OXFORD, Miss. – Familiar to hundreds of University of Mississippi engineering students and colleagues as a thoughtful engineering professor, researcher and administrator, James P. Chambers was known to countless more across the region as a helpful consultant and enthusiastic volunteer for schools, churches, community groups and Scouting organizations.
Chambers, 47, died early Sunday (March 13) in a fire at his home in Oxford. He was associate dean for research and graduate programs in the UM School of Engineering, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and a senior research scientist at the university’s National Center for Physical Acoustics.
He often went “above and beyond” in both his teaching and research and in various off-campus projects, said Alice Clark, UM vice chancellor for university relations, who worked with Chambers for several years as the university’s vice chancellor for research and sponsored programs.
“No matter the circumstances, Jim could always be counted on to do the right thing, with civility, generosity and consideration for everyone,” Clark said. “Above all else, Jim lived his life in service to others, using his intellect, humor, kindness and optimism to teach and mentor students and colleagues and to tackle important research questions. He was a model for us all.”
A memorial service honoring Chambers’ life is set for 4 p.m. Tuesday (March 22) at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts. A reception will follow at The Inn at Ole Miss. Visitation is set for 4 to 7 p.m. Monday (March 21) at Waller Funeral Home. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Yocona Area Council of Boy Scouts of America.
Known for wearing Hawaiian shirts nearly year-round, he regularly bought cases of Girl Scout cookies and Boy Scout popcorn to distribute to colleagues, students and friends as gifts. Chambers often used humor in his presentations and classroom lectures, and he was an avid fan of Georgia Tech and Ole Miss athletics.
Alex Cheng, dean of the UM School of Engineering, praised Chambers as a faculty member and administrator.
“He was an outstanding teacher, outstanding researcher, a most generous colleague who shared his resources, particularly with young faculty, and served as associate dean for the school,” Cheng said. “Sometimes I wonder how could he do so many things, and at ease. Jim has touched so many people in so many ways. I cannot imagine we can ever recover from the loss.”
An accomplished scientist, Chambers seemed most comfortable working with students of all ages, said Josh Gladden, director of the university’s National Center for Physical Acoustics and interim vice chancellor for research and sponsored programs.
“Jim had a passion for working with students from middle school to graduate school,” Gladden said. “He guided thesis work and organized engineering summer camps – my daughter personally benefited from one. He enthusiastically recruited talented students to participate in research at NCPA with an understanding of the mutual benefit.
“Jim’s Hawaiian shirts, positive attitude and depth of experience will be sorely missed by all of us.”
A native of Silver Spring, Maryland, Chambers earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, graduating summa cum laude, in 1990 from Georgia Tech, where he was a member of Phi Kappa Tau fraternity. He earned his doctorate in mechanical engineering from the school and was a Hertz Foundation fellow and an E.I. DuPont fellow as a graduate student.
“Jim was one of the best, if not the very best, undergraduate student at Georgia Tech in mechanical engineering in his graduating class,” said Yves Berthelot, vice provost for international initiatives and the Steven A. Denning Chair in Global Engagement at the school. “He took one of my senior classes, and I actively recruited him to pursue a doctoral program under my guidance. I remember vividly his charm, wit, intelligence and easygoing ability to connect easily with everyone.”
Chambers’ doctoral thesis dealt with outdoor sound propagation, specifically looking at diffraction and scattering effects caused by rough surfaces.
He joined UM in 1994 as a postdoctoral research associate at the acoustics center. He worked on several projects, including the development of an acoustic scanner to help catfish farmers count fish in their ponds faster and more accurately than conventional methods allow. He also worked with colleagues at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Mississippi State University to analyze sounds catfish make while spawning to help farmers improve spawning rates.
He also used his expertise to help community groups with sound problems in auditoriums and church sanctuaries. Organizations for which he provided free consultation include the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, the Prentiss County Courthouse, College Hill Heights Baptist Church in Oxford and the United Methodist Church in Charleston.
Chambers proved himself as an administrator while serving as interim director of NCPA in 2010-12.
“One weekend in 2011, when Jim was interim director, Oxford received a series of heavy rains,” Gladden recalled. “The NCPA roof used to leak terribly. Without a second thought, Jim came in late on a Saturday night to set out trash cans to catch the many leaks. He didn’t delegate. He didn’t hesitate. He just saw a need and filled it.”
Colleagues enjoyed collaborating with Chambers on projects. Dan Costley, a research engineer with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, first met Chambers in graduate school at Georgia Tech, where they shared an office and laboratory with two other students.
“He had a keen intellect and was very disciplined in his studies,” Costley said. “Our paths have crossed a few times since then, and recently we had the opportunity to work closely together. He still had the same outgoing personality, a stranger to no one. He was full of enthusiasm and had an infectious laugh and quick wit. I found him to be a very selfless collaborator.”
Chambers often volunteered as an instructor at Camp Yocona in Pontotoc County, teaching Electronics and Robotics merit badges and helping with other STEM-related activities. He also provided computer support to area Cub Scouts packs for their Pinewood Derby races and occasionally camped with Boy Scout Troop 146, even though he often joked that camping was “staying at anything less than a four-star hotel.”
“Dr. Chambers was so much more than a supportive Scouting husband; he was a dedicated volunteer and always the first to offer his knowledge and expertise to further the education and advancement of our Scouts,” said David Rogers, district director for the Yocona Area Council. “He served in several different capacities, including committee member, crew adviser and STEM merit badge counselor, to name a few.
“Dr. Chambers piloted the Robotics merit badge program at Camp Yocona and was especially interested in Pinewood Derby racing, always willing to offer Cub Scouts a solid, scientific approach to building and racing Pinewood Derby cars. Dr. Chambers has been an enormous resource for the council and we will greatly miss his dedication, quick wit and willingness to help.”
Survivors include Chambers’ wife of 25 years, Julie Morris Chambers of Oxford, sons William Chambers and Philip Chambers; his mother, Suzanne Chambers of Silver Spring, Maryland; brothers Ed Chambers of Frederick, Maryland, and Matthew Chambers of Alexandria, Virginia; sisters Barbara Chambers McGolrick of Rockville, Maryland, Mary Chambers Straub of Glenelg, Maryland, Cecelia Chambers Ganon of Laurel, Maryland, and Jenny Chambers Froh of Ellicott City, Maryland; four nieces and eight nephews.
He was preceded in death by his father, Edward F. Chambers, and a brother, Tommy Chambers.