The lasting legacy of Emeritus Professor T.W. von Backström
The Mechanical and Mechatronic department remembers and mourns the loss of Emeritus Prof Theo, also fondly known as “Prof Bakkies” our teacher, mentor, researcher and chairman from 1984 to 2021. Over the past 37 years, M&M has tangibly benefitted from this beloved man and how he stepped into the shoes of the various roles he was tasked to walk in. It is a timeline highlighted by precision, inquisitiveness, interest, and a persistence to see others learn and succeed. To many of us he was a friend – a legend behind the wheel of his beloved Land Cruiser, a humble man striding on the pavements of Stellenbosch on his way to work.
We might never really know or be acknowledged for what we do outside the scope of our work until in retrospect our legacy is illuminated by the timeline we leave after departing. Such is the legacy of Prof Theo von Backström.
What is the magical formula that drives change? We see the answer to this is courage, the ability to reframe a problem and the sense of urgency to manage that change until implemented. Looking at the timeline of education in South Africa and where Prof von Backström was at moments of great transformation we see he was filling important roles, fearlessly leading change.
At the time of significant change in 1986, our University needed strong, unbiased leadership to evolve to a new inclusive and diversified campus and curriculum. This was the year Prof von Backström was first elected as the Chairman to lead, manage and guide M&M. In 1992 when a new Curriculum Model for Education in South Africa was issued, Prof Theo was again called to be the chair in the Department (1992, 1994, 1996-1998). During this time, he was a member of the Stellenbosch University Curriculum Committee, aligning tertiary education with the model provided by National Education. He went on to serve towards an inclusive education system by being a member of the Strategic Planning Committee (1999 – 2000), the Education Committee (1999 – 2005) and years later led education to where we find ourselves today, by being the Faculty representative of the E-campus forum.
A Professional Engineer with the statutory body, ECSA, since 1971, Prof Theo not only himself met the requisite professional criteria, students often left his office after their supervisory meetings looking ‘humbled’. He enforced thorough research, clear sightedness and awareness that engineers are in service of excellence to all of humankind. He stayed on top of the ever-changing world with research. He was a member of the Stellenbosch University Research Advisory Committee in 1986 and 1997 and Faculty representative on the Senate Research subcommittee in 2004/5. As a mentor, Prof Bakkies imparted how things should be ‘done right’. This moral ethic and discipline is likely a remnant of his time as a pilot. You could always count on his chuckle, followed by a kind-hearted rectification where you fumble and affirmation that you can get it right… and all the while you are convinced that he was enjoying teaching you – and enjoyed to learn himself. He spoke fondly of his students – relished in his travels with them to places all over the world and marvelled at their ability to order an Uber… something he laughingly left to the ‘younger generation’. He would say: “Ek kom net saam” – meaning, I am coming along – the signature of a man who relished life and trusted the next generation.
After his retirement he continued work as a Senior Researcher in his fields of specialty, Renewable Energy and Turbomachinery, again he was a catalyst educator, building a bridge between nuclear and renewable energy. He supervised Masters and PhD students while publishing research papers in world-renowned journals.
From this little bit of information about Prof Theo, we sense that the groundwork at M&M was laid by a formidable man, small in stature but great in courage. We will miss his quirkiness, his consistent courageous spirit but above all his wisdom.
We thank his wife and family for sharing him with us. With gratitude for what he meant to education, in particular for our Department and as a colleague and friend, we wish Prof von Backström an eternal and peaceful rest.