Systems and Industrial Engineering Department Presents First Alumni Award to Herb Burton

Retired Bell Labs executive was the first graduate of what became the first accredited systems engineering program in the U.S.

Herb Burton, a 1960 graduate of the University of Arizona College of Engineering and a retired executive at AT&T Bell Laboratories, has received the 2016 Alumni of the Year Award from the UA department of systems and industrial engineering, or SIE.

“Herb has been a long and strong supporter of the department, College and University,” said Young-Jun Son, professor and head of SIE, who presented the award at SIE’s precommencement ceremony on campus in May 2016.

“When we established the award earlier this year, Herb Burton was our obvious choice,” Son said.

Burton graduated in 1960 as the only recipient of a UA bachelor’s degree in engineering mathematics. A. Wayne Wymore, considered the father of systems engineering, directed that program, which in 1961 became the department of systems engineering, the first accredited systems engineering program in the nation. Wymore, a professor emeritus who died in 2011, considered Burton its first graduate.

“It was a privilege to study with Wayne Wymore, and I am so pleased to see how his program has grown in size and stature over the years,” Burton said. “I look forward to following SIE’s future achievements and celebrating next year’s recipient of this new alumni award.”

Data Communications Pioneer

Burton enrolled at the UA in 1955 to study electrical engineering. After a six-month leave to serve in the Marine Corp Reserves, he switched to the UA mathematics program.

But upon learning Wymore had secured one of the first computers on the UA campus -- nearly filling a large lab on the first floor of the Engineering Building -- Burton, fascinated by the emerging world of computer technology, switched back to engineering.

One of the early engineers to work in developing data communications technology, he owned patents for some of the early error-correcting codes and error-control systems for data communications and led development of some of the first modems using integrated circuits.

Burton was born in Illinois but grew up mostly in Tucson. He met his wife, Sylvia, at the UA, where she was pursuing a degree in business education. They married in 1959 and graduated from the UA in 1960.

“I was the first in my family to attend college and worked several part-time jobs throughout college,” Herb recalled. “Tuition was free back then, but there were still expenses. The UA gave me some financial support that I really appreciated. Now, it gives Sylvia and me great joy and satisfaction to help students.”  

Systematically Helping UA Students

In 2009, the couple established the Herb and Sylvia Burton Scholarship to provide financial assistance to full-time students in the department of systems and industrial engineering. The Burtons also belong to the College’s da Vinci Circle, the Galileo Circle of the College of Science and the Medici Circle of the College of Fine Arts, and provide financial assistance to students in those colleges. Herb Burton received the UA Centennial Alumni Achievement Award in 1998.

While at Bell Labs, where he worked for 36 years before retiring in 1996, Burton helped recruit many UA students as an executive of the company’s university relations program. He also oversaw awards of equipment and millions of dollars to the UA, including more than 30 computers for the College of Engineering’s first computer lab.

“The guy responsible for setting up that computer lab was Jeff Goldberg,” Burton said.

Goldberg, a member of the UA systems and industrial engineering faculty since 1985, is dean of the College of Engineering.

Burton has remained active in philanthropy, engineering education and data management since his “retirement” 20 years ago.

He volunteered as a senior examiner for the New Jersey Governor’s Quality Award and taught introductory courses for graduate students in systems engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology. In 2006 he and Sylvia relocated from Monmouth County, N.J., to Tucson, where they spend most of the year.

This summer will be their 20th summer living in a renovated house in rural Vermont, where Burton, 78, is applying his data management skills by helping Vermont’s Jamaica Historical Foundation digitize records dating back to the 1700s.


Top picture: Herb Burton, left, and Sylvia Burton flank scholarship recipient Kyel Powell, class of 2017 SIE major, at the 2016 College of Engineering annual scholarship reception.