Personal Reflections on the Life of George Soulis

Thursday, February 1, 2018

I first met George when I interviewed for a position as assistant professor in Systems Design Engineering in early 1976. His questions and comments at my interview seminar were a large part of my decision to join the department—here was a man with warmth, insight, creativity, and breadth. I soon came to realize that both my personal and professional life were to be shaped by George. He was the founding chair of the department. He was largely responsible for bringing the discipline of design into the curriculum for engineering, not just at Waterloo, but across Canada. He came to Waterloo at the invitation of then Dean Doug Wright after observing to Doug that the trouble with Canadian engineers was that they could analyze, but they couldn’t design—they would know things, but they were unable to do things. Doug responded with “why don’t you come and teach them how?” George did come, and together with Peter Roe and Vir Handa, wrote “The Discipline of Design”, the first engineering design textbook in Canada. He went on, with Peter Roe and H.K. Kesavan, to found the Department of Design in 1967.  Their vision for System Design Engineering, building an education for engineers that would balance systems thinking as a way of knowing our complex, interdisciplinary world, and design practice as a way of doing—finding solutions to those complex problems that transcend disciplines, is what drew me into the department and shaped my thinking as an educator ever after.

My appreciation for George grew year by year, starting with an early faculty retreat when we were given a departmental trivia quiz. One of the questions was how many patents did Systems faculty hold collectively? The answer was 56—I had 2, and George had 54! George held patents on everything from artificial paint brush bristles and the paint roller to a novel, low tech solution to the problem of how to prevent users from seeing the edges between floors, walls and ceilings in virtual reality environments. He was the most restlessly creative man I ever knew. 

When it was clear that my wife and I were going to stay in Waterloo indefinitely, it was George we turned to to design  our house. Typically, in his first meeting with us his first question was not what we wanted in the house, but what sort of a life did we envision in the space? He not only found us our lot on the Nith River in the country, he found our builder, and designed the home we live in to this day.

In 1981 George was one of the first faculty members recruited to the SHAD Valley summer program, an enrichment program for outstanding high school students that continues to attract substantial numbers of strong students to Systems. George laid the foundation for the program and put it on sustainable footing. I joined him as a faculty member with the program and went on to spend 30 years, 25 as program director for the Waterloo SHAD program. It was the combination of the Systems perspective and the SHAD experience that opened the door in 2003 for me to create first the Waterloo Unlimited program  and then the new undergraduate degree program called Knowledge Integration, which I view as an extension of the Systems Design framework for knowing and doing across the disciplines beyond engineering to the university at large.

I last saw George just the week before he died. He was still interested in the house he’d built for us, and the department he built for us all. I was able to say then that I was so grateful for all he’d done. I have lived my life in the house that George built. Waterloo, and all of us, are better for the foundation he left us.

Ed Jernigan

Wellesley, Ontario