Roland Schmitt, former head of the Research and Development Center at General Electric, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and champion of education in science, math, and engineering died on March 31, 2017 in Scotia, New York after a protracted illness. He was 93 years old.
Roland was born in 1923 and discovered his love for science early in life growing up in Seguin, Texas with his parents Walter and Myrtle Schmitt. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics and math at the University of Texas.
After serving as an Air Force cryptographer in Iceland during the Second World War, Roland returned to his home state and earned his doctorate in Physics at Rice University. Throughout his career, Roland would be awarded 11 additional honorary doctorate degrees and countless other awards.
These included the 1993 Hoover Award, the Vision Award from the Center for Economic Growth and the Stony Brook Foundation’s Award for Distinguished Contributions to Higher Education. He was also a member of both the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and New York State Capitol Region halls of fame.
As Senior VP of Science and Technology at GE, Roland began his push to transform the field of corporate research not only at GE but also in the world of science as a whole. A critic of what he called the chuck wagon version of research, where scientists tossed everything into the pot and told everyone to come and get it with no prior input, Roland helped bring about a new era in which researchers were connected to the businesses that would be turning their work into physical products. The continued success of this model is a testament to Roland’s influence in and importance to the field of scientific research.
In addition to his work as Senior Vice President for Science and Technology at GE, Roland served as a member of the company’s Corporate Executive Council, and was appointed to the National Science Board by President Ronald Reagan. He would later chair the same board, a policy-setting group that oversaw the nation’s primary source of funding for science and technology research.
Roland took pride in the many small companies founded in New York’s Capital District that grew out of ideas generated at the GE Research Center and at Rensselaer. The kind of man as comfortable in a bolo as a black tie, he was a champion of entrepreneurship and economic development before it was fashionable. Roland was a mentor to and investor in numerous startup projects and served a key role in FIRST, which sponsors competitive robotics contests for pre-college students.
Many will remember Roland for professional accomplishments, including serving as a science and technology advisor for Chrysler Motors, Motorola, and Mobil Oil. His fascination with new technologies resulted in him being a first adopter of telecommuting, personal computers, cell phones and programmable calculators.
His family will remember the indelible image of him sitting in his corner rocking chair reading the Wall Street Journal each morning, his stack of magazines 20 inches high, his thirst for reading, his interest in anything that was new to him, and his ever multiplying library. Never the kind of man to write his name in a book, Roland believed his books had value because of who wrote them, not who owned them. He approached research in the same way, and was an early proponent of women in science believing that they could achieve success equivalent to their male counterparts.
His children remember him as a man with an insatiable intellectual curiosity who demanded the best of everyone but never judged. As a father, he not only supported but also challenged his children; always encouraging their dreams while making sure they stayed grounded and focused on their schoolwork.
His grandchildren each have their own cherished memories of sitting on his lap being read to or hearing stories he made up on the spot. He was always enthusiastic about their interests and ideas and thoroughly enjoyed engaging in discussions with and teaching the younger generation.
Roland and his wife, Claire, made gifts to support scholarships at Rensselaer, Union College, and Rice University, as well as an endowed professorship at Rensselaer.
He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Claire Kunz Schmitt, his four children, Larry (Becky), Brian (Alice), Alice (Clark), and Henry (Katherine), as well as his 14 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren, and his sister-in-law, Charlotte Calhoun. He is predeceased by his parents Walter and Myrtle Schmitt, his sister Lois Neffendorf, and his first wife, Alice Calhoun Schmitt.
A memorial service to honor his life and career is planned for early June at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with details to be announced.
In lieu of flowers, donations in his name can be made to:
Lake George Land Conservancy at http://www.lglc.org or P.O. Box 1250, Bolton Landing, New York, 12814
RPI - Claire and Roland Schmitt Scholarship (please indicate that it is designated for the Claire and Roland Schmitt Scholarship) online at http://giving.rpi.edu/ or
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Gifts Processing Center - Claire and Roland Schmitt Scholarship
P.O. Box 3164
Boston, MA 02241-3164