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Percy Pierre

Electrical engineer Percy A. Pierre was born on January 1, 1939 in Welcome, Louisiana to Rosa Villavaso and Percy John Pierre. Pierre graduated from St. Augustine High School in New Orleans in 1957. Reverend Matthew O’Rourke, the school’s founding principal and president, served as one of Pierre’s mentors. It was in his senior year of high school that Pierre first decided to enter the field of engineering. Pierre received his B.S. degree in electrical engineering from the University of Notre Dame in 1961. He stayed at the University and received his M.S. degree in 1963. Pierre went on to receive his Ph.D. degree in electrical engineering from John Hopkins University in 1967. He is the first African American in the country to earn a Ph.D. degree in electrical engineering.

After graduation, Pierre began a series of successful posts in government and higher education. In 1969, Pierre was selected to serve as a White House Fellow and Deputy to the Assistant to the President for Urban Affairs. In 1971, he joined the faculty of Howard University as Dean of the School of Engineering. As dean, Pierre was instrumental in the founding of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME). In 1977, he left Howard University to serve as Assistant Secretary to the United States Army for Research, Development, and Acquisition, where he managed a $12 billion budget. Pierre started his own consulting business, Percy A. and Associates in 1981. He returned to academia in 1983, serving as President of Prairie View Agricultural and Mechanical (A&M) University, and later as Honeywell Professor of Electrical Engineering.

Pierre came to Michigan State University in 1990 as Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies. In 1995, he became a professor of electrical and computer engineering. Pierre has taught courses and participated in research in the areas of signals and systems, random processes, and signal detection and estimation. He believes his greatest achievement in his field to be the exploration of linear functions and their properties. In addition to his research, Pierre has also created numerous programs to increase the financial support and mentoring opportunities available for minority graduate engineering students; most notably creating the Sloan Engineering Program in 1998. Pierre has served on many boards, including the National Security Advisory Board and the Defense Science Board. He was honored with the Founders Award from NACME in 2004 in celebration of the organization’s thirtieth anniversary. He also received the Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2008. Pierre is married to Olga A. Markham and they have two grown daughters, Kristin Clare and Allison Celeste.

Percy A. Pierre was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on September 13, 2012.

Accession Number

A2012.224

Sex

Male

Interview Date

9/13/2012

Last Name

Pierre

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Middle Name

A.

Occupation
Schools

St. Joan Of Arc Elem School

St. Augustine High School

University of Notre Dame

Johns Hopkins University

University of Michigan

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Percy

Birth City, State, Country

Welcome

HM ID

PIE02

Favorite Season

Fall, Spring, Summer

State

Louisiana

Favorite Vacation Destination

None

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Michigan

Birth Date

1/3/1939

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

East Lansing

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Gumbo

Short Description

Electrical engineer Percy Pierre (1939 - ) was known for his work in signal processing, as well as for creating programs to increase opportunities for minority graduate engineering students.

Employment

Michigan State University

Prairie View A&M University

Department of the Army for Research, Development and Acquisition

Howard University

Percy A. Pierre & Associates

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

White House

RAND Corporation

Favorite Color

None

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Percy Pierre's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Percy Pierre lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Percy Pierre describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Percy Pierre talks about his mother and his maternal grandparents

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Percy Pierre describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Percy Pierre talks about the benevolent societies established by freed slaves in Louisiana

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Percy Pierre talks about the Reconstruction Era in Louisiana

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Percy Pierre talks about his father's family in Freetown, Louisiana

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Percy Pierre talks about his father's education and carpentry skills

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Percy Pierre describes how his parents met

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Percy Pierre describes his family's life in Gulfport, Mississippi

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Percy Pierre describes his parents' personalities and who he takes after

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Percy Pierre talks about his family

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Percy Pierre describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Percy Pierre describes his childhood neighborhood and house in New Orleans

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Percy Pierre describes the sights and sounds and smells of growing up

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Percy Pierre describes his experience in school

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Percy Pierre describes his interests in science, math and basketball

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Percy Pierre tells the story of Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Percy Pierre talks about learning problem-solving skills

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Percy Pierre talks about watching television as a teenager in the 1950s

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Percy Pierre talks about his mother teaching him to read

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Percy Pierre describes his experience and mentors in high school

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Percy Pierre talks about his interest in basketball and music in high school

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Percy Pierre talks about preparing to enroll in college

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Percy Pierre describes his decision to attend the University of Notre Dame

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Percy Pierre describes his experience at the University of Notre Dame

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Percy Pierre describes his studies and his mentors at the University of Notre Dame

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Percy Pierre talks about religion and science

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Percy Pierre describes his interest in signal processing as a master's student

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Percy Pierre describes his decision to pursue a Ph.D. degree at Johns Hopkins University

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Percy Pierre talks about the events in the Civil Rights Movement and politics in the 1960s

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Percy Pierre talks about his Ph.D. advisors and dissertation research at Johns Hopkins University

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Percy Pierre talks about being the only African American in his graduate program

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Percy Pierre talks about becoming the first engineering postdoctoral trainee at the University of Michigan

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Percy Pierre describes his decision to join the Rand Corporation in 1968

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Percy Pierre describes his experience at Rand Corporation

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Percy Pierre describes his experience as a White House fellow in 1969

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Percy Pierre describes how he became the dean of engineering at Howard University

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Percy Pierre describes his contributions as the dean of engineering at Howard University

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Percy Pierre talks about affirmative action and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME)

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Percy Pierre describes his impact on minority engineering education

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Percy Pierre describes his experience at the Pentagon as the assistant secretary for research and development

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Percy Pierre describes his experience in consulting and as president of Prairie View Agricultural and Mechanical University

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Percy Pierre describes his experience at Michigan State University

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Percy Pierre reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Percy Pierre reflects upon his career

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Percy Pierre describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Percy Pierre talks about his wife and daughters

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Percy Pierre talks about how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Percy Pierre describes his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

5$6

DAStory

2$1

DATitle
Percy Pierre talks about becoming the first engineering postdoctoral trainee at the University of Michigan
Percy Pierre describes his impact on minority engineering education
Transcript
All right, so now, you did post doctoral studies at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, Michigan], right?$$Yes.$$1967 to '68 [1968]. How did you manage to choose the University of Michigan?$$Well, that's an interesting story. It turns out I'm told I'm the first postdoc student ever at the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan. Here's how that happened. I was doing my research, loving it, loving it, loving it. My advisor said, "It's time for you to go, write it up and leave." I said, "I want to keep doing my research." And the thought of getting a job and not doing research full time was not what I wanted to do. So I decided well maybe if I get a postdoc, I could keep doing my research. I don't want to be a professor, because then I'd have to teach, I just want to do my research. So my advisor says well, "Let's go to this conference and talk to people and see if we can find--if any university is looking for postdoc, so we went to the Princeton [University, Princeton, New Jersey] conference and talked to people from [University of California,] Berkeley, from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts], from [University of] Michigan, etcetera. There was man at the University of Michigan, his name is Bill Root, who is really the godfather of my field. So we approached him and said, you know--. My advisor approached him and said, "Percy Pierre would love to do a postdoc; do you have a postdoc?" He said, "No, I don't have one, and we don't have postdocs in engineering, but I think we should, and maybe you could be the first one." So he created a postdoc position. He went back to the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan and talked to the dean; the dean created a position for me, and I went to Michigan as a postdoc. I was the only postdoc in the college.$$So you were the first and only postdoc in the college?$$Yeah.$$And the first African American postdoc--$$Yeah.$$--To be sure.$$But I loved it, because I spent all day doing my research. There were a couple assistant professors who were hired at the same time, and they had to teach. Now, eventually, I did teach. I taught the second semester. They asked me to teach a course, I thought one course. But my postdoc year was one of the most satisfying years of my life, because I was very productive; I published five papers in that year.$$Okay, and what are the journals that you published in as an electrical engineer?$$Half of them were math journals, probability theory journals, and the other half were engineering, 'Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineering' [IEEE].$$You were there until 1968-$Okay, around 1977--$$Can I go back to the--$$Oh, sure.$$--the NACME [National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering; Pierre was instrumental in establishing NACME in 1973] thing, because this is very important to me. I told you that through the academy, we put together a committee of CEOs [Chief Executive Officers] who were going to do something about minorities in engineering and then the [Alfred P.] Sloan Foundation decided to invest in programs. They asked me to run the program, but I said I didn't want to quit my job at Howard [University, Washington, District of Columbia]; I was only dean for two years. I agreed to do it half time. So for two years, I commuted between D.C. [District of Columbia] and New York to the Rockefeller Center to run the program. And one day early in my tenure at the Sloan Foundation, I was walking up Fifth Avenue and thinking that this is a fabulous opportunity to make a difference. I had reached the point where I thought I was putting myself in a position to make a big difference, because all the elements were in place to create organizations that would change minority engineering for the next thirty years. And I realized that that was that opportunity. And what I'm saying is I knew this was it. And it took a lot of work; we had to create organizations, we had to guess what to do, but the results have been fabulous; the increase in minority engineering graduates has been spectacular over the next thirty years, and both at the bachelor's and master's level, so, if I looked at one of the biggest impacts of my life, it's that. That's the fulfillment of my promise to Father Grant when I was a freshman in high school [St. Augustine's High School, New Orleans, Louisiana].$$Okay.$$It's a big part of it.$$And, of course, NACME is still in operation, still doing good work?$$Right.$$Okay.