Scientist, Jamal Mashburn to be honored at University of Kentucky graduation

Robert Milton Huffaker
Robert Milton Huffaker

Robert Milton Huffaker grew up outside of Monticello and attended Wayne County High School, where the idea of becoming a scientist first occurred to him.

"I think I read every book in the library there," he said.

He started out at Georgetown College, then transferred to the University of Kentucky because he thought its physics department could offer more opportunities. He started graduate school, but it was 1961, and something called the Apollo space program was just getting started.

"I talked to NASA, and they grabbed on to me," Huffaker said during a phone interview from his home outside Boulder, Colo. "It was the early days, and it was fun."

On Sunday, Huffaker will receive a long-deferred graduate degree from UK, an honorary doctorate that celebrates his ultimate success in science, business and philanthropy.

Others receiving honorary degrees are Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, and Jamal Mashburn, the former UK All-America basketball star and NBA standout who played for the Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat and New Orleans Hornets over a 12-year professional career.

Mashburn, who played three seasons at UK but did not receive an undergraduate degree, has been successful in businesses that range from restaurant franchises to car dealerships and real estate. He will receive an honorary doctorate of humanities.

Hersman will accept her honorary doctorate of humanities in December. She is well known in Kentucky for her work as lead investigator in the 2006 crash of Comair flight 5191, and she returned to Lexington in 2011 for the dedication of the Flight 5191 memorial at the Arboretum.

At NASA, Huffaker started working on re-entry physics and protection materials, then became immersed in laser imaging detection and ranging, technology, known as LIDAR, which uses pulses of light to measure distance and other properties. Huffaker helped figure out that the technology could be used for many purposes, including detecting air turbulence from a plane.

He later left NASA for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and then he went into private industry, holding several of the patents related to LIDAR. The technology's use is far-ranging, including satellites in space and weather forecasters on the ground.

His company was eventually bought by Lockheed Martin, and that enabled his third career: philanthropy, mostly to charities involving families and children.

Huffaker has stayed below the radar in his native state, but Michael Cavagnero, chairman of the UK physics department, calls him a giant in his various fields.

"He was instrumental in developing and making practical those technological applications," said Cavagnero, who nominated Huffaker for the honorary degree. In addition to the science, "he's an expert in knowing how to bring technological innovations to the private sector successfully."

Huffaker said he comes back to visit family in Wayne County about twice a year.


The University of Kentucky will hold graduation ceremonies Sunday at Rupp Arena. The schedule is:

9:00 a.m.: Graduate and professional ceremony

1:00 p.m.: Undergraduate ceremony for the colleges of agriculture, business and economics, education, engineering, and nursing

6:00 p.m.: Undergraduate ceremony for the colleges of arts and sciences, communication and information, design, fine arts, health sciences, and social work

Here is a schedule of commencement ceremonies at a selection of other Kentucky schools (all times are local):

Bluegrass Community and Technical College: 5 p.m. Sunday, May 12, Alltech Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Centre College: 3 p.m. Sunday, May 19, Norton Center for the Arts. Martha Raddatz of ABC News is the speaker.

Eastern Kentucky University: 9 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 11, Alumni Coliseum. The 7:30 p.m. ceremony features First Lady Michelle Obama and requires a ticket.

Georgetown College: 10 a.m. Saturday, May 11, Giddings Lawn

Kentucky State University: 9 a.m. Saturday, May 11, Frankfort Convention Center

Morehead State University: 10 a.m. Saturday, May 11, Academic Athletic Center

Murray State University: 10 a.m. Saturday, May 11, CFSB Center

Northern Kentucky University: 9 a.m. Saturday, May 11, Bank of Kentucky Center

Transylvania University: 9:30 a.m. Saturday, May 25, Old Morrison Lawn. Actor Steve Zahn is the speaker.

University of Louisville: 10 a.m. Saturday, May 11, KFC Yum Center

Western Kentucky University: 9:30 a.m. Saturday, May 11, E.A. Diddle Arena