Paul G. Huray and the Art of the Possible
by Catherine Longmire
IT SEEMED, AT THE TIME, THE WORST NIGHT OF HIS LIFE. He had planned to capitalize on his chance to play tailback; to prove his mettle on the football field. Those plans for glory quickly dissipated, however, in the instant he slammed into a player from the opposing team and felt his freshly-broken arm dangling like spaghetti in the aftermath. In the midst of his disappointment, a young lady named Susan Lyons came down from the stands, intent on finding out just who the injured Oak Ridge High School Wildcat was, and how he was. It turns out he was a kid named Paul Huray, and they have been married since 1962.
“So it turned out to be the best night of my life,” Huray recalled affectionately.
And as for his fellow Wildcats, well, the self-described “worst player on the best team” still carries the memory of seeing that squad go on to national championship status and credits the experience with showing him how there are no small contributions when a bigger goal is in sight.
That’s the thing about Paul Huray—everything has potential; everything can be an opportunity if you just approach it from the right perspective. He has taught classes and steered committees; given talks and written textbooks. He has been in the service of the White House and a classroom full of electrical engineering majors. And he is very much of the opinion that it’s always a good idea to at least try something, because even if events don’t unfold as planned, something even better may come along.
Huray was born in Knoxville in 1941. When he was three years old his family moved to Oak Ridge, where his father worked for the Manhattan Project. He went on to graduate from Oak Ridge High School, where he fell in love not only with the girl named Susan but also with science and math. Because he was a member of the football team, however, not everyone was assured of his academic success.
“I had a guidance counselor tell me, ‘You’ll never make it at the university; you should join the Navy,’” Huray said. “That made me mad, and I thought, ‘I’ll show you.’”
So he came to the University of Tennessee and did precisely that, earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics in 1964 at the top of his class and following that up with a Ph.D. in physics in 1968.
After a year as a post-doc at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he returned to UTK as an assistant professor of physics. He conducted research on transamericium elements at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and taught both undergraduate and graduate courses (for which he won the Alumni Outstanding Teaching Award). When the management contract for ORNL came up for bid, Huray told then-Chancellor Jack Reese that the university should go after it. They formed a committee, including
Physics Professors Ivan Sellin and Lee Riedinger, to work on the bid. The competition, Huray knew, would be stiff.
“We were trying to figure out how in the world we could beat 60 companies who were also bidding,” he said.
The trio assembled around Huray’s dining room table one evening to come up with a strategy. Because the university is a non-profit organization, they realized they could take the laboratory management fee and invest it in hiring top people, an idea that came to be known as the Distinguished Scientist program. A snag in the plan, however, was that the winning bidder would have to manage the weapons plant along with the national laboratory, something for which the university’s leadership had no enthusiasm.
“The board of trustees said, ‘We’re not going to want to manage nuclear weapons,’” Huray explained. “So they said, ‘Here’s the deal. You guys figure out who the winner is. And you make sure you have a partnership with them.’”
This was easier said than done, considering the sheer number of bidders, but the finalists for the contract turned out to be Westinghouse, Martin Marietta (who eventually won) and Rockwell Scientific. It took hours in airports and meeting rooms, Huray said, but “by the time it was announced that the three finalists were those three companies, we had a partnership agreement with all three of them.”
As a bonus, all three companies supported the idea of the Distinguished Scientist program and agreed to fold in a portion of the management fees to support it. The committee was still somewhat disappointed, however, that the university wouldn’t be managing a national laboratory.
“We thought we had failed,” Huray said. But a silver lining was soon to be revealed.
“Lamar Alexander was governor at the time,” he continued.“He had heard about the Distinguished Scientist program, and he thought it was a great idea.”
The state set out to build Centers of Excellence for public higher education. They would leverage the strengths of Tennessee’s colleges and universities to expand the state’s research base, and in the process increase its economic competitiveness.
The legislature set aside a pool of money and asked for ideas. Huray wrote a proposal titled “An Alliance between the Sciences at Oak Ridge and UT.” Eventually the name was shortened to “The Science Alliance” and in 1984 it became the state’s first Center of Excellence and the home to the Distinguished Scientist program. Huray became its first director.
The long road from the dining room table to a Center of Excellence also brought with it yet another opportunity.
“That’s what got me to the White House,” Huray said.
Mr. Huray Goes to Washington (and Columbia)
During the process of setting up agreements with potential bidders for the ORNL contract, Huray met a representative from Rockwell Scientific who went on to work for President Ronald Reagan.
“He called me about a year and half later and said, ‘We need somebody from a university here in the White House,’” Huray said.
Because he had experience with supercomputing at ORNL, Huray was assigned to the Federal Coordinating Council on Science Engineering and Technology committee on Computer Research Applications. About six months in, he said, the committee was assembled when he volunteered that he thought the networks were going to be at least as important as the supercomputers. The committee chair at the time was Jim Decker from the Department of Energy.
“I didn’t know that he wanted out of that job,” Huray said. “(Jim) said, ‘That is a great idea. I think you ought to be chairman of this committee. All in favor raise their hand.’ And I was chairman.”
The committee originally wanted to streamline the existing federal agency networks, which didn’t typically “talk” to one another. They planned to name the project the Interagency Network, but ultimately the name was shortened to “the Internet.”
Corralling the disparate interests of committee members representing so many different agencies (NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Central Intelligence Agency, etc.) wasn’t easy, but Huray said the key was showing everyone what was in it for them.
“I think people unify when they recognize that everyone has something to gain,” he said. “Colleagues may gain something if they agree to help others also gain some of their goals . . . some wanted better hardware, some wanted to address software Grand Challenges, some wanted to develop the manpower base, and some wanted to build an interagency network (the Internet). By agreeing to include something for everyone, we all got what we wanted. It was a similar thing for the Science Alliance and the Distinguished Scientist program. Physicists had to support chemists, biologists, computer scientists, and engineers, but everyone came away as a winner.”
In 1988, after spending three years as a senior policy analyst for the White House, another opportunity came Huray’s way. He was invited to become the senior vice-president for research at the University of South Carolina. After a few years in administration, including a stint as vice-provost and interim department chairman, he went back to teaching and is currently a professor of electrical engineering at USC.
“I just loved being with the students,” he said. “It was great to get back to the classroom.”
He also published two textbooks in 2009: Maxwell’s Equations and The Foundations of Signal Integrity. The latter subject has been an important part of his professorial work in recent years. He has teamed with Intel to develop a program to help engineers keep up with the ever-increasing demand for very fast, reliable electronic circuits. Huray has extended his teaching to the Web for the past 10 years, with students from Beijing to Boston. He also imparts some of the more intangible knowledge he’s gained over the course of his own career.
“I tell my students that most opportunities happen because you know people,” he said. “It is important to combine personal relationships that include children and spouses so that friendships will last a lifetime. Physicists are good at this; they learn to recognize connections, no matter what opportunity presents itself.”
When he was working on network computing in the 1980s, he said he wouldn’t have guessed the Internet would have 4 billion users in only 20 years, or that it would take less than a second to get 400,000 responses. What interests him is the potential of a project, not the obstacles.
“I see an opportunity and I say ‘Let’s do that,’” he said. And “most things seem to turn out better than I originally expect.”