Advice To Sink Teeth Into: Survival Tips for the Movie Monster (and Human, Too)

Advice To Sink Teeth Into: Survival Tips for the Movie Monster (and Human, Too)

An author and creative writing lecturer dispenses wisdom for aspiring writers and the monsters who inspire them.

Kathy Flann '95
Kathy Flann ’95
As new parents, Kathy Flann ’95 and her husband cherished their evenings on the couch binge-watching shows, their tastes mutually running to science-fiction, horror and all things “nerdy.”

On most nights, their viewing material was mutually enjoyed. But when it came to the critically-acclaimed AMC show “The Walking Dead,” Flann preferred to work on her own projects in another room. But the sounds—and the constant screaming—became a distraction. Then an inspiration.

“I was supposed to be writing an essay, but I was just listening all the screaming and realized… they’re terrible at this,” said Flann from her home in Baltimore, Md. “These zombies are really bad, and somebody should help them—they’re getting slaughtered! I suddenly was writing what was like an advice piece for these zombies who were doing such a bad job holding their own.”

That advice column for zombie survival expanded to include more monsters, each with their own unique set of problems, in Flann’s latest book “How to Survive A Human Attack: A Guide for Werewolves, Mummies, Cyborgs, Ghosts, Nuclear Mutants, and Other Movie Monsters.”

A creative writing lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, as well as prolific short-story author, Flann uses her lifelong fascination with movie monsters to offer compelling solutions to their supernatural plights.

One of her earliest entries to the book, titled “The Compendium of Human Repellents,” lists objects like fangs, exposed intestines and “adding them to a mass email list” as useful items for surviving an encounter with monster-hating humans.

Ultimately, “How to Survive A Human Attack” is as much an indictment of human behavior as it is a survival guide. Whether an attachment to material items makes them prime for a quick snack, or their self-assured mental supremacy leads to miscalculation, Flann has a way of exposing the absurdity of modern life the moment a monster has us cornered.

Occasionally, she also finds the beauty within the beasts. “Zombies have a capacity for appreciation of beauty that humans do not,” she writes while discussing what happens to a zombie’s head once it has been severed from the body and starts rolling down a hill.

“I don’t remember not wanting to write. Most people don’t think it’s really a job, it’s just something you like doing, but I just always loved to write, and I remember always writing stories as a kid. I think that’s how it is for a lot of people.”

Kathy Flann 95 Book
A Virginia native, Flann grew up close to Washington D.C. and earned her bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech. An interest in Southern literature at the time fueled her decision to attend Auburn for her master’s degree, and while she was committed to creative writing as a profession, it wasn’t until she came to the Plains that she found her path forward.

While pursuing her Master’s in English with a creative writing concentration, Flann benefited from a broad exposure to diverse authors and genres. Her grasp of the written word was honed under literature professor like Bert Hitchcock and creative writing professor Judy Troy, and the advice she gained as a student she applied not only to her own career, but in teaching lessons to her students.

“[My writing career] absolutely began in earnest at Auburn. Under those professors, there was that start, and the first two publications I had were the two stories for my thesis.”

One of those short stories, titled “Black Lagoon” and later published in the journal Crazy Horse, began in Troy’s classroom as an exploration of grief between two teenagers who go to see “The Creature From the Black Lagoon.” That’s when Troy told her to re-watch the original movie.

“I had seen it as a kid, but when I watched it again, she was so right—there’s so many themes in this movie that really I sort of forgotten. It’s so sad, the monster’s so lonely, he just wants a friend and he’s abducting this people off the boat because he’s all by himself. That sense of isolation is so palpable; it’s so campy, but in a way that makes it easier to see the themes.”

As an award-winning professional author Flann has published dozens of short stories, essays, poems and more, including the recent book “Write On: Secrets to Crafting Better Stories.” She also teaches full-time in the MA program in creative writing within the Advanced Academic Programs at Johns Hopkins University, passing on the tricks and tools of the trade to graduate students like she once was.

But the experience goes both ways. After working with hundreds of students on countless short stories, she says it’s comforting, in a way, knowing there’s always something new under the sun if you find how to make it your own. It’s also something of a relief to her students to learn that even published authors like herself experience writer’s block, doubt and anxiety.

It helps to be immersed around other writers, and Flann recently hosted a series of book panels— one at Writer’s LIVE! at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and another with colleague and author James Magruder at the Ivy Bookshop. She’s also appearing in the Distinguished Visiting Writers Series on November 11, at UNC Greensboro, where she earned her MFA after Auburn.

“We think of writing as a very solitary pursuit, which it is in some ways, but a book is always a collaboration to some extent, even though one person’s name might be on the cover. I’m around writers a lot, so I have the privilege to see it’s hard for a lot of people—for everyone, really. It’s weird, but it helps to struggle with people, rather than by yourself.”

Meet The Mayors

Meet The Mayors

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Two alumni from different eras—both mayors of small towns—share advice on life, work and leadership

Mayor, Jean Hood Standing in front of Winn Davis Park
Messiah Williams-Cole standing in front of Camphill Sign

AT FIRST GLANCE, it would seem they don’t have much in common. He’s Generation Z and she’s a Baby Boomer. He works in Alabama. She works in Florida. But the one thing they have in common—other than Auburn—is that they’re both mayors of small towns. Brought together for the first time, Jean Miller Hood ’70, the mayor of Cinco Bayou, Fla., and Messiah Williams-Cole ’21, the mayor of Camp Hill, Ala., spoke about how civic service changed their lives.

Jean Hood:

“I was retired as an educator, had joined the town council and had always been interested in government. How decisions made by the federal, state and even the local government impacted your classroom. So, I was very aware of the importance of having representation and people who were committed to good local government.”

A small town completely surrounded by the city of Fort Walton Beach, Cinco Bayou has 419 residents inside a half-mile territory that also fits four parks and the busiest boat launch in Okaloosa County on its namesake bayou.

When the previous mayor of Cinco Bayou stepped down in 2014, Hood became interim mayor before winning election to consecutive two-year terms in 2016, 2018 and 2020. With new term limits expanded to four years, she will serve as mayor until 2024. “People must think I’ve done a decent job at it, because I’m starting my seventh year,” she said.

Messiah Williams-Cole:

“My reason is similar to Miss Jean’s. I applied for the town council when it was vacant, didn’t get it, and that pushed me to look further into how municipalities are run. To have the impact that I wanted, I thought it would take me becoming the mayor, because we suffered from poor leadership at the top.”

The census says 900 residents, but you would think it was 400, said Williams-Cole, a Camp Hill native. Despite having a low tax base with few local jobs, it is a proud community whose residents live where they work. You can tell which employees are working by whose car is in the parking lot.

Elected mayor in his senior year at Auburn, Williams-Cole will remain in the area while earning a law school degree, giving him plenty of time to fulfill his vision for the small community. But he began his first term at an incredible disadvantage, overcoming what he calls “20 to 30 years of poor leadership.”

Picture of Messiah Williams-Cole with hands in his pockets

“My first four months were spent paying debts to people we owed, just to earn their confidence and respect. That’s breaking the mold of how things used to be. Municipalities are really creatures of habit—if a town does something wrong for so long, people begin to believe that it’s the right way.”

In one early instance, Williams-Cole terminated the Camp Hill fire chief for not providing a list of donations or details of the fire department’s expenses. The town also hadn’t contributed to the state police retirement fund since 1994, he said, causing police officers to leave the area once their contracts were up.

“In only his second week on the job, he personally drove the backhoe used to fill in a pothole on one of the town’s main roads.”

“That’s a tremendous problem when you’re dealing with someone’s retirement. That affects literally the rest of their life. You aren’t going to get quality people committed to your municipality if they don’t feel like they have a future serving your town.”

Inspiring confidence in their communities is an obstacle both have encountered. Whether it’s overcoming gross mismanagement by previous administrations—Camp Hill hadn’t had a city budget since 1992 until Williams-Cole took over—or overcoming bureaucratic negligence, it has been challenging to reach an ideal state of government.

Jean Hood standing in front of palm trees wearing blue blouse


“I was amazed—and I’m still amazed—at the amount of government red tape, for lack of a better word. All the roadblocks in your way when you try to achieve something. How much paperwork is involved that has absolutely nothing to do with it. People have a totally different view of government when [they know] it is directly responsible to [them].”

Hood’s email, phone number and address are published on Cinco Bayou’s government website so people can contact her directly, but that hasn’t stopped them from approaching her in parking lots or while grocery shopping.

A blocked delivery lane, or a low-hanging tree branch—each time, she’s prioritized their problems and solved them. “You don’t fill out a form, you don’t ask for somebody’s permission. Report a problem, and if there’s any way that we can just go out and solve it, we do,” said Hood.

Williams-Cole credits Auburn with exposing him to new ideas and different beliefs, helping him find common ground with Camp Hill’s residents. But it hasn’t been easy. Whether it’s differences of opinion, reluctance to cooperate or sheer recalcitrance, he’s had to earn residents’ trust. Sometimes, it’s by getting his hands dirty. In only his second week on the job, he personally drove the backhoe used to fill in a pothole on one of the town’s main roads.

Inspired by President Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats,” Williams-Cole started hosting monthly “Camp Hill Conversations” on Facebook Live where residents can ask him questions in real time.

“A blocked delivery lane, or a low-hanging tree branch—each time, she’s prioritized their problems and solved them. ‘You don’t fill out a form, you don’t ask for somebody’s permission. Report a problem, and if there’s any way that we can just go out and solve it, we do.”


“Last week someone asked me, ‘Can I purchase a cemetery plot at town hall?’ and I was like, ‘No, you can’t, but we’ll put you in touch with where you can.’ People honestly don’t know [to ask] until the opportunity arises. Opening up the air for questions really helps me.”

For small towns, budgets are critically important. Camp Hill won’t be able to apply for grant money until they complete three consecutive annual audits (the last one was completed in 1992), but, like Cinco Bayou, it was eligible for emergency funding through the nationwide Cares Act passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though Williams-Cole has only been able to apply Cares Act funding to the police and fire departments, Hood has used the additional funding to fix some longstanding issues that plague her community.


“I met with our county commissioner this week [to discuss] using Cares Act funds for one of our parks—which is essentially a wetland—so it handles a lot of stormwater runoff. We need some improvements to that. Some of the dollars are highly restricted, and we have to figure out what we need to accomplish, and how we can label it, so that when somebody reads it, they say, ‘Oh yeah, this qualifies.’ That’s the magic thing—you’ve got to qualify. Sometimes, it takes a little creative writing.”


“Oh yes, we were trying to buy a property for utilities, and we’re going to include that it was going to be an impound lot as well.”

Asked how they would spend a million dollars in their community, both agreed that utilities and infrastructure would come first.

Cinco Bayou borders the Gulf of Mexico, making hurricane season especially precarious, particularly with aging underground pipes that could collapse in heavy stormwater. Hood hopes that, someday, they could repair their storm drains and put their power lines underground to protect them, but recognizes it would take “an immense amount of money.”

“If I had a million dollars, $500,000 I would use to repair every pothole in the town—we’ve been having to go the cheap way by doing coal patches. Beyond that, I think the other $500,000 would be toward building something that would be symbolic for the town, like a rec center. Everything that we have—a track, a pavilion and playgrounds—is outside now, and our residents have to drive at least 10-15 minutes away to [exercise].”

Unsurprisingly, both Hood and Williams-Cole have visions for the long-term futures of their towns. Hood won’t seek reelection after her term ends in 2024, but she hopes her mayor pro tem will be elected after and will continue their shared passion for civic engagement. She still plans to participate on committees and continue working to remedy local needs.



“I just really enjoy what I’m doing. I’m retired, so that makes a tremendous difference, because I unfortunately was widowed three years ago, so at that point being mayor of this little town, in some ways, really saved my life.”


“For me personally, I want to kind of set up a voters league or some type of organization so that we can groom leaders for our community, especially older leaders. One thing we do a terrible job at in Camp Hill is that a lot of people go off [hearsay] rather than facts. I try to keep my community
informed, so if they have any questions, they can come to me or the council.

But one thing about me, I want a family—I mean I’m young, but I’m not good enough to propose to my girlfriend yet. At the end of this [mayoral] term I’ll have my [Juris Doctor], so I think I’ll be good enough then, in my eyes, to at least pop the question. I don’t know if I’ll run for another term, but I do want us to be at a place where whoever comes after me, they won’t have to go backward—it’s only building for the future.”


“I want to encourage you. You’re young, you’re starting out in an exciting career, you want to have a family—[but] at some point, you’ll face retirement and you will have time, wherever you are—big city or small city—to get back into government. You will have a huge body of experience behind you, plus knowing what you’ve faced here in your first term as mayor. Hopefully, later on in life, you will find an opportunity where you can serve again, and who knows—you may be mayor of a huge municipality and think back to the good old days, when you were just worried about paying off the police pension fund.”

Back on Track

Back on Track

An Indycar veteran helps steer Auburn engineering students to the future of autonomous cars

“You’ve never been to a race, have you?”

IT’S A QUESTION POSED WITH HUMOR by Lee Anne Patterson ’85, but she’s quick to forgive. Despite a career in professional racing spanning three decades, encompassing almost every position at a whole range of levels, there was a time when she was the new girl—or, on many occasions, the only girl—at the racetrack.

But after rising through racing’s ranks, Patterson is helping to take a crew of Auburn student engineers to the promised land—Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Auburn students will compete in the Indy Lights Autonomous Challenge this coming October, racing a self-driving Dallara Indy Lights car head-to-head around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s (IMS) 2.5-mile oval, topping speeds of 200 mph for 20 laps.

Testing has gone on throughout the summer, and though it’s a labor of love, Patterson is the only person on Auburn’s team familiar with how quickly race day can arrive.

“We have very, very hard deadlines,” said Patterson from her home in Auburn. “You can’t show up at four o’clock and say ‘I’m ready to race’—the green flag drops at noon. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t get back from the last race until midnight. Your stuff has to be ready and on that truck.”

PATTERSON GOT INVOLVED with motorsports the old fashioned way—through rock n’ roll radio. As the “Continuity chick” for Atlanta’s 96 Rock, she wrote commercials and did voiceover work—a side job she still does—but found her real calling in promotions and sponsorship.

“I fell in love with promotions, because promotions is the art of making somebody’s day. You give them tickets, they win money, you can pull people together to build a Vietnam veteran memorial for Georgia, which we did at 96 Rock, so you can do really great things with it.”

Wanting to work as a Promotions Director, she got her chance at the Sears Point Raceway (now Sonoma Raceway) in California. “It could have been pet poodle farming and I would have gone, because it was California,” she said. “My very first job was to introduce NASCAR’s Winston Cup to the San Francisco Bay area, and I had never seen a race.”

She had help from Bob Weeks, an associate of NASCAR founder “Big” Bill France Sr., who geared her up to give her first pit tours. What she lacked in experience she made up for in enthusiasm, while her “exotic” southern accent thrilled out-of-town guests. Patterson had a gift for making friends, too—on her media day, she ran into someone who looked lost.

“I said, ‘Can I help you?’ He goes, ‘I’m Michael Waltrip…I’m a driver.’ I had no clue.  Then when I’m giving the tour, guess who comes out of the hauler? I go, ‘ladies and gentlemen, this is driver Michael Waltrip!’ He looks at me like ‘you’re so full of it,’ but he comes over and gives me this big bear hug, and instant credibility.”

Patterson spent two years at Sears Point, promoting 48 events a year that included not only NASCAR events but other motorsports competitions, giving her a world-class education on racing events and promotions. She was then asked by Carroll Shelby, godfather of the Cobra and Ford Mustang, to be his series director for the Dodge Shelby Pro Series for a season.

Along the way, Patterson got married and went to Indianapolis to build a race team. Her then-husband was in charge of the vehicle’s performance and the crew, while she took over as team manager and handled everything else. For the next 20 years, she guided their team through a variety of open-wheel competitions—INDYCAR, Indy Lights, endurance races, Formula Atlantics and more.

“We built race programs sometimes running under our own name, and other times taking on the persona of others, like driver Sam Schmidt. After he was injured and became a quadriplegic, we helped him launch Sam Schmidt Motorsports and the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, which is now the Arrow McLaren SP team and Conquer Paralysis today. After twenty years of team management, I started just managing the drivers, and some of those drivers are still on the circuit today. It’s been a great ride.”

Eliseo pit tours 1999

PATTERSON’S RISE IN THE SPORT coincided with a pivotal era in racing, where increased visibility contributed to a surge in popularity and a literal wealth of opportunities—if you knew where to look.

While many in the industry viewed the word ‘sponsorship’ as stickers on cars, Patterson understood its potential in crafting a narrative as much as a good photo op. Thinking holistically, she drew a through-line from a product on a shelf to factory workers, investors, fans, drivers, pit crews and, eventually, the winner’s circle. She went into sponsor meetings asking what their goals were, and explained how her team could deliver the all-important return on investment.

A race car is the ultimate promotion vehicle, she says. It’s not just a sticker on a car, it’s about how much press you get, how many distributors increase their sales, or making employees feel better about their company.

PATTERSON LOVED SPONSORSHIP strategy so much, she would toss ideas to others. Once, she talked a sponsor for Hemelgarn racing, Tae Bo out of abandoning the team by suggesting they activate the program, host a demonstration at stores and have their driver, Buddy Lazier make an appearance for the fans.

“You could hear the lightbulb go off in his head. They had never done anything to leverage the decal on the car. Two weeks later, they announced they had moved from associate position to the title sponsor for two years.”

Over the years, she’s used race cars to promote Boston Scientific’s life-saving spinal cord stimulator, which relieved phantom-limb pain and helped amputees get off painkillers. She took a “lipstick camera” being promoted by Sony and used it to shoot behind-the-scenes footage of Filipino-American driver Michele Bumgarner. It later was edited into a “sizzle reel” that aired in every theater in the Philippines.

But her favorite day of racing—ever—was one in which she didn’t win a thing.

It was the Pikes Peak race in Colorado Springs, 1999. Patterson organized an adoption party for ‘special needs’ kids—those who were older and, thus, less likely to be matched with forever parents.

“Most adoption parties are usually clowns and face painting and balloons, and a 2-year-old looks fantastic. An 11-year-old sits on the side and says ‘this sucks,’ because he knows he can’t compete with a two year old and a clown, right?”

Working with The Adoption Exchange in Colorado Springs, the team threw a party just for the 9-16 age group on the fabled mountain racetrack. Twelve drivers showed up to hand out autographs and hugs. Sponsors contributed a whole hospitality suite of swag. Once they got to the track, the kids “came alive.”

“Our first priority was to treat them like kings and queens for a day,” recalls Patterson. “The second was that we had a system where no child had a ‘sale tag’ for a name badge. Only those hoping to adopt knew the system to see who was available and who wasn’t. They usually make one match a year in that category; at the end of the day, we made eight.”

“Owning and managing teams was by far the hardest, but it was also the greatest, because you got to compete. The whole team is a part of that, even somebody who isn’t turning wrenches like me.”

IN THE RACING WORLD, most people work for a team, for the sanctioning body or for the track—very few experience “the trifecta,” as Patterson has. All three groups must work in concert for the sport to happen, each with their own unique challenges.

“Out of all the jobs I’ve done, owning and managing teams was by far the hardest, but it was also the greatest, because you got to compete,” said Patterson. “Everybody that’s on the team is a part of that, even somebody who isn’t turning wrenches like me.”

Never a big team with ample resources like Andretti or Penske, Patterson’s responsibilities included everything from FIA paperwork to managing sponsorships, designing the team’s uniforms, handling their paychecks and booking travel, in addition to directing all public relations and good-cause marketing events.

“I took care of pretty much everything except performance of the car—from the media center, to the hospitality suite to the pit box where I monitored raced control. I also dealt with paying for all the parts. I once spent $85 on a single bolt. I assumed it had to be a fantastic bolt, so I went out to the shop just to see it. It was a hand-fabricated, custom-built bolt.”

The Andretti Autosport team had a more cars and a full-time staff of six handling the same responsibilities as her, but looking back, being so involved was part of the fun. Whether it was figuring out if the “talent” (the driver) was gifted or just a cruise and collect or taking care of corporate sponsors, she never shied from doing what needed to be done.

“Ma’am, she’s the boss lady.”

THAT RAN COUNTER to the norms of the time, where women weren’t allowed inside the pits or the garage, let alone managing their own team. Once, during a stop in Las Vegas, Patterson and the crew were sitting in a diner when the waitress, eyeing their uniforms, asked who they were.  They first teased that they were a bowling team. After a laugh, she turned to Patterson.

“She looks at me and goes, ‘Oh, you must be the secretary,’ and the guys busted out laughing.  Our tire man John said, ‘ma’am, she’s the boss lady.”

Some scoffed at a woman leading a race team, but for others, she was an inspiration. She still recalls the grandmother who sought her out after enjoying garage tour at the Phoenix race to tell her how proud she was of Patterson, to see a woman give a tour and be in that position.  For many years there women weren’t allowed in the garages; she never had the opportunity to even peek inside.

“She had tears in her eyes.”

But Patterson is quick to give credit where it’s due. The women pioneers of racing before her, like Janet Guthrie, Anita Millican, Vicki O’Connor, Alexa Leras and more are the shoulders she stands on. Now, thirty years later, the Auburn Indy Lights race team has a higher percentage of women on its roster than anyone else in the competition.

The Dallara AV-21 with a driver cockpit full of computer and sensors

“This is going to push the boundaries. It’s not about creating a driverless race series, this is about advancing autonomous technology and building consumer confidence.”

FOR PATTERSON, the return to competition, especially at the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), ‘the World Capital of Racing,’ is like coming home. “I can’t believe I moved to Auburn and Auburn is running a race at Indy.  You can’t make this up.” No one on the team has ever raced, much less at the Speedway. Having Patterson’s knowledge and resources will be a help to the team as they venture into the unknown.

The Indy Lights Autonomous Challenge is a competition where teams race a self-driving Dallara Indy Lights car head-to-head around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval at top speed nearing 200mph for 20 laps—well short of 500 miles, but a daunting stretch for current autonomous technology.

“Autonomous technology is stuck at 35 miles an hour, and it can’t take a left in front of oncoming traffic,” Patterson said. “This is going to push the boundaries.  It’s not about creating a driverless race series, this is about advancing autonomous technology and building consumer confidence.”

The first competition rounds included white papers, passenger vehicle performance and race simulations against other teams, with the focus on software—each Indy Lights car is built to spec and specially equipped with the latest vehicle sensors, computer vision cameras and radar.

The Auburn Autonomous Tiger Racing team, after three rounds of competition, is in the Top 3. Because of visa restrictions on international teams, Auburn was asked to handle the initial testing for all the teams during the first on-track run in early June.

The second official test is scheduled at the Speedway late August—early September, and final qualification runs will be hosted October 19–22 with the official race on October 23, 2021 at the IMS track.

Auburn may even get some unexpected assistance from new head Football Coach Bryan Harsin, an avid racer who personally has his own Alcohol Funny Car competition license.

On the dragstrip, he has reached speeds in excess of 220mph. Harsin’s racing knowledge will benefit the team, Patterson said.

This challenge will be great to showcase the talents of the students as they seek careers, for establishing Auburn University as a leader in autonomous technology, and even for the autonomous driving industry.

“Anytime you get to race a car at Indy it’s special–with or without a driver,” said Patterson. “It’s a thrill for me to introduce my Auburn family to a sport that has been so good to me. Zoom, Zoom…and War Eagle!”

watch The indy autonomous challenge october 23, 2021



Learn more about the challenge

Electrical Engineering’s “Coach” on a Lifetime of Leadership

Electrical Engineering’s “Coach” on a Lifetime of Leadership

Dave Irwin ’61 has been a department head, a textbook writer and a mentor to thousands of influential engineers, but wasn’t satisfied until he shared his secret to success
Dave Irwin 61
It all began when J. David Irwin sat in Auburn’s engineering lab in 1959 as an undergraduate student. His classmates sat beside him, brows furrowed as the professor taught their basic circuits coursework, but in his free time, Irwin tutored them so they could pass their exams.

“I realized that what I enjoyed most was helping people understand something, whatever it was,” said Irwin from his office In Auburn.

As a teacher, Irwin defined his success by the level of impact he had on his students’ lives. Pouring his heart out to his students, he had a desire to write about his key to success—helping others to the best of one’s ability—and began the nearly 50-year process of writing his recently published book, “Practical and Inspirational Guidelines for Winning.”

But Irwin didn’t always want to be a teacher. At 14 Irwin began working at a radio shop in Montgomery, Ala., which sparked his interest in becoming an amateur radio operator. He was on a different wavelength than many of his middle school peers, learning the mechanics of his transmitters and receivers while his friends spent their afternoons playing baseball games and going to football practice.

“When I was in the electrical business as a teenager, there was no doubt in my mind of what I was going to do with my life,” Irwin said.

And when he came to Auburn to study electrical engineering, Irwin’s background as an amateur radio operator allowed him to understand the material faster than his classmates. He started tutoring his peers before his exams and soon found his “life calling” as a teacher.

After Irwin moved to Knoxville to get his master’s and Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee, his first assignment as a graduate teaching assistant was to teach in laboratories. After one year of graduate school, he was made an electrical engineering instructor and led his own classes.

“I realized that I loved being in a classroom,” said Irwin. “I decided at that time that I would pursue a teaching career.”

Dave Irwin 61
Irwin still loved to teach students, even while head of the Electrical Engineering Department
After receiving his doctorate, he moved to Holmdel, New Jersey to work at Bell Telephone Laboratories and, after only 18 months on the job, became a supervisor. But even while working in the industry he loved, he was still conscious of gaining real-life experiences to share with future students when he became a professor. After two and a half years in New Jersey, Irwin returned to his alma mater to teach.

Irwin was nicknamed ‘coach’ by the electrical engineering students he took under his wing. He knew hundreds by their names, and Auburn’s engineering department began to flourish as students grew with their professor. Irwin was living his dream, but he wanted to teach his students more than just electrical engineering. He wanted to teach them about how to be successful, regardless of their career.

“I was prompted by the good Lord to write this one book,” he said.

When the Electrical Engineering Department’s head position became vacant in 1973, Irwin was chosen to fill it based on his proven leadership skills. Writing his book fell off his list of priorities and sat unfinished on his shelf collecting dust.

He spent the next 36 years rebuilding the department from the ground up, becoming one of the longest-serving department heads in Auburn’s history. Irwin wasn’t a professor anymore, but he still authored or co-authored nine textbooks and served as editor-in-chief of the international engineering journal, the IEEE Transactions on Industrial Electronics, in addition to building an internationally-awarded program at Auburn.

Through this international platform Irwin’s activities reached hundreds of thousands of electrical engineers and began to impact the field as a whole. The world began to notice.

In 2010, the IEEE Industrial Electronics Society created the J. David Irwin Early Career Award in recognition of his many contributions to the development of young professionals around the world. Irwin—who was already a Fellow of three professional societies—was selected as a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors in 2020.

“This is a fitting recognition for Dave’s accomplishments in conducting pioneering research and driving the development of new technologies in the field of electrical and computer engineering,” said Christopher B. Roberts, Dean of the Ginn College of Engineering.

After 36 years, Irwin decided best thing he could do for his beloved ECE program was to step down as department head and make way for a successor with fresh ideas. Dr. Mark Nelms, co-author of one of Irwin’s textbooks, was named the new department head in 2009 and recognized the big shoes he had to fill.

“He raised the visibility of the ECE program substantially through his leadership,” said Nelms. “He hired new faculty, and then mentored and supported their development.”

The ECE department had changed since 1973 when Irwin became its head as a young professor with a hunger to teach. He gave away his classroom, but not his call to teach—and taught as often as possible when he had time. His students had changed from a 30-person classroom to thousands of textbook readers around the globe.

As he left his role as department head, more than half of Auburn’s ECE faculty had been named Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Fellows—a statistic that some of the most prestigious engineering programs cannot claim for themselves.

Experiences from raising three children, developing an internationally-acclaimed department and writing textbooks had proved that a life focused on “leaving others better than you found them” is a key to a life of winning. His proof is the thousands of engineers he taught that are now leaders in the engineering world themselves.

“Dave’s textbook and other educational materials have provided the fundamental electrical engineering concepts to numerous engineers around the world, making his impact on the engineering profession quite significant,” Nelms said.

For the first time in 36 years, Irwin allowed himself to slow down, and he saw his dusty, unfinished book sitting on his shelf. He had never stopped thinking about it, and he still felt like he needed to write the book that had nothing to do with engineering circuits.

As he flipped through the pages he had written over three decades earlier, he saw that the lessons he learned as a young professor had been the solid foundation that he built his department upon. His ‘keys for success’ had stood the test of time.

“Decades later, the basic principles were the same,” said Irwin, “but I was able to put in new material about recent issues and experiences I’ve had.”

Irwin’s office is still at the top of Broun Hall, and a table sits where his students meet with their part-time professor. He spends the quiet moments typing away on new textbooks and revisions to old ones, but the “one book” that he waited his life to write has already been written.


Dave Irwin with his recently published book
Irwin with his book “Inspirational and Practical Guidelines for Winning”
Alphonso Thomas ’84

Alphonso Thomas ’84

Alphonso Thomas, Director of Engineering and Technical Management, Air Force Sustainment Center

Alphonso Thomas '84

I started Auburn in 1977 as a math major on a Navy ROTC scholarship and marched in the band. I also was with the Auburn Knights Orchestra.

 I dropped out after one quarter and enlisted in the Air Force as a musician (saxophone). After four years, returned to Auburn on an Air Force scholarship and earned my bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering (EE) in 1984 and was commissioned as an officer in the Air Force. Left active duty in 1992 and eventually returned to the Air Force as a Civilian in 1996. Earned my Masters in EE in 2004.

Fast forward, now I’m director of engineering for the Air Force Sustainment Center, which includes Robins AFB in Georgia, Tinker AFB in Oklahoma and Hill AFB in Utah. I have lived and worked at Maxwell AFB, Ala; Ramstein AB, Germany; Los Angeles AFB, Calif.; Hanscom AFB (near Boston), Mass.; Robins AFB, Georgia; Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio; Rome, N.Y.; Tinker AFB (near Oklahoma City), Okla.