William Kays, former dean of Stanford School of Engineering, professor of mechanical engineering, D-Day veteran and Cardinal football fan, died Sept. 9 in Palo Alto. He was 98.

William Kays

William Kays led the School of Engineering from 1972 to 1984. (Image credit: Courtesy Kays Family)

Kays served as dean of Stanford Engineering from 1972 to 1984, when the term “Silicon Valley” rose to prominence, and helped spur the school’s rise from a well-regarded teaching institution to a globally renowned research center as well.

“Bill Kays helped lay the foundation for what Stanford Engineering has become,” said his immediate successor, former Dean James Gibbons.

Kays helped restructure professors’ salaries to encourage both research and teaching, and also played a role in launching the Center for Integrated Systems, a pioneering effort to bring together academic and industrial scientists to solve problems in electronics.

An advocate of attracting more women to engineering, Kays wrote (in a 1972 booklet titled “Consider the Possibility”): “As the father of four college-aged girls, I am well aware of the career ambitions of today’s women.” Encouraged by his wife, Alma, a 1947 graduate of Stanford Law School, he supported the 1974 formation of the Stanford Center for Research on Women, now known as the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Kays also sought to recruit more engineering students from racial and ethnic minorities.

As personal computers emerged in the early 1980s, Kays sought to coax faculty away from their slide rules by offering to buy a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer for any professor who wrote a program using the machine in research or teaching. “He had a knack for seeing what would be important, and figuring out how to get faculty to go along,” said Channing Robertson, who became chair of the Chemical Engineering Department under Kays.

Before becoming dean, Kays was chair of mechanical engineering from 1961 through 1972. He was a world expert in heat transfer and the cooling of machines, a field in which Stanford still excels. With his mentor, former Professor Louis London, Kays co-authored the 1955 text Compact Heat Exchangers that became a global reference. In 1966 he co-authored the graduate textbook Convective Heat and Mass Transfer, which is still used today.

Soldier and scholar

Kays was born in 1920 in Norfolk, Virginia. He liked to say that he chose Stanford in part because he loved its football team, attending his first game in 1927 with his father, a former naval officer.

William Kays

Kays, who chaired the Department of Mechanical Engineering from 1961 through 1972, was a world expert in heat transfer and the cooling of machines. (Image credit: Stanford Research Institute)

After entering Stanford in 1938, Kays became a cadet in the school’s Reserve Officer Training Corps. After earning his engineering degree in 1942, he became an officer with the Army’s First Infantry Division. He saw combat in North Africa and Sicily before landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day. He appears in five of the 11 famous D-Day photographs taken by Life magazine photographer Robert Capa. A grainy picture of him leading his squad ashore occupied a proud spot on his office wall. After his retirement Kays wrote a wartime memoir titled “Letters From a Soldier.” In his 2013 oral history Kays recalled his Army service as among his proudest achievements.

After his discharge, Kays used the G.I. Bill to earn his master’s degree from Stanford in 1947. Stanford engineering professor Frederick Terman, who inspired a generation of technology leaders, encouraged Kays to pursue the doctorate which he earned in 1951 and, with it, an appointment as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. He became an associate professor in 1954 and professor in 1957. Between 1984, when he stepped down as dean, and his retirement in 1990, Kays resumed his professorial post.

Family and football

In 1947 Kays married Alma Campbell (AB ’43, LLB ’47). Together they raised four daughters, spending holidays and summers at their cabin in the Sierra Nevada. After Alma died of cancer in 1982, Kays married the former Judith Scholtz Adams (AB ’57, MA ’59), a Stanford-trained arts educator.

“Colleagues and friends regarded Bill with respect and affection, knowing he would always listen and act fairly,” said Judith Kays. “He also had a great capacity for enjoying family and life’s pleasures.”

That was true to the end, when daughter Margaret Fayé and son-in-law Bill Mitchell picked up Kays on Sept. 8 to attend the Stanford-USC football match. Around halftime, Kays, who never left early, complained of not feeling well and was taken to the hospital where he passed away within hours, peacefully and painlessly, from pneumonia.

Kays is survived by his second wife, Judith; three daughters from his first marriage, Leslie Hunger, Margaret Fayé and Elizabeth Rowan-Mitchell; two stepsons, Robert Adams and Daniel Adams; 15 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren. His eldest daughter, Nancy Kays, preceded him in death in 2011.

The family will hold a service Nov. 19 at 3 p.m. at Stanford Memorial Church, followed by a celebration of life reception at the Stanford Faculty Club. RSVPs are encouraged to Margaret Fayé (mkfaye@alumni.stanford.edu). In lieu of flowers, well-wishers are encouraged to send donations in the name of William Kays to Calaveras Big Trees Association, PO Box 1196, Arnold, CA 95223, to support the state park near the family’s cabin.

Media Contacts

Tom Abate, Associate Director of Communications, Stanford Engineering: (650) 736-2245, tabate@stanford.edu