James C. Wyant, a 1965 alumnus who transformed lives as an academic, entrepreneur and philanthropist, died Friday after fighting Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)—the neurodegenerative condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 80 years old.
“Jim Wyant believed passionately in the power of universities to advance discoveries and open opportunities for students,” President Eric W. Kaler said. “He demonstrated that conviction through his leadership as a scholar and inventor, and also with his support of athletics and innovation on our campus. His legacy at Case Western Reserve will live on in the generations of students who benefit from his contributions.”
The roots of Wyant’s support for intercollegiate athletics date back to his second day as a student, when a stranger approached him and a few friends at the local Howard Johnson’s restaurant. Eyeing the 18-year-old’s 5’8”, 140-pound frame, the man said he expected to see Wyant at the cross country team’s first practice later that week. When Wyant didn’t show, Coach Bill Sudeck called him that night.
“He said ‘you missed the first practice,’” Wyant later recalled. “‘I’ll see you tomorrow. You better show up.’”
Wyant attended the next practice, and dozens more. He earned four letters each in cross country and track, later crediting the coach for instilling a passion for physical fitness that continued throughout his life. Wyant’s first major gift to Case Western Reserve named the university’s outdoor track for his legendary coach; two years later, he made a $4 million commitment to establish the Wyant Field House and Wellness Center, followed by another $2 million to expand the space by 15,000 feet.
That same year, he pledged $3 million to Sears think[box] for what is now known as the Wyant Collaboration Floor. In subsequent years he endowed two professorships, as well as the position of the university’s director of athletics.
“Coach Sudeck’s persistence gave me the opportunity to learn invaluable lessons from sports,” Wyant told The Daily in 2014, “and my professors provided an essential academic foundation for my life’s work. I am delighted to give back to my university, and to the students here now and in the future.”
A visionary academic and innovator
One of those professors was Richard (Dick) Hoffman, who taught a fall semester lab in Wyant’s senior year. In the very first session, Hoffman aimed a helium-neon laser toward a cloudy pane of glass.
“It was the first time in my life I had ever seen a laser,” Wyant recounted in a 2020 interview. When its light passed through the glass, “I saw this stapler and [it] looked so real I tried to grab it—but of course it wasn’t there.”
Determined to learn more about the science behind holograms, Wyant enrolled at the University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics, earning his doctorate within four years. After five years in the private sector, he learned of an opportunity to teach at the University of Arizona’s Optical Sciences Center. Five years later, he was a tenured full professor.
Despite this rapid progress as a faculty member, Wyant yearned for more. He’d long had an inventive bent—even turning his undergraduate dorm room desk into a work bench. Now he was advancing his early work in interferometry—an exceptionally precise approach to measurement that uses waves, usually those created by light. As he refined his designs to increase the accuracy of the device, he and a colleague decided to form a company to bring it to market.
In 1982, they founded WYKO (using the first two letters of each of their last names). Before long, it dominated the industry, and Wyant had to scale back his faculty responsibilities to become WYKO’s president.
“For me, this was an unbelievable experience,” Wyant wrote in a book chapter, “that was more fun than I ever dreamed anything could be.”
Fifteen years later, Wyant and his colleagues sold WYKO, and he returned full time to his academic duties at the University of Arizona. In 1999, he became director of the university’s Optical Science Center, quickly securing accreditation for its undergraduate program, increasing the number of faculty and catalyzing dramatic growth in enrollments.
In 2002, Wyant co-founded 4D Technology Corp., which remains in operation to this day. This time, Wyant continued his teaching and advising duties, mentoring 34 doctoral students and 25 master’s students to graduation.
He also believed the center should become its own college, and began working with the institution’s provost and president on a plan. In 2005, the center became a college, with Wyant as its founding dean. The 2007 opening of a 47,000-square-foot addition to one of its buildings allowed it to dramatically increase research and significantly increase distance learning offerings. That same year, Wyant won election to the National Academy of Engineering.
In 2012, Wyant stepped down as dean and took emeritus faculty status the following year. He later made significant commitments to scholarships and endowed faculty positions at the University of Arizona. He also received multiple honors from professional societies that recognized Wyant’s achievements, inventions, entrepreneurship and service.
In 2010, Wyant became a Case Western Reserve trustee and, in 2016, his colleagues elected him as board chair. In 2020, he received an honorary degree from CWRU, as well as the University Medal, the highest honor the institution bestows, in recognition of “exceptional leadership, dedication, and service to the university, to higher education and to society.”
Wyant is survived by his wife, Tammy, and son, Clair. His first wife, Louise, preceded him in death.