Roland Schmitt, a General Electric physicist who helped the company dominate the MRI market and later became president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, died Friday afternoon in Scotia at the age of 93.
A native of Seguin, Texas, Schmitt graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in physics and mathematics and received his master's degree in physics in 1948, also from the University of Texas. After earning his doctorate in physics at Rice University in 1951, he joined General Electric as a research associate and became Chief Technology Officer at what is now GE Global Research, a role he held from 1978-86.
"I got to know him very well, and he was a very fine gentleman and a wonderful person," said George Wise, who worked for Schmitt for nearly 10 years and often served as his speechwriter. "He treated everyone with kindness and dignity, and he was a guy with very wide interests. All I have is very positive memories of him."
Joe Morone, currently president of Albany International, went to work at GE in 1980 and was hired by Schmitt. Morone also taught at RPI when Schmitt served as president there from 1988-93.
"I was an odd duck at GE because I had a Ph.D in political science," said Morone. "But I had done a thesis about the history of nuclear power, and Roland really liked it. Over the course of six years at GE, and then later at RPI, he became a wonderful role model for me -- and a lot of other people. And he was more than a nice guy. He was an individual with very impressive accomplishments who rose through the ranks at GE.
"GE had one of the great R&D (research and development) labs around the world; it still does today, and Roland was a big part of that legacy."
Schmitt was an enormously resourceful individual, according to former colleague Walter Robb.
"He was head of the lab while I was the head of GE Medical, and we both essentially reported to Jack Welch," Robb said. (Welch was GE's chairman and CEO from 1981-2001.)
"GE had the claim to fame of the great success with the CAT scanning machine, and then it was Roland who followed that up with the MRI. GE had those two remarkable wins in a row, and it made us the world leader in that field," Robb added. "It was very competitive back then, and our lab told us we should build one with a higher magnet power than all of our competitors.
"There were risks to it, and people were saying, 'GE is crazy.' But we stuck with our lab. The challenges that come up with development are never simple, but Roland handled all the challenges. He convinced us that the idea was worth doing, and if there was ever a crisis in the lab, we knew Roland would be able to get this team through it."
Schmitt, according to Wise, handled some pretty tough situations in a calm, cool fashion.
"I can never remember him having a temper tantrum," said Wise. "Unlike some of the top managers at GE -- and there could be some trying times in that business -- Roland remained kind. He really was a wonderful guy."
"He was always a gentleman, even in some very stressful times," said Morone. "I'll always remember how, at some very distressing business meetings, he always treated people with dignity."
Debra Townsend worked as RPI Director of Communications during Schmitt's time there.
"He was not only a true technological visionary, but he was also one of the kindest, most gracious persons I was ever privileged to know," said Townsend. "He had all kinds of international accolades -- medals from all kinds of science and technical communities -- but he was also as down-to-earth as a person could be."
After moving to the Schenectady area, Schmitt lived on Cedar Lane in Glenville and then on Riverview Road in Rexford. He had most recently been living at Coburg Village in Rexford with his wife, Claire. His oldest son, Larry, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said he and his three siblings have many happy memories of hiking in the Adirondacks and boating on Lake George with their father.
"He didn't have the patience for fishing, but he loved the outdoors, and he always enjoyed hiking and swimming," Larry Schmitt said. "He was also a voracious reader who enjoyed playing games: intellectual games. We will remember him that way: as a father, first and foremost.
"He taught us life's lessons and about how to see the world and have an intellectual curiosity about things. He instilled in us the joy of learning and how we should always treat people fairly and value their ideas and opinions."
Along with his oldest son and wife, Schmitt is survived by sons Brian (Colorado Springs) and Henry (Pittsburgh), and a daughter, Alice Burnham (Salem, Oregon).
The family will hold a private ceremony, and a memorial service will be held at RPI in June.