Alumnus and businessman Bruce Edwards of Saratoga, and the late William J. “Bill” Chancellor, professor emeritus of biological and agricultural engineering, have been honored with the UC Davis Medal, the highest honor the university presents to an individual.
Interim Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter presented Edwards’ medal at a gala event in his honor on June 13. Chancellor’s wife of 56 years, Nongkarn Chancellor, is accepting the medal on his behalf at the College of Engineering’s commencement today (June 16).
First presented in 2002, the UC Davis Medal has previously been awarded to 17 individuals, recognizing the very highest levels of distinction, personal achievement and contributions to the ideals of higher education on which UC Davis was founded.
Gridiron lessons translated to the business world
Edwards came to UC Davis in 1955 after speaking to Coach Will Lotter at a Picnic Day high school track meet the previous spring. Coach Lotter had coached Edwards at San Ramon High School and attended the track meet to watch members of the San Ramon Valley track team. As they spoke, their conversation quickly turned toward Edwards’ college plans. At the time, Edwards said he wanted to go to Cal and play football. But the school was not encouraging about Edwards’ football career. So Coach Lotter told Edwards about UC Davis’ football team and encouraged him to play for the Aggies. Edwards went on to play three years of football and participated in four years of track and field.
Edwards graduated from UC Davis in 1960 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in physical education, planning to become a football coach. Instead, an opportunity to work for Taylor Roof Structures in Oakland opened the door to a successful career in construction and real estate development.
In 1966 he founded his own company, Roof Structures Inc., in San Jose, and in 1973, he founded March Development, which would develop more than 1 million square feet of industrial and commercial properties in Silicon Valley.
Edwards said that numerous lessons learned while playing Aggie football helped prepare him for the competitive culture of the business world.
“Playing sports teaches you teamwork, getting along with people and overcoming adversity,” he said. “You also develop an association with your teammates that lasts a lifetime, as well as a connection with anyone else who has played the same sport — even if it was in a different era.”
Edwards is a past chair of the UC Davis Foundation Board, a member of the Intercollegiate Athletics Director’s Leadership Council and served on the Campaign for UC Davis campaign committee, a volunteer leadership board of the university’s first comprehensive fundraising campaign that raised more than $1 billion for UC Davis. He served on the planning committee for the new Aggie Stadium. Each year he attends several football games and often travels with the team to away games.
Edwards also has given financially to UC Davis, especially in support of the College of Letters and Science and Intercollegiate Athletics. His $2 million commitment to Intercollegiate Athletics in 2011 supported maintenance, operation, and potential future enhancements and expansions of Aggie Stadium. It remains the largest single philanthropic contribution to athletics in the university’s history. The stadium clubroom is named in his honor.
Additionally, he spearheaded the UC Davis Foundation Matching Fund for Student Support. Under Edwards’ leadership, the UC Davis Foundation Board donated $1 million in matching funds, which in turn inspired nearly $4 million in donations to create some 40 endowments to fund student scholarships, fellowships and awards.
“Who better embodies the spirit of ‘Aggie Pride’ than Bruce?” asked Hexter. “His example through business, philanthropy and volunteerism has emboldened generations of Aggies to reach even higher and farther.”
Edwards already has his sights set on raising funds for a new strength, training and conditioning room at Aggie Stadium.
“That would really transform athletics,” he said, noting that such a facility would be a powerful draw for recruiting future student athletes. He also hopes to see a tutoring center and offices for the coaching staff added to the stadium.
Pioneer in energy and information in agriculture
Chancellor had already been notified that he would receive the UC Davis Medal at the time of his death in February 2017 at the age of 85, and was immensely honored to have been selected for this distinction. Over almost 60 years at UC Davis, Chancellor was internationally known as a pioneer in studying energy use and information technology in agriculture, working both in California and around the world. He had a special interest in how small farms adapt to mechanization.
In a 2005 profile marking his election to the National Academy of Engineering, he described himself using a Thai proverb for good luck as “like the mouse who fell in the rice bin.”
“I came to UC Davis straight from school, I was supplied with help and guidance and got free rein to do anything I felt useful. I’ve just been having fun going in different directions,” he said.
Chancellor grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm in the 1940s, where energy meant the muscle power of people and horses.
“The human effort seemed to be an unreasonable burden on farmers, and I felt that reducing this burden might be an interesting field for me to get into,” he said in 2005.
Chancellor earned his bachelor’s degree in agriculture and engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, then master’s and doctoral degrees from Cornell University.
In 1957, Roy Bainer recruited him straight from Cornell to UC Davis to work on soil compaction due to heavy agricultural machinery.
He took a sabbatical in Thailand in 1960, where he married his wife, Nongkarn. The couple had met during his time at Cornell. Chancellor also visited the Philippines and Malaysia in the early 1960s, beginning a careerlong involvement with agriculture in the rapidly developing nations of Southeast Asia.
Chancellor’s contributions include: soil science and dynamics, his original work at UC Davis, continued throughout his career; international agricultural development, especially the impacts of mechanization and introduction of sustainable food production; and the use of energy and information in agriculture.
He led a landmark study of energy use in California agriculture, and co-authored an influential 1976 study on the global need for energy in food production. Energy is a key element in farming, he noted in 2005: powering machinery, pumping water, making fertilizer, moving goods to market. Crops such as cereals and potatoes generate more energy (in food calories) than you have to put in to grow them, but meat and livestock are very energy intensive.
Long before most people were thinking about the “information age,” Chancellor saw the importance of information in farming. Concepts he put forward in 1981 are now being adopted in “precision farming” and industry. Before the internet, he created the first comprehensive electronic database of scientific articles on agricultural engineering, making it available to researchers worldwide.
Chancellor was also well known for a deep concern for the needs and welfare of his students both on campus and as they advanced their careers around the world. He was always ready to share his experience, insight and wisdom.
“The impressions Bill made on the lives and careers of his many students are profound, as are the many contributions he leaves behind for those who study here. We cannot thank him enough,” said Hexter.
A memorial symposium in Chancellor’s honor will be held July 21 at the UC Davis Conference Center.