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”