Cardinal Cadence Fall 2012

Lifetime ties

Bill and Libbie NylinBill Nylin ’65 describes meeting his wife, Libbie (Campbell) Nylin ’64, ’65, as “the classic nerd love story.” He saw her sitting in the front row of his Calculus 1 class at Lamar and “dove in right behind her.” Both mathematics majors at a time when few women at Lamar chose that field, Bill and Libbie quickly became friends and study partners in that class and others they took together. The best friends went to Lamar’s “prom” together their senior year and, as Libbie said, “the rest is history.” More than 50 years later, their connection to each other and to Lamar remains strong.

“We had a wonderful time, and student life was really fun then,” said Libbie, who was active in numerous clubs as a student and served as president of Alpha Delta Pi sorority. “I’m close to the women I was sorority sisters with still. Those are lifetime ties to Lamar.”

Their connection to Lamar, however, runs much deeper than their student days. Both Bill and Libbie returned to Lamar as longtime faculty members. Libbie, who earned a master’s in mathematics at Lamar thanks to the encouragement of her professors, taught math for 28 years at what became Lamar Institute of Technology. After receiving his Ph.D. in computer science at Purdue University and teaching at Southern Methodist University, Bill returned to Lamar to create the first computer science department on campus. Previously, Lamar had offered computer classes only through the mathematics and industrial engineering departments. In fact, Bill and Libbie took the first computer class ever taught at Lamar together.

“It was machine-code programming on a vacuum-tube computer,” Bill recalled. “It was the same era as the old Univac 1101 they would show on TV on the $64,000 Question in the 1950s.” “It was enormous,” Libbie added.

Although Bill received his first exposure to computers as a Lamar student, his real interest in the burgeoning field developed after graduation while working for the aerospace company Pratt & Whitney in Florida. “The first thing they did was give me a stack of computer manuals,” he said. He found the work intriguing and decided to pursue a graduate degree at Purdue, which had started the nation’s first computer science department. There, he became close friends with fellow students who had earned bachelor’s degrees from Harvard, Cal Tech, Michigan, Minnesota, Kansas State, Purdue and Notre Dame. “My background was as good as every single one of them. That really gave me a great feeling because I knew that my education from Lamar was solid.” He continued to promote his confidence in the quality of Lamar’s programs to prospective students he encountered as a Lamar faculty member and administrator. “I had just wonderful, smart students,” he said. “He really did have some outstanding students who he’s still close to today,” Libbie added.

When Bill accepted the faculty job at Lamar in 1975, Libbie began teaching in the College of Technical Arts, which later became LIT. Previously she had taught junior high and high school in Florida, Indiana and the Dallas area. “I loved teaching,” she said. “I really liked the students’ personalities and getting to know them. Some of them met success for the first time in math in my classes. That made you feel good.”

Each of the Nylins is quick to praise the other’s abilities and impact on students. The couple honored Libbie’s commitment to her students by creating an endowed scholarship at LIT in her name in 2002. Bill’s former students honored his contributions by surprising him in 2005 with an endowed scholarship in computer science at Lamar University in his name. “It’s a great thing,” Bill said. “I was able to go to college supplemented by scholarships that other people paid for. To be able to give a little bit back and help provide some scholarship funds for other students to make it easier for them to go through is just a wonderful, heartwarming thing to us. We get such nice letters from the students saying what it means to them to be able to have the scholarship funds.”

While Libbie’s career continued in teaching, Bill’s experience with computers led him from the classroom into other arenas. After teaching and then becoming the first director of computer science at Lamar, he rose through the university’s executive ranks. He served in a variety of roles including director of personnel and computer services, executive vice president of finance and operations, and deputy chancellor of the Lamar University System, before LU joined the Texas State University System. In 1995, he left Lamar to embark on a new career as president and chief operating officer at Conn’s Appliances. He had previously served on the company’s board of directors and as a consultant. He remained at Conn’s until January of this year, serving in a number of roles during the years including chairman. Nylin’s experience with computers and finance at Lamar proved advantageous when he helped Conn’s implement new sales management and inventory systems for distribution. “The other side that translated well was Conn’s commissioned retail environment, which was competitive,” he said. “In high school and four years of college, I actually paid my way as a commissioned salesman, so I understand the environment. I think the background that I had going through those different areas, each step, even though they appear to be quite different, added to each other to help me.”

In recent years, both Bill and Libbie have taken the step from full-time employment to retirement. Libbie retired from LIT in December 2005. She continued part-time teaching briefly but has since left the classroom behind. Bill stepped down as chairman of Conn’s in 2010 and left the board of directors in January 2012. They now live in the Dallas area, about a 30-minute drive from their daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter and grandson. They have found other interests in retirement, but “that’s the biggest one,” Libbie said. “We get to spend a lot of time with our grandchildren,” Bill said. “This grandparenting business is a wonderful, wonderful job.”

Additionally, they are enjoying traveling, making up for lost time after busy careers in which they never took more than a week of vacation at a time. So far, they have taken the grandchildren on a Disney cruise and had fun on family trips to San Diego, Paris and London. Trips to other countries in Europe and together with old friends from Lamar to California have also added to the nine trips they have planned this year alone.

One thing that has not been part of their retirement agenda is keeping up with all the latest technology. A few years ago when Bill was named distinguished alumnus of Purdue’s computer science department, he gave a talk on five decades of computer history, from vacuum tubes to plasma televisions. He feels privileged to have worked through the first several generations of computers but more recent developments have passed him by.

“Nowadays I don’t know enough to do anything significant with computers. I now have my daughter and son-in-law as special consultants since I’ve been out of it for a while. It was wonderful and exciting, and I loved teaching it and loved doing it, and it has changed so much. It’s been wonderful to see.”

by Beth Gallaspy
October 2012