Walter L. Robb, Penn State alumnus and philanthropist, remembered

Jamie Oberdick
March 31, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State and the College of Engineering faculty, staff and students are mourning the loss of alumnus and longtime supporter Walter L. Robb, who died on March 23, at age 91 from complications from COVID-19 in Schenectady, New York.

Robb was born on April 25, 1928, in New Bloomfield. He left his hometown at age 17 to attend Penn State, initially with dreams of becoming a sportscaster. He soon switched majors to engineering and received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Penn State in 1948. He received his doctoral degree in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois in 1951.

After receiving his doctoral degree, Robb joined General Electric (GE). He served 42 years in various positions before retiring as its senior vice president for corporate research and development in 1993. Prior to this position, Robb led GE’s medical imaging business into a $1.6 billion enterprise with more than 10,000 employees globally. Under his management, GE introduced computer tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners that are now established as the standards in diagnostic imaging.

In 1993, he received the National Medal of Technology from former President Bill Clinton for his leadership in the CT and MRI imaging industry. He also served on the council of the National Academy of Engineering and received 12 patents dealing with permeable membranes and separation processes.

In retirement, Robb owned two minor league sports franchises, and served on the board of Double H Ranch, a retreat for developmentally disabled and terminally ill children started by philanthropist Charles R. Wood and actor Paul Newman. A ski slope at the facility, Robb Run, is named after him and his wife, Anne, in gratitude for more than $1 million in donations.

Robb’s legacy at Penn State is manifold. He was one of the University’s most generous donors, having endowed two scholarships as well as the chair for the head of the Department of Chemical Engineering.

“I had the great privilege of getting to know Walt during his visits to campus and through phone calls and email exchanges,” said Phillip Savage, head of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Walter L. Robb Family Endowed Chair. “He was an inspiring example, both in engineering and in life, and a tremendous friend of our department and a great ambassador for Penn State.”

Robb also provided financial support and an endowment to the Engineering Leadership Development (ELD) program, housed in the Penn State School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs. ELD focuses on helping students develop leadership skills needed to excel in an engineering career.

“The commitment Walt made to future engineering leaders was transformational,” said Mike Erdman, retired Walter L. Robb Director of Engineering Leadership Development. “Walt was a strong proponent of the program, not only with financial support, but also sharing his time giving invited lectures, serving on our advisory board and providing feedback on our curriculum.”

In addition, Robb was a founding member of the College of Engineering’s Leonhard Center Advisory Board and was part of the Alumni Council during the construction of the Hintz Family Alumni Center. This includes a key role in raising needed funds for the Center, both by his personal gifts and contacting multiple significant donors. Robb Hall, an event venue that is part of the Center, was named in honor of his work.

For his dedicated efforts to his alma mater, in 1987 Robb was honored with Penn State’s Distinguished Alumni Award, the highest recognition the University bestows on its graduates. In 2014, he was named a recipient of the College of Engineering’s Outstanding Engineering Alumni award. He is also a recipient of the University of Illinois Alumni Achievement Award and the President’s Medallion.

In addition to Anne, his wife, Robb is survived by their three sons and five grandchildren. This includes two granddaughters who are Penn State alumnae, Kelsey Robb, a 2013 graduate in advertising, and Kyle Robb, a 2016 graduate in mathematics. Contributions in Robb's memory can be made to the Walter L. Robb Excellence Fund for Engineering Leadership Development in the College of Engineering at https://raise.psu.edu/RobbExcellenceFund.

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Last Updated April 07, 2020