when the whistle blows

Kristen Bailey

The Georgia Tech community is always deeply saddened to lose one of its own. In 2001, a group of concerned students, faculty, and staff realized the community did not have a way to collectively honor those who pass away. Thus, a new tradition began.

Near the end of each spring semester, When the Whistle Blows honors the memory of enrolled students and employees of the Institute who died during the previous year. The names of honorees are published in the Technique and The Whistle prior to the event. This year’s event on April 4 will honor 18 members of the campus community.

The simple ceremony offers a solemn tribute, with the lighting of a unity candle to represent the entire Georgia Tech community. A family representative is invited to light a candle on behalf of their loved one. Each family also receives a small gift of remembrance from Georgia Tech.

“It is so important that we recognize the loss our campus community experiences when a student, faculty member, or staff member dies,” said Steve Fazenbaker, director for the STAR Program and former director of the Wesley Foundation, who for years provided the opening message at the ceremony. This year, that role will be filled by a student. “Because we each have our own traditions and ways of dealing with the death of those close to us, it can be tricky to plan a ceremony that addresses everyone's needs and expectations. The diversity of faith traditions on campus makes the task that much harder. The ceremony is intentionally designed to create a solemn space in which family and friends can honor their loved ones in their own unique way.”

Tech’s iconic steam whistle is blown once for each person being honored that day. Before the whistle breaks the evening silence, the alma mater is played to remind attendees of our time at Tech and to relay the hope that we will always be united as a community.

steam whistle replica

The finished whistle given to families at When the Whistle Blows. Photos by Rob Felt

Keeping the Whistle With You

Each family receives a replica of Tech’s iconic steam whistle, a memento that was designed and created on campus by the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) Machine Shop and College of Design’s Digital Fabrication Lab. The Machine Shop has been making the whistles since 2006, after the shop’s manager, Dennis Brown, attended the ceremony and left wanting to create a special token for families.

“He came back really wanting to take the lead on making something nice and meaningful for people,” said Dennis Denney, director of GTRI Machine Services. The original mementos were made of brass and affixed to a small marble base.

A new base was designed in 2016 by Jake Tompkins, manager of the Digital Fabrication Lab and a Tech alumnus. The base is made of Corian, a durable, solid material that provides a white contrast to the gold whistle replica. The round base has a gear pattern to evoke memories of Tech. It is cut in two parts on a CNC cutter and glued together to give it additional weight and thickness.

“It’s important, and we want it to feel important,” Tompkins said of designing part of the memento. “We know this is handed to families by the president, and it’s going to be with them for years to come.”

The nameplates are waterjet cut from gold anodized aluminum and then laser etched before being affixed to the Corian base. The whistle itself is also anodized aluminum. It is spun on a CNC lathe and designed to scale from exact drawings of Tech’s original steam whistle.

The bottom of the base bears an inscription taken from “A Tribute to the Whistle,” which first appeared in the 1914 edition of Tech’s Blueprint:

Blow on, stern Monarch of Tech's mighty crew,
Be always firm and staid:
To your compelling call we'll e're be true
Til each his part has played.

“It’s all about intentionality. The bottom isn’t something a lot of people look at, but we don’t want it to be an afterthought,” Tompkins said.

The sound of the whistle is part of daily life at Tech, as were those members of the community honored at the event. Each time the whistle sounds in the days following the event, it serves as a reminder of the students, faculty, and staff members held in our memories.

president cabrera lights a candle at when the whistle blows in 2021
President Cabrera lights a candle at When the Whistle blows in 2021.


bagpiper at when the whistle blows ceremony
A bagpiper plays at When the Whistle Blows in 2021.


2024 When the Whistle Blows Honorees

Paul M.A. Baker
Senior Director, Research and Strategic Innovation
Center for Advanced Communications Policy

Warren Bell
Building Coordinator
Industrial and Systems Engineering

Oliver Brand
Electrical and Computer Engineering

Benjamin Chen
Undergraduate Student
Electrical Engineering

Janak Desai
Senior Research Scientist
Georgia Tech Research Institute

Cole Dobbs
Undergraduate Student
Mechanical Engineering

Malik Ford
Residential Food Service Worker
Tech Dining

Dominic Hernandez
Undergraduate Student
Aerospace Engineering

Alexander Howes
Graduate Student
Computer Science

Jonathan Joseph
Undergraduate Student
Computer Engineering

Seung Hoon Lee
Graduate Student
Computer Science

Dana Mitchell
Maintenance Construction Worker
Housing Office

Darren Nowell
Financial Manager
Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Administration

Kelsey Parker
Student Engagement and Events Manager
Professional Education Master's Program

Dong Qin
Materials Science and Engineering

Caleb Southern
Computing Instruction

Judson Stelljes
Construction Project Manager
Georgia Tech Research Institute

Angela Steltzer
Research Associate
Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory


Written by Kristen Bailey
Photos by Rob Felt