A Career Filled with Light: Don Keck Retires
Don Keck's research alongside two other Corning scientists -- Robert Maurer and Peter Schultz -- transformed the communications industry and thrust Corning Incorporated to the forefront of the communications revolution. Their work on waveguide attenuation and the dispersion and measurement of the optical properties of fibers in 1970 led to the commercialization of optical fiber waveguides and Corning's move into photonics.
Now, some 34 years after coming to Corning, Don Keck is retiring, and his significant contributions as a researcher and innovator continue to inspire and motivate the next generation of scientists.
When Keck arrived at Corning Incorporated in 1968, fresh out of the Michigan State University with a Ph.D. in Physics, optical communication technology -- the transmission of electrical impulses and light through thin strands of glass -- was still a distant dream and barely on Corning's innovation radar screen.
The world was a different place then, especially in terms of technology breakthroughs. In 1969, Neil Armstrong made history as the first human to set foot on the moon and his words, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" echoed from the moon's surface to those tuning in around the world.
Just one year later, Keck was working alone one evening in his laboratory and made a giant technology leap that catapulted Corning and his fellow researchers to fiber optic fame.
His excitement over this achievement was reflected in his laboratory notebook journal where he wrote, 'Whoopee!' – a less prophetic statement than Armstrong's reaction to landing on the moon, but appropriate nevertheless.
Those who know Keck personally are familiar with his mid-Western roots and his frequent use of sayings like, “golly gee,” “holy satchel” and “neat.” So his “whoopee” journal entry reflects an excitement befitting the man.
Keck’s hopefulness and enthusiasm for the accomplishments and creativity of Corning's research community -- and for the art of invention itself -- make it all the more difficult for his colleagues to accept his retirement. Even in uncertain times, Keck often says, "The future is full of light.”
Keck believes that the culture of invention he's tried to foster at Corning "goes to the human spirit." "We are born to be creative and strive to utilize that creativity to benefit the world," he said. And Keck has done exactly that.
In 2000, Don and his colleagues’ achievements were recognized by the world. They received the National Medal of Technology, the highest honor bestowed by the President of the United States to America's leading innovators who have made lasting contributions to enhancing America's competitiveness and standard of living.
Luck played a role in Keck’s decision to work for Corning. Keck admits that coming to Corning was actually an afterthought.
"When I graduated from college, the economy was doing great and I had about a half-dozen job offers,” he said. “At a point when I was deciding where I would be going (the list at that time did not include Corning), a recruiter from Corning visited campus. He showed me a bundle of optical fiber and told me about Corning's work on finding a way to talk through these things with light. I was intrigued so I took an interview with Bob Mauerer, liked what he was doing, he made me an offer and I accepted." The rest, as they say, is history.
Looking back, Keck feels that there was something mystical about how he came to Corning. "I feel it was a kind of serendipitous luck that has accompanied me through life,” he said. "I was assigned to the right project, landed in the right organization and worked with the right group of people."
He views his place in Corning's history as one individual among many who have contributed to Corning's 160-year legacy of innovation. "I grew up as a Boy Scout where we were taught to leave the campsite better than we found it,” he said. “So, I guess that I would hope that I have left the campsite a little better than I found it."
Indeed, his work and contributions reflect his positive impression.
Keck plans to become more involved with establishing a photonics and micro-systems center in Rochester -- a collaborative effort between Corning, Kodak, Xerox, State of New York and the Federal government. The center will foster a great deal of innovative work and will serve as a training ground for new scientists. And Keck will also play a motivational role in sharing the Corning research story to inspire the innovators of tomorrow.