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HFES Announces the passing of Ken Laughery

Date:11 May 2019


The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society has announce that Kenneth R. Laughery, a past treasurer, Executive Committee member, and Fellow of IEA, died on April 20, 2019, at Agrace Hospice in Janesville, Wisconsin, USA, after a long struggle with Parkinson's disease. Ken was born in 1935 in Rowes Run, Pennsylvania to Kenny and Evelyn Laughery and was their only child. As the son and grandson of coal miners, he spent most of his youth living in company towns in western Pennsylvania, near where his ancestors had lived for the better part of 200 years.

Ken went to high school in Uniontown, Pennsylvania where he excelled academically, played football, and wrestled. As a senior in 1953, he was voted Most Likely to Succeed in his class.

Ken went on to his university studies at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) in Pittsburgh. At Carnegie, Ken got a B.S. in Metallurgical Engineering then went on to complete a Master's degree and Ph.D. in Psychology. One of his Doctoral dissertation committee members, Herb Simon, went on to win the Nobel Prize. Also during his university years, he and his young wife, Lottie Mae Cosgrove, had three children, Ron, Tim, and Terri Sue.

After graduating from Carnegie, Ken spent 1960 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying artificial intelligence and 1961 in the Army as a research psychologist. He then landed a position as an Assistant Professor in both the Psychology and Industrial Engineering departments at the State University of New York at Buffalo. During his nine years in Buffalo, he was promoted to a full Professor and became chair of the Industrial Engineering department. In Buffalo, Ken and Lottie had their third son, Keith.

In 1969, Ken and family spent a sabbatical year in England that planted the seeds for his lifelong love of travel. Over the course of his life, Ken visited every state, every continent, and 68 countries. Sometimes he camped and sometimes he stayed in accommodations so splendid he could never have even imagined them as a young man.

In 1972, Ken and his family moved to Houston, Texas where he became chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Houston. In 1984, he joined Rice University as the Henry R. Luce Professor of Engineering Psychology. He retired from teaching in 2002 and took the position of Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Rice University that he held until his death.

Over the course of Ken's academic career, he became a world-renowned expert in the field of human factors where he conducted ground-breaking research in areas as diverse as how people recognize faces to how best to design warnings to keep people from being injured. He was the author of over 200 publications that included books, articles in scholarly journals, and published papers. His passion for his profession led Ken to an active role in the national Human Factors and Ergonomics Society where he served in many capacities over many years including multiple terms on the Executive council and a term as President in 1992. His contributions to the science and practice of his profession culminated in Ken's receiving their 2004 Arnold Small Distinguished Service Award.

Ken attended every HFES Annual Meeting from the years 1970 through 2017 and many of the years before 1970, often with his son, Ron, in tow. Attending the HFES meeting was an annual event Ken always looked forward to and he shared many great experiences at them with his friends and colleagues.

Ken was also active as a Fellow of the International Ergonomics Association. He served as Treasurer of the IEA and as a member of the Executive Committee.

In 1996, Ken married Brenda Resneck and in 2007 Ken and Brenda moved from Houston to Janesville, Wisconsin.

During his academic career, Ken had begun working as a human factors expert witness. In this role, he was able to use his academic background and credentials to help lawyers demonstrate and juries understand that workplace and consumer injuries were often the result of poor design and dangerous jobs, not human mistakes. After marrying Brenda, the two worked as a team on hundreds of personal injury cases involving a wide range of accidents – from exploding tires to deadly elevators. When Ken finally stopped working at 80-years old, he was widely considered to be one of the best expert witnesses in the field of human factors worldwide. All told, he had worked on more than 650 cases and testified in over 115 trials.

At his death, he was survived by his wife and four children as well as five grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

While ambition, smarts, and hard work had much to do with Ken's successes, equally important were his kindness, generosity, sense of humor, and loving nature. Those who knew him understood that this man succeeded as much because of his heart as his head.