Jerry Dobrovolny BSGED 1943 (1922-2017): The spirit of ISE

Charlotte Collins and Madeleine Hubbard

Jerry Dobrovolny was the most influential force behind the building of the General Engineering Department, where ISE has its oldest roots. His achievements as an engineer warrant recognition on their own, but his enduring commitment to General Engineering is what cements his place in ISE's family.

He started his career at Illinois as an undergraduate student in General Engineering Drawing (which would become General Engineering, and is now known as Systems Engineering and Design in ISE) and he never truly left the University. After earning his BS in 1943, he went on to graduate with a MS in Mechanical Engineering in 1948. He secured a position in General Engineering Drawing, which became the department and curriculum of General Engineering.

Jerry served as General Engineering department head from 1959 to 1987. 

Department head Dr. Rakesh Nagi says Dobrovolny's influence on the department is immeasureable.

"He was a true leader for this department," says Nagi. "You don't lead [something] for 30 years without caring for it deeply."

Dobrovolny grew up on the east side of Chicago, the son of Czechoslovakian immigrants Stanley Dobrovolny and Mary (Barone) Dobrovolny. Despite not speaking English when he started elementary school, his inherent understanding of mathmatics guided his studies and astounded his teachers. In high school, his ability to work with numbers led to his instructors petitioning his parents to allow Dobrovolny to attend the University of Illinois.

His daughter, Janet Dobrovolny, says his parents had taught him a trade to prepare him for the working world, raised in the height of the Great Depression. 

"My grandfather was a tailor and thought his son should do something that would allow him to make a living," says Janet. "How could they possibly have known?"

The efforts of Dobrovolny's teachers to enroll him at Illinois succeeded. He joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps and taught dance lessons "to make money and meet girls," according to Janet.

In 1942, he enrolled in a 2-year ROTC program in the Corps of Engineers. After falling ill and being discharged, Dobrovolny returned to Champaign. He had made plans to move out west to California with his parents, but the department asked him to teach an engineering drawing class to army recruits. He couldn't refuse.

Dobrovolny is known throughout ISE faculty and alumni as a primary engineer of the department. One of the first things Dobrovolny did when he became department head was reorganize the department's committee structure and urge faculty members to contact funding agencies for research grants. He went on to develop the Secondary Field Option for General Engineering, started an Engineering Honors Society, and launched the ISE Senior Engineering Program in 1961—possibly the first Senior Engineering Program ever implemented. Engineering programs across the country have since modeled their programs after Illinois' Senior Engineering Program. 

In 1960, Dobrovolny created a Summer Science Training Program (SSTP) for high school students that had finished their junior year. SSTP was a six week summer institute at Illinois for 40 outstanding high school students. In 1969, Dobrovolny started the first Minority Introduction to Engineering (MITE) program, a two week program aimed at preparing black high school students for college. MITE served as a model for colleges throughout the United States. The effects of these programs are felt years later in the increased number of students. He also wrote A History of the Department of General Engineering (1868-1995) and went on to put out multiple editions of it. 

He also chaired a number of Senate committees, including the Military Education Council, for seven years. From 1986 to 1992, he served on the NROTC Association of Schools and Colleges Executive Committee which advised the admiral overseeing the NROTC program.

Throughout his career, he accumulated over 90 engineering awards. Dobrovolny officially retired in 1987, but he never truly left. The Jerry Dobrovolny scholarship was established in his honor for a student in the GE Department with leadership abilities and academic skill. 

The Jerry S. Dobrovolny Distinguished Professorship Fund was launched in 2016 to continue his legacy at ISE. 

His daughter Janet well knows Dobrovolny put his heart into ISE. "He spent his whole adult lifetime creating this department," says Janet. "He wanted it to live on for a very long time."

His name and spirit will live on in the department always.

For those who would like to commemorate Jerry, the family suggests donations be given to Professor Dobrovolny’s scholarship fund, to help assist engineering students. All gifts made to the fund will be matched one-to-one by the Grainger Foundation. Checks payable to: “U of I Foundation” in care of

The Jerry S. Dobrovolny Scholarship Fund
ISE Department
104 South Mathews Avenue
Urbana, IL 61801

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