RI co-founder Tom Murrin: 1929-2012

For a man who described himself as a "thick-skulled, occasionally dumb-witted" kid from the East Side of New York City, Tom Murrin did more than OK.


Murrin, who died Jan. 30 at age 82, rose through the ranks of the former Westinghouse Electric Corp. from the factory floor to the executive suite before taking a top position in the U.S. Department of Commerce. He later served as dean of Duquesne University's business school. A graduate of Fordham University, where he played football for the legendary coach Vince Lombardi, Murrin first came to Pittsburgh in 1951 to take a job as a manufacturing and materials engineer in a Westinghouse plant. He remained with the company for the next 36 years.

In the late 1970s, Murrin was worried that the United States was losing its technological and industrial leadership. In interviews and editorials, he argued that American colleges were not producing enough graduates interested in science and technology careers. As president of Westinghouse's Public Systems division, Murrin was in a position to do something about that. In 1979, Murrin joined with CMU's Raj Reddy and Angel Jordan to found the Robotics Institute, arranging a $3 million research grant to the university from Westinghouse Electric, then a $7.4 billion Pittsburgh-based conglomerate.

Dedicated in December 1980, the Robotics Institute initially focused on such industrial projects as Westinghouse's automated "Factory of the Future," which was installed at the corporation's turbine plant in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1981. But RI research quickly moved into many other areas, including computer vision, autonomous navigation, healthcare and medicine, and remote exploration and sensing of dangerous and distant environments, including space travel. "We owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Murrin for his vision and for his leadership," says Matt Mason, current director of the Robotics Institute. "He had a profound effect on this university and on the growth of robotics in general."

Murrin, an admirer of "total quality management" and a staunch advocate for Japanese industrial principles for improving quality and productivity, was widely believed to be a candidate to become Westinghouse's next chairman. But when he was passed over for promotion (Murrin believed his blunt, no-nonsense style had offended too many people over the years), he retired. President George H.W. Bush named him deputy secretary of commerce in 1989. 

Two years later, Murrin became dean of Duquesne University's business school, where he also taught a graduate-level course called "Executive Insights into Contemporary Global Issues." Former Duquesne President John Murray told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Murrin's classes were always crowded: "These were unique in America. Nobody was offering these classes because they were really Murrin 101." Murrin stepped down as dean in 2000, but continued to teach until 2006, when he retired from DU as a distinguished service professor.

A fellow of the National Academy of Engineering and a former chairman of Duquesne's board of trustees as well as Fordham's board of directors, Murrin is survived by his wife of 60 years, Dee; seven daughters; one son; 12 grandchildren and a great-grandson.
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Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 | jt3y@cs.cmu.edu