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Robert Fennell Sawyer

Robert (Bob) Fennell Sawyer was a kind, intelligent, and wonderful man. His greatest passions were his wife Barbara, his family, the environment, and his beloved mountains. It seems fitting to start this tribute to him with a quote by one of his heroes, John Muir:

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, overcivilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” (1901)

Bob was born on May 19, 1935, in Santa Barbara, California. Bob was fortunate to have two sets of loving grandparents who played major roles in raising him.  He spent many of his childhood summers with one set of grandparents at their citrus and avocado ranch in Carpinteria. Although he was an only child, his cousin, Jean (Bunny) Fox, also spent a lot of time at the ranch and became his lifelong “sister.” Bob lived much of the time with his other set of grandparents who often took him camping and hiking, fostering his love of gardening, the outdoors, and the mountains.  They took Bob on annual trips to Yosemite as a child, a tradition that he passed on to his daughters, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

As a teenager, Bob attended Santa Barbara High School where he started dating Barbara White. After graduating from high school, Bob attended Stanford University on an ROTC scholarship, earning bachelor and master degrees in Mechanical Engineering in 1957 and 1958. Bob and Barbara married in 1957 and started their 65 year adventure as husband and wife.  Bob entered the United States Air Force shortly thereafter and served as a Rocket Test and Propulsion Research Engineer at Edwards Air Force Base from 1958 through 1961.  While living at Edwards, Bob and Barbara welcomed their two daughters, Lisa and Allison, into the world.

In 1961, Bob moved to the east coast with his young family to attend Princeton University, earning a Master of Arts degree in Aeronautical Engineering and a PhD in Aerospace Science. After receiving his PhD in 1965, Bob moved with his family back to California to start his career as a professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley (Cal), a position he held until retiring from fulltime teaching in 1991. In 1988, he was selected as the first UC Berkeley Class of 1935 Professor of Energy and held the position as a Professor Emeritus until his death. Bob continued to teach courses at Cal periodically, including in 2006 and 2007 when he taught a one-unit Freshmen seminar so that he could have the pleasure of teaching two of his grandchildren when they each were freshmen at Cal.  

After retiring from full-time teaching at Cal, Bob continued to work in his field. Over the years of his long career, he was dedicated to working to reduce and regulate air pollution and had many professional achievements. He conducted extensive research in air pollutant emissions and their control while at Cal and later established a consulting firm, Sawyer Associates, to advise on air pollution control.  His many areas of public service and achievements are too numerous to detail, but some of the highlights were being a member of the International Combustion Institute from 1966 through 2011 and serving as president from 1992 through 1996; serving on the California Air Resources Board from 1975 through 1976 and being appointed chair in 2005; and his election to the National Academy of Engineering in 2008. He had many visiting appointments, including in the United States, Japan, and England and served on numerous industrial and governmental advisory committees to help develop policies to reduce air pollution.  Bob cared deeply about the environment and spent his career educating people about air pollution and researching and developing methods and regulations to combat air pollution. As one of his colleagues wrote about Bob after his death: “Professionally, as you well know, he was a giant in the combustion community, and one of the few who also brought their knowledge to the society in his role in the political world.”

As important as his career was to him, Bob’s family and friends were at least as important. He was an equal partner with his wife in raising two children and, later, in helping to raise four grandchildren. He made lifelong friends at all stages of his life.  Surrounded by his friends from Santa Barbara, Stanford, the Air Force, Princeton, Berkeley, and Walnut Creek (where he and Barbara settled during Bob’s years at Cal), Bob was always busy helping out with his daughters’ schooling and pets (dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and horses), volunteering with the Girl Scouts, planning overseas adventures, planning hiking and backpacking trips, and orchestrating many trips to ski at Lake Tahoe. Bob hiked the John Muir Trail five times. One of these trips was alone with his daughter, Allison, and another was with his daughter Lisa and two granddaughters. The other trips were with a multitude of friends. Bob also found time to run 29 marathons. He once told his daughter that his motto for living a good and healthy life was “Just keep moving.”

Barbara was Bob’s number one love and his partner in all his achievements and adventures. After their daughters were grown, Bob and Barbara spent some wonderful years living and working in England and Japan. After their four grandchildren were born, Bob and Barbara became a big part of their lives. They took their grandchildren on many exciting trips and frequently had “special weekends” with each of them.  In the last five years, Bob and Barbara welcomed 7 great grandchildren into the clan.

Bob was beloved by his wife, daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, cousins, and many friends.  We all already miss him so much.  A few of the people who loved and miss him are his wife, Barbara Sawyer; his daughters, Lisa Sawyer and Allison Shaffer; his son-in-law, John Lescroart; his grandchildren, Kimberly Shaffer, Justine Kastan, Robyn Shaffer, and Jack Lescroart; his grandchildren’s spouses, Michael Zurko, Josh Kastan, Anthony Behn, and Alison Leary; his nieces and nephews, Pam White, Nancy McGuire, Lloyd White, and Pip White (and their families); his cousins Bunny Fox, Marji Fox, and Michael Fox (and their families); and many special friends.

It is very hard to lose one of these “larger than life” people, but Bob left all of his friends and family with many wonderful memories to hold onto. He taught us how to live life to the fullest and many, many ways to be kind to each other. He was a role model to his daughters for being a loving parent and grandparent. 

In the last few months of his life Bob said that he had “had a wonderful life and had done everything that he had ever hoped to do.” He was far more concerned about the people taking care of him and about Barbara and his family than he was about himself. He only wanted us ALL to keep taking care of each other.

Bob died from cancer on November 17th, 2022. If you would like to do something in his memory, please consider donating to the UC Berkely scholarship fund that his former students established to provide scholarships to undergraduate students studying mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley.  You can donate here:  https://give.berkeley.edu/fund/FW8936000




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