Raised in South Africa,
where he earned
a degree in Civil Engineering, Preiss
first came to Israel in 1958, served
in the army and then designed civilian
buildings, including some in Beer-Sheva.
After earning a Ph.D. in nuclear
engineering in England,
Preiss taught at the University of Illinois in Urbana. But despite an offer of tenure and U.S. citizenship, in 1966 he made the crucial decision
to return to Israel and join what was then the Negev Institute for Arid
Founded with the help of UNESCO, the Institute, which
was under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office,
conducted research in desert science
and technology; Preiss
was given responsibility for the technologies of desalination, solar
energy and geophysics. But Institute Director
Joel Schechter, former Mayor David Tuviyahu and others dreamed
of creating a university. Tuviyahu brought
Preiss into the group that would establish the precursor to BGU – the Institute for Higher Education
in the Negev.
The first courses taught
were in the fields of biology and mechanical engineering. Lecturers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Technion in Haifa taught
together with the few academics then at the Institute and elsewhere in the Negev.
“We would fly people down to give lectures;
when experimental facilities were needed, a taxi drove the equipment back and forth from
Haifa.” Classes were held at HIAS House in central Beer-Sheva, but they soon
ran out of space and lectures were held in a row of small shops.
at the top level, including
then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, there was considerable opposition – from other universities, the Treasury and government officials
– to the idea of a university in Beer-Sheva.
“The name Beer-Sheva University,” said Preiss,
“suggested something local and provincial. The name University of the Negev, which had a more universal significance, was chosen.” After David Ben-Gurion passed away in 1973 the name was changed to “Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.”
Kenny held the Sir Leon Bagrit
Chair of Computer-Based Global
Industrial and Scientific Development until his retirement (2007). He was proud to have led a core of University researchers who, with two dozen engineers and scientists from the Negev, made significant contributions, from 1968-1988, to the technical combat capability of the Israel Defense
Forces Southern Command. “Many of the solutions developed
were implemented into the whole IDF, and one in particular, to remove mines
in front of tanks, became
standard equipment also for the U.S. and many other
armies,” he said.
What motivated Preiss to make Israel
his home? A poem from his school
days back in South Africa
included the line “‘Be still prepared to die.’ I understood this meant that I should
not waste even a day on superficialities. From a very early age, it was clear that the most important thing for me was to contribute to Israel and the future
of the Jews. Not only me. My colleagues at the Negev Institute for Arid Zone Research
really felt that we were pioneering scientists. This was Zionism
at its best.”
"In memoriam" by Yoram Reich, Ofer Shai