Woodie Flowers, Who Made Science a Competitive Sport, Dies at 75


“And for the most part, students in 2.70 took pride in teaching others what they’d learned,” he added, “sharing the results of their experiments, sharing ideas. No one thumbed their nose at someone they just beat. It was much more common for a 22-year-old male to give another a hug after his machine just trounced the other.”

Woodie Claude Flowers (he was named after two grandfathers) was born on Nov. 18, 1943, in Jena, La. His mother, Bertie Graham Flowers, was an elementary-school teacher who later taught special education. His father, Aber Lafayette Flowers, known as Abe, was a welder and inventor.

His father instilled in Woodie a passion for tinkering by letting him help on countless projects, including building a hot-rod car from parts of another vehicle. “I learned as much engineering from my father as I did in engineering school,” he said. His mother taught him a love for nature and reading.

With few financial options, he did not originally see college as part of his plans. “I was going to get a job in an oil field and buy a Corvette,” he told Technology Review.

But an attentive high school teacher suggested that he might be able to go to college on a scholarship for physically disabled students: A childhood fall from a tree had left him with a misshapen elbow and an arm that he was never able to straighten. Following that advice, he applied for and received a scholarship to Louisiana Tech University.

There he met Margaret Weas, a fellow engineering student, whom he married in 1967. She became a lifelong collaborator and colleague in all his academic endeavors. The couple had no children, but, she said in an interview, “the M.I.T. kids and the FIRST kids were his children.”

He went on to M.I.T. for both his master’s and his Ph.D. and joined its faculty in 1972.

Professor Flowers’s insatiable curiosity took him along an eclectic mix of paths — and not just on wheels, as he liked to use now and then to get around at M.I.T. He became an avid nature photographer, attended trapeze school, took polo lessons and learned to scuba dive, sky-dive and drive racecars, almost all with his wife as a participating partner.

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