University of Texas
William Woodrow "Bill" Robertson
December 17, 1917–September 6, 2002



William W. Robertson

William W. Robertson




William Woodrow “Bill” Robertson, named for his grandfather, was born on December 17, 1917, in Beckville, Panola, Texas to Ivy Guy (b. 1895) and Elsie F. (b. 1897) Robertson. Ivy’s father was a farmer in East Texas, however, he became a railway agent. Other children were Ivy Guy Robertson Jr. (b. 1915) and Norma Lee Robertson (b. 1919). Ivy’s work took him to Cline, Del Rio, Fort Bend and Uvalde. Picture at right shows Ivy and Bill.

Bill graduated from high school in Uvalde, Texas. He went to the University of Texas to study physics in 1935. He, however, attended the University of California at Berkley during 1938–1939. He received his BA degree in 1941, MA degree in 1949, and PhD in 1955 from the University of Texas at Austin. His thesis was entitled Molecular Orbital Theory and Spectra of Some Mono-substituted Benzenes. At Texas, he served as Instructor (1944), Assistant Professor (1955), Associate Professor (1959), and Professor of Physics (1964). In 1950, while a graduate student, Bill married Margaret whom he had met on a blind date. Margaret said he loved to dance.

During the war years, he taught physics to naval officers in the V-12 Program. The V-12 Navy College Training Program was designed to supplement the force of commissioned officers in the United States Navy during World War II.





Professor Robertson received many professional honors—among the first was induction into the Phi Lambda Upsilon Society as an outstanding junior-level chemistry major. He initiated sponsorship of the weekly colloquium in physics as a Sigma Pi Sigma member, and he was a member of Sigma Xi and several professional and honor societies. He was an Elected Fellow of the American Physical Society.

During his years at UT, Professor Robertson served with distinction in numerous University and departmental committees—in his later years, looking back, he occasionally remarked to some of his colleagues that he did “. . . everything and anything but chairman . . . ” for the physics department. He initiated the formation of the departmental Budget Council Advisory Committee and served for years as member and chairman of that committee. He actively chaired the Physics Department Apparatus and Equipment Committee. He took a lively interest in developing lecture demonstration experiments and in equipping and upgrading the teaching laboratories in physics to synchronize them with the introductory physics courses for premedical students, which he advanced to what these remarkable two-semester courses and the wonderful laboratories are today—a monumental project which made him indispensable in the physics department for years after his official retirement. He was a member of the Premedical Students Advisory Committee (prior to adoption of peer advising).




Bill, along with Mel Oakes, organized an undergraduate scholarship program in the physics department. He chaired the University Parking and Traffic Committee. He was a member of the University Council and served on various committees, including the ones which revised the UT presidential selection process and reorganized the College of Arts and Sciences into separate colleges. For many years, he was graduate adviser and was asked repeatedly to be acting chair of the physics department. He supervised twenty students in their work leading to the PhD degree. Many of these graduates became university professors and outstanding scientists in their own right.

Professor Robertson was an outstanding scientist and an experimental physicist par excellence. His work was widely known and appreciated in various scientific communities, e.g., atomic and molecular spectroscopists, researchers concerned with the spectra of dense matter (highly compressed gases, liquids and solids) in the gaseous electronics and combustion communities, and among chemical physicists and physical chemists in general. He had strong scientific collaborations with several of his colleagues at UT, especially with theorists such as Professors F. A. Matsen and E. E. Ferguson and also with experimentalists such as D. S. Hughes. His creativity, dedication, and drive are evidenced in well over seventy original research papers and chapters in books which he authored or co-authored.

Bill’s contributions to the department continued long past retirement (1983). He held a part-time appointment in the physics department for many more years; he kept his office in the physics department and improved substantially, with great love and enthusiasm, the teaching labs for premedical students. Upon complete retirement (2001), he was named a Professor Emeritus. His association with The University of Texas spanned a remarkable sixty-seven years.

Dr. William Woodrow Robertson, age 84, passed away September 6, 2002. He was survived by his loving wife, Margaret M. Robertson; daughter, Catherine Aicklen, and husband, Ken; sons, Jimmy Robertson and wife, Michelle, Mike Robertson and wife, Becky; and grandchildren, Lauren, Beth, and Matthew Aicklen, and Patrick, Jennifer, Julia, Andrew, and Jana Robertson.

Bill Robertson was an outstanding teacher and friend to many of his colleagues. His generosity in mentoring many of his colleagues early in their careers at UT is remembered with gratitude and affection. His colleagues often sought and received his counsel which was always thoughtful, kind, and wise. He was admired for his sterling character and his example as an educator and scientist. He is missed by everyone who knew him.




Bill Robertson’s memorial resolution, prepared by a special committee consisting of Professors Lothar Frommhold (chair), Austin M. Gleeson, and Melvin E. L. Oakes was the basis for this summary written by Mel Oakes. Pictures and documents provided by Jimmy Robertson and Margaret Robertson.

Eulogy for William W. Robertson September 10, 2002—by Mel Oakes

Like all of you, I am here today because of my affection and admiration for Bill Robertson. He is a colleague and friend whom we will dearly miss.

Bill came to the University of Texas in 1935 as a freshman from Uvalde, Texas and remained there for all his education, including his PhD, completed in 1955. In that same year, he joined the regular faculty. He maintained an active laboratory in atomic and molecular spectroscopy producing over 70 papers and 25 graduate degrees. For this work, he was honored with Fellowship in the American Physical Society. He was a productive scientist and educator until his retirement in 1988. He remained an active Emeritus Professor with a quarter-time appointment until a bit over a year ago. My count says he was associated actively with the University for about 66 years! His record during this time is clearly too long to review here. I have chosen instead to mention a just a few of his accomplishments, for which we will forever be in his debt, though he was far too humble a man to ever acknowledge this debt.

Bill was the foundation for the outstanding atomic physics program that UT currently enjoys. He worked tirelessly to recruit young faculty and secure resources that would enable them to compete both nationally and internationally. His passion for excellence was not limited however to atomic physics. As a young faculty member, I witnessed Bill’s selfless support for any effort to improve physics in the Department. I never saw him cast a vote based on self–interest. If you needed help, Bill was a good place to start.

In the early 1970s, Bill became convinced that the College of Arts and Sciences had grown too large and that the sciences had separate needs and goals. He led a group of faculty who convinced President Hackerman of the wisdom of the separate College of Natural Sciences we enjoy today. His carefully-crafted appeal to the President was an example of the exceptional writing skill Bill possessed. Bill was also the architect of the governing structure we use in the Physics Department today and initiated our scholarship program.

It was also about this time that Bill began to worry about the quality of physics education being offered premedical students. He secured funds and developed an outstanding biomedical physics laboratory, considered by many to be among, if not the finest in the nation. His beautifully-written laboratory manual is an important resource for anyone teaching physics to students in the biological sciences. For the rest of his career, he continued to work to improve this course. Upon his retirement the Department and the College recognized his dedication and special knowledge by requesting that he continue part-time to supervise this laboratory. Bill was only too willing to help. As Margaret will attest, he was in the lab many nights and weekends preparing and improving this class. His health last year forced him to reluctantly resign.

Bill Robertson was a man of great integrity who genuinely loved the University. He saw it as a vital organ of the State of Texas. Every day of his life he asked himself, “Is there something else I can do to make it a better place for all.” His visits with me always included gentle suggestions of things that needed to be done and ideas for doing them. These visits always included an update on Margaret, his children and his grandchildren. I also was usually introduced to a new mystery writer, a genre he enjoyed.

Bill’s love and dedication were rare—we are thankful he was here; he made a difference. We honor today his life and mourn with his family a great loss.

Reminiscences of Bill Robertson and his Laboratory
by Robert E. Reynolds (photo at right)

Although I was aware of Bill Robertson as a faculty member, I’d had no course from him while I was an undergraduate (1952–1956). Therefore, I was both surprised and rather buoyed when he asked me one day (shortly after I was admitted to the master’s program) what research area I had in mind. I muttered something vague about atomic or maybe particle physics because I had the impression that’s where the action was, actually knowing little about either. When he replied “Not molecules?” and seemed a bit disappointed, I felt wanted and decidedto make a chance to ask him what he had in mind. I have always been grateful for his question, as I would never have thought to approach him on my own, would not have had him for a mentor, and would not have a son with the middle name Robertson.

Feeling wanted was a big deal in itself, as my undergraduate record had left a bit to be desired, and I knew it was time to get more serious, both in career terms and as a newlywed. Bill presented me with the opportunity for a fresh start. He introduced me efficiently to the use of a spectrophotometer and of the high-pressure cell he’d built for measuring the effect on molecular spectra of several thousand atmospheres of pressure in liquids. He taught me the use of a darkroom for processing plates of comparison spectra. I was immersed in an experimental research program quickly and feeling the best I’d ever felt about my connection to physics. It was my professional turning point. In that first summer of graduate work, I took his course in atomic and molecular spectra, the only academic course of his I ever had.

At that time he was working on a variety of projects, including aspects of the spectroscopy of flame fronts in flowing gases (as best I recall). Stanley Babb (at left with Bill), later a post-doc at Illinois with Harry Drickamer and then on the faculty at Oklahoma, was a precocious graduate student in Bill’s lab, one who completed his MA in 1955 at age 21, Diffraction of Microwaves by Cylinders and a Paraboloid of Revolution, his PhD at age 23 (The Effect of High Pressure on the Near Ultraviolet Absorption Spectrum of Benzene.) I don’t recall the details of Stanley’s project, but I do recall his playfulness in the lab. Bill’s lab was in the southeast corner of the basement of the Physics building, then directly behind the Main Building. The exhaust fan vent was an access point for the cricket plague that Austin routinely experienced in the summer. Stanley had a pet (tiny) alligator at home, and his early morning self-imposed task was to fill a hypodermic with acetone or pentane, squirt a shot at each cricket (which would immediately freeze from the evaporation of the liquid), and then go around the lab collecting the victims as food to take home to the alligator.

Stanley told me about Bill’s calmness. He said that, on one occasion, Bill was telling a story when suddenly the flame-front apparatus blew up. Bill casually reached over and turned off everything without any further reaction and without slowing down the story. Stanley’s wife, Mary, became a successful author of pulp fiction. Bill told me Stanley died while relatively young (age 47 in 1981) of sinus cancer.

I have the impression that Bill’s PhD was at least nominally under Matsen, but I never thought about the details, probably because I was under the impression Bill had been teaching for the entire time (1952–1956) I’d been on campus as an undergraduate, and I don’t think I found out his degree was from 1955 until much later. I suppose he must have been an Instructor prior to 1955, but I don’t really know. His research program was well under way and he’d published quite a bit, to the best of my knowledge. I suppose in retrospect that at the time his supervision by Matsen for what I assume was an experimental dissertation would have mirrored Bill’s supervision of my computational dissertation, i.e., nothing out of the ordinary.

He mentioned at one point that he’d interrupted his undergraduate time at UT with a stint at UC Berkeley, for the reason that he’s been thoroughly disgusted by an event in his chemistry problem section: A TA had given an exam on a day when many students had gone home early for a holiday, explaining that he was doing so as a punishment to those absent, but then he’d given a trick question or perhaps an inappropriately advanced question and had failed all of those present on the test. This outraged Bill’s sense of fairness, and he decamped. I don’t know how long he stayed away. I’m not at all certain that he ever actually registered at UCB.

Others (than Babb) I recall associated with the lab early on were Oscar Weigang (who had just finished the PhD) and then later, when Eldon Ferguson joined the faculty (saying that his Oklahoma friends told him he was thereby increasing the mean IQ of both Oklahoma and Texas), his career-long (at Boulder) colleagues Fred Fehsenfeld and Art Schmeltekopf became Eldon’s students and, as I recall, were sharing the lab space to some extent. Also, Jim Robinson (at right), who I think was working with or for Matsen, was around frequently. I remember another young experimentalist graduate student who was quite able and who spoke at Bill’s retirement, but I can’t recall his name.





I finished my master’s thesis in the summer of 1958, and Bill introduced me to professional meetings by inviting me to come along to the annual spectroscopy meeting at Ohio State University. My best recollection is that we both attended the meeting both in 1958 and 1959. I can’t recall exactly what groups went which years. One year I drove, and I believe that Stanley (at left), Bill, Eldon,, and Jim (all at right) were passengers in my car. I believe that was 1958. In 1958, Bill presented a paper based on my MS thesis, which was itself based on a research suggestion of Michael Kasha of Florida State and of Sean McGlynn, who I think was a graduate student of Kasha’s: A Determination of the Effect of Pressure on a Particular Transition for Alpha-chloronaphthalene in Ethyl Iodide.”

In Columbus, Bill also introduced me to Art Guenther, who worked as a civilian at the Air Force Special Weapons Center at Kirtland, AFB, Albuquerque. Subsequent conversations led to Guenther’s submitting a name request to have me assigned to his lab when I finished my PhD and had to begin my Air Force tour of duty that resulted from my ROTC commitment as an undergraduate.

Although my doctoral work turned out to be based on a suggestion of Jim Robertson’s—a molecular structure calculation carried out on the IBM CPC, then the IBM 650, and partially checked on the Univac machine at SMU—I was still Bill’s student; the calculation sought to predict the effect of pressure on a lithium transition in a helium atmosphere, an experimental unexpected result with which Bill was familiar. I’m not sure whether there had been previous “molecular structure” calculations on “pseudo molecules.” The calculation treated Li-He as a diatomic molecule even though no binding occurs for that system. Much of the preliminary work for programming the molecular integrals involved had been worked out for the CPC, but everything had to be converted to 650 machine language, which constituted an excellent course in programming for me.

Bill made it a point to see that his students were able to attend (as observers) some of the Welch Foundation meetings in Houston, which gave us an opportunity to see and hear some of the heroes of physics at close range. Those I recall offhand as being present include Peter Debye, Lars Onsager, Gerhard Herzberg, Sir George Thompson, Henry Eyring, Samuel Goudsmidt, and Per-Olov Löwdin. He also took us to Niels Bohr’s presentation at Rice University; unfortunately, the acoustics in the lecture hall, together with Bohr’s accent, rendered the remarks totally unintelligible. We were glad to have gone anyway. The only comparable events I recall occurring on the UT campus were the ten-lecture series on plasma physics by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, although Eyring and Löwdin were also frequent visitors to Matsen’s laboratory.

I think Bill and his group were involved in a joint project with Matsen and Ferguson, under Air Force contract, to study meta-stable helium as a possible energy-storage mechanism. I know Ferguson was; I had independent employment both under Bill’s AF contract and in Matsen’s group under the helium contract. This project was still underway when my graduate work concluded. It was this project that convinced me the military sponsorship of research was, at least sometimes, actually in support of fundamental science, not merely of the putative military application that had been stated in the proposal.

Bill was a productive, vigorous researcher and a steady, encouraging, inspiring mentor. I was sorry to have to leave the environment he created in his laboratory when I had finished the academic program and needed to go off to the Air Force. I went on active duty in December of 1960 and officially received the PhD in 1961. Once in Albuquerque, I was free to work in any lab that seemed appropriate, not just Guenther’s. Incidentally, my work was mainly a small amount of experimental work with exploding wire study via photographic analysis, a moderate amount of contract monitoring in connection with Air Force research grants to universities and corporations in projects relating to atmospheric nuclear detonations, and participation in the Fishbowl high altitude test series at Johnston Island in 1962-63.

It was during my AF period that Bill got into the controversy with John Silber that resulted in the splitting of Arts and Science into separate entities. Ronnie Dugger, who was founding editor of The Texas Observer, wrote a book published in 1974 called Our Invaded Universities that featured a detailed description of the events. Silber, previously a faculty member in the Philosophy Department, had become Dean of Arts and Sciences and later went on to a long tenure as President of Boston University.

When I had completed my three-year tour and had accepted appointment to the faculty of Reed College in 1963, I had the opportunity to teach summer school at UT in the summers of 1965, 1966, and 1968. While my responsibilities were purely teaching-related during those summers, I was delighted to have the chance to be in routine contact with Bill again. Perhaps the most memorable specific event of these summers was the day in 1966 when a group of four of us left campus at noon to go to lunch at a barbecue joint on the south side of the river. We were a bit surprised as we passed the Littlefield Fountain at the large number of police cars whizzing around. We finally heard from the staff of the café, late in our lunch, about Charles Whitman’s attack from the Tower on the entire surrounding territory. The really memorable part that’s relevant was Bill’s assertion that no sniper was going to keep him away from his lab. While the rest of us hung about the periphery watching the ground-based National Guardsmen and the single airplane above go about attacking the Tower while Whitman shot back, Bill resolutely took off for the Physics Building. As far as I understood, he just went right back to work. I was always glad we hadn’t that day followed our customary walking out the back of Physics and going to the Student Union for lunch, a path that would have exposed us directly to the zone of fire from above early in the sequence of lethal events.

I was able to attend Bill’s official retirement (after which he returned to teaching), an opportunity that gave me great pleasure, staying with Bill and Margaret at their home on Cherry Lane. I also was able to visit them on occasional trips through Austin, the latest being while on a motorcycle tour in 1998.

Robert E. Reynolds
September 2010




Bill Robertson story shared by a good friend of his.

Mr. Brown was the janitor in the Physics Building. He was what is referred to today as a "born again Christian.” He had no pride in his person or his work. He was semiliterate and a very unpleasant man. The rest rooms were filthy because he spent his time in them scrubbing off graffiti.

One day, he asked Katy Banks, the department administrative secretary and librarian, why there was no Bible in the physics library. She said there were some in the main library. A few days later, he brought a new, HUGE, expensive, lavish, ornate Bible and asked her to put it in the library so that students could read it. She did so but was uncomfortable about it. There were whispers throughout the building. When people asked Katy where it came from, she pointed to Mr. Brown. After a week or so, it vanished. Mr. Brown must have been checking on his Bible every day because he discovered its disappearance and demanded that Katy find it. Katy looked everywhere in the library behind books, under tables, and even table legs to no avail--table legs because Mr. Lockenvitz had taken a volume of the Journal of Applied Physics or some other publication from the library and propped up one corner of his desk with it. Physics department office furniture in those days was scrounged mostly from old warehouse stock or Army surplus stores. A student was hysterically looking for the Journal, and finally found it.

Several weeks later, Mr. Brown presented an identical Bible to the physics library. Not long after that, it disappeared, too. I think there was a third iteration. No one knew what was happening to the Bibles. I think most of us thought it was somewhat inappropriate for Mr. Brown to foist Bibles on the library, but there was the only one person I thought would do something about it. I suspected Bill Robertson. Later, I asked him if he had taken them and he said, "Of course."
Bill and Margaret Robertson and Burt and Gene Lindsey

Bill Robertson story shared Charles "Chuck"Roberson

I have often thought that one of the luckiest things that have ever happened to me was when the Chairman of the Graduate Committee at the University of Texas told me they had lost my application for a teaching assistantship. I had been accepted in the graduate school, but needed a job. Both my girlfriend and I were graduating college and planned to get married. I needed support to attend graduate school at UT. The committee chairman, Professor Robertson, called me and told me my application had been lost and all the positions had been filled. However, he told me that he remembered my application to graduate school because my work for my master's thesis was similar to work done in his lab. He offered me a research assistantship starting in June. He suggested that before classes in the fall I should take the opportunity to see if there were any other areas of physics where I would like to work. Within a matter of weeks I was on my way to Austin with a U-Haul truck full of wedding gifts and Joan, my new bride.


Margaret Mercedes Robertson (1925–2014)

Margaret Mercedes Robertson passed peacefully into eternity Friday, February 7, 2014. She was born October 19, 1925 in Monterrey, Mexico to Margit Agnes Buda and Lajos Jurkovich, recent immigrants from Budapest, Hungary.

At two years old, Margaret and her older sister and brother moved to Budapest to live with their "Grandmother Buda" where they learned their native Hungarian language and culture. It was in Budapest that Margaret developed her life-long passion for music and was taught to play the piano by her grandmother. After the death of Grandmother Buda, Margaret was enrolled in the Sacre-Coeur boarding school in Budapest where she lived through the age of nine. She and her siblings enjoyed traveling throughout Europe during visits from her parents. Margaret returned to Mexico at ten years old, but her education then continued at the Ursuline Academy in San Antonio, Texas. She lived at the Academy until her graduation in 1942 at the age of 16, but spent her summers in Mexico with her family, then living in Tampico. Margaret began her college education in 1944 at the University of Texas, but her education was put on hold when she met and married Dr. William W. Robertson, University of Texas Physics Professor, and began the role of wife and mother.

In 1963, at the age of 38, Margaret decided it was time to finish what she began 19 years earlier. With her youngest child now in first grade at Casis Elementary, Margaret reentered the University of Texas to pursue a degree in sociology, with the hope of working in a field devoted to improving the lives of those in need. As the mother of three active children, it took Margaret five, long years of part-time attendance at UT to earn her bachelor's degree. In 1970, her career hopes were fulfilled when she became an Adult Probation Officer for Travis County, supervising and counseling probationers to turn their lives around to become productive members of society. She later developed and supervised a volunteer program for the Travis County Adult Probation Department, training and utilizing volunteers to work one-on-one with probationers to mentor them on their journey to crime-free, responsible lives. Her volunteer training program became a model used throughout the United States. Margaret was invited to Washington, DC by the U.S. Department of Justice to report on her volunteer program and share the successes achieved in Travis County.

Margaret and Bill had many wonderful travels throughout North America and Europe, especially enjoying a return to Budapest to visit relatives and re-explore her childhood environs. In later years, the volunteer coordinator became the volunteer as Margaret gave freely of her time and skills to Seton Medical Center and Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church.

Margaret is remembered by her family as a loving, caring, generous and devoted mother, grandmother and, recently, great-grandmother, and loved wife for fifty-two years of the late and much missed Bill Robertson. To their grandchildren, Margaret and Bill will always be "Granny and Pop", ready on a moments notice to help, play, read, travel, babysit, explain, sing, play piano and scratch backs at bedtime. In all, Margaret's life mission was to create and spread joy to all, whether to a family member or a stranger. To her we say, "Job well done, mission accomplished."

Margaret is survived by her children, Cathy Aicklen and her husband Ken Aicklen, Jimmy Robertson and his wife Michelle Bensenberg, and Mike Robertson and his wife Becky Robertson, as well as her eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild, Lauren, Elizabeth and Matthew Aicklen, Jenny Robertson McBrayer, her husband Scott and their son Jonas McBrayer, and Patrick, Julia, Andrew and Jana Robertson.

A memorial service celebrating Margaret's life will be held at 3:00 p.m. on Friday, February 14, 2014, at Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church, 7127 Bee Caves Road in Austin. That's Valentine's Day, so don't be shy about wearing red as it was also Margaret's favorite color.

Margaret's family would like to extend special thanks to the many staff members of Longhorn Village, Casa Mesquite, who provided loving care for Margaret in her last years.

Memorial contributions may be made to either "The Gathering at WHPC," 7127 Bee Caves Road, Austin, TX 78746 or "Breakthrough Austin," 1050 E. 11th Street, Suite 350, Austin, TX 78702.

William W. Robertson Photo Album

Bill and Margaret Robertson
Bill and Margaret Robertson at UT game.

L to R: Bill Robertson, ?, Leona Shackelford (Stewart), Carol Thurston, George Thurston,
camping in unknown location, maybe in Mexico.

Ivy Guy Jr. (Bill's brother), Elsie (Bill's mother), Ivy Guy Sr. (Bill's father), Norma Lee (Bil's sister) and Bill Robertson

Ivy Guy Sr., Elsie, Norma Lee, Ivy Guy Jr. and Bill Robertson
Bill and Margaret Robertson and Bert and Gene Lindsey
Bill Robertson and daughter Cathy
George Thurston and Bill Robertson, Physics Bldg
George Thurston and Bill Robertson, Barton Springs
Bill Robertson, PhD graduation, 1955.
June Viavant and William Joseph Viavant (1954), friends and Bill Robertson. Bill enjoyed mountain climbing.
Bill Robertson, back row, 9th from left
Austin Gleeson and Bill Robertson, Faculty Retirement Party


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