the mid 90s.

“I met Gary at Sogand’s house because Sognad’s husband is an electrical engineering professor at SMU. I work with semi conductor devices, the same time of devices he and Bob Biard invented,” Evans said. “I had no idea until I came to Dallas that the LED was invented at TI. When I met him and found out he invented the LED I was interested in talking with him and then I got to know him.”

According to Evans, since his wife is deceased and Pittman was separated from his wife, he and Pittman would spend Thanksgiving and Christmas together eating at their favorite restaurant, Denny’s.

Both Evans and Shoja recall that, in addition to his brilliance in science, Pittman was also compassionate toward the poor. Evans said that Pittman gave away his money and his car in order to understand what it was like to be poor.

“He had compassion for the disadvantage,” Shoja said. “He was concerned with the gaps between the poor and rich and societal issues and he would look at those the same way he would look at data.”

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