Larue: How tall are you?
Bert: Six feet one inch, and shrinking. Vertically,
that is. Circumferentially I'm growing about an inch a year, and am now
up to 180 pounds. Gag!
Larue: I want to tell of your college and career
success. You sent me an e-mail stating some of what you did but it was
too modest. I know you won scholastic awards for high school,
undergraduate, graduate and PhD work.
Bert: Well, as you may recall, grammar school
wasn't a big hit with me. I remember I used to walk up the alley behind
our house in Chicago and get as far as turning the corner toward Eli
Whitney School. I'd hang around the empty lot on the corner of 31st and
Komenski until I was pretty sure school had started, and then I'd walk
home slowly, hoping Mom wouldn't make me go to school. That worked once
or twice because Mom was sympathetic, but ultimately I had to go to
Farragut High school was better, because you were treated
more as an adult and the classes were more interesting. Nevertheless,
in keeping with the tradition set by Bob, I never brought books home to
do homework. I knew Bob would get on my case as a "suckhole." So I did
all my homework in the ten minutes between classes, and during
study period (we always had one class period in which we returned
to our "home room" to get updated by our "home room teacher" on general
In my junior and senior years at Farragut I was a hall
monitor, which meant I spent my study hour sitting in a chair with an
arm desk making sure no one ran in the halls and so on. (Now they worry
about students shooting each other). Fortunately, there weren't many
incidents in the halls so I could continue getting my homework done. As
I advanced toward my junior and senior years my grades got better and
better, eventually becoming straight A's.
Again, I think this was because the classes got more
interesting as more of the grunt work on the three R's was behind me.
Also, this was 1945-1947 and the GI's were coming back from the war (WW
2, the "big one," as Archie Bunker would say). They were taking
advantage of the GI Bill of Rights, namely using scholarships to go to
college. I felt there would be a lot of competition getting into
college so I started to buckle down.
Sure enough, by the time I entered Wright Junior College
in 1948 a large fraction of my classmates were ex GI's, and they were
serious about school. And the classes were jammed full. The good news
was that most of the students were still your average Joe and Jane from
high school, so after just a few weeks classes in which there wasn't
enough bench space for everyone in the labs thinned out to the point
that I had a whole bench to myself and two GI buddies.
By then I was in the habit of working hard and completing
my homework. Also, in college I had to take books home, by street car
from Wright College on the north side of Chicago to the south side
where we lived. Going to school, I took the Pulaski street car from its
southern terminus at 31st and Kostner to almost its northern
terminus. Then I transferred to a bus that took me west to Wright
College. This was about an hour and a half each morning and afternoon.
I did all my humanities reading during these trips. But math and
science required more concentration, so I did these at home. But not
before I spent the afternoon playing sports with my long-time buddies
Ed Kral, Ken Newby, Jake Cichon, and others on Karlov and Komenski
streets. Then I'd take a nap and do homework after supper.
Each semester when I registered for classes I made sure
that my first class was at 8 o'clock in the morning, to force me to get
up early so I'd have enough time for school and homework. I continued
this habit through Wright and on to the Illinois Institute of
Technology. I also made sure that I got straight A's at Wright so that
I could get into IIT. The workload increased at IIT because of all the
lab courses as part of a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Not only did
I have to be at school by 8 in the morning, I was there until late in
the afternoon in the labs.
Then it was back on the street car (two transfers) to get
home, a journey of about an hour, followed by burning the midnight oil
doing homework and writing lab reports. Since IIT was in the heart of
the south-side slums, I was always concerned about getting mugged on
the way home as it got dark. I used to wear a thick leather jacket that
made my 140 pound frame look more like 170. But I never got mugged. The
thick jacket was probably more security blanket than deterrent.
By this time the workload was heavy enough that once more
I wasn't keen on school. The first year at IIT was more grind than
learning because the math and science classes at Wright had been so
good that we were going over the same material at IIT, only more
slowly. Each year I'd survive by telling myself that this was the last
and then I would drop out. But when the next year rolled around I'd
register again and find myself still going to school. Before long I
graduated at the top of the Mechanical Engineering class, in June 1952.
Later, at Stanford, one of my and Mary's best friends was Jim
Gewartowski, who was at the top of the IIT Electrical Engineering class
in the same year I was duplicating the feat in Mechanical Engineering.
Needless to say, I didn't have a lot of social life at IIT
because of the long commute, and the desire to get home before the
mugging hour. In my last year I applied for a Hughes Aircraft
fellowship in the Los Angeles area and was accepted. It was a giant
leap of faith to leave home in June 1952 and drive a 1948 Chevy (which
Bob bought for me with his own money, on loan to me) all the way across
the Midwest to California. After a few months of homesickness I began
the time of my life with the 50 or so other men on the Hughes program.
I paid back the loan to Bob in four months. I also made up for lost
time in social life!
I went to the University of Southern California, based on
reading their course catalog while at IIT. The other choice was UCLA,
which had a very confusing catalog. When I got to LA it was like being
back at IIT — USC was (and is) in the heart of the LA slum, right next
to the Watts district that had a huge riot a few years later.
Meanwhile, UCLA was in the beautiful part of LA, in Westwood near
Beverly Hills. But none of us who went to SC much cared because most of
our learning was at Hughes on our first job with our BS degrees. And at
all the parties we organized. We partied all weekend and played
football on the beach and basketball at the local parks during the
week. In between we worked at Hughes 25 hours a week and took 9
credit-hours of classes at SC, where we used to say, "You get the best
degree money can buy."
It was easy to fall back into my habits from high school —
get straight A's with a minimum of work, to make time for all those
parties. The young men in the Hughes program were the cream of the
country's engineering crop, so we all got A's. Many of the top
executives at Hughes, TRW, Litton Industries, and so on came from the
program. I was one of the slackers. I applied for a fellowship at
Stanford and was accepted. One of the things we learned in the
competition at Hughes was that if you wanted to get somewhere in
engineering research, a Ph.D. was a necessity.
So I was off again, this time to Palo Alto and San
Francisco. Strangely, I was more homesick for my friends at Hughes than
I had been when I left home for California. But that lasted only a
month, although I returned for visits every chance I got, and still get
together with Walt Baldasti and Dick Snow from the program every
Stanford was a big change from SC. I had just as much fun
with my dorm buddies as with the Hughes gang, but there was lots of
homework. Having drunk from the fountain of the good life of campus
parties at Hughes, it was very difficult for me to get back to the
grind. I wound up putting off my week's homework until after we had all
gone out to dinner and a beer hall Sunday night. Then I'd sit at the
little wooden table in my 9 x 10-foot room and do homework until three
or four in the morning. My first class Monday morning was German, and I
was never prepared because I couldn't get to my German homework before
I'd fall asleep early in the morning. I got straight A's, but C in
German, and only because the young woman teacher took pity.
To this day, my fondest memories are of the Stanford
campus and the friends Mary and I met there. And, of course, that Mary
and I married and lived in a beautiful little cottage as I taught
myself to type and wrote my thesis: "Design and Comparison of Contactor
Control Systems." Ugg, it was boring even to me. But that was the most
important thing I learned at Stanford: no matter how boring, if you've
got a job to do, get it done.
Larue: Tell all please. Didn't you have something
to do with making McDonald Douglas redesign their manned space capsule
to keep the astronauts from being squashed? Tell me about your research
work and the effect it had on whatever. I probably won't use all of
that info but I can sure pick out the best.
Bert: Naah, nothing as useful as that. Most of my
career was spent blowing things up, like missiles, reentry vehicles,
metal shells, and finally underground tunnels, which I'm still working
on. I published a book called "Dynamic Pulse Buckling," which only a
specialist could love. When anyone asked me what I did, I told them I
crushed beer cans. If you read my book you'll find out in nauseating
detail how the cans buckle and crush, microsecond by microsecond. I
have a little personal computer program I wrote that calculates buckle
shapes and then displays a little movie of the buckles forming. Any
takers for a free copy I can send by e-mail? HaHaHa!
Larue: I have your family statistics, marriage to
Mary, children and grandchildren. I think your home is located in the
Gold Country but I am not sure. If it isn't is it located in some other
recognizable California area?
Bert: Yes, we're in the Gold Country, specifically
in Lake Wildwood with a Penn Valley mailing address. We're 10 miles
west of Grass Valley and Nevada City, which are better known.
Larue: I want all of this info and any other you
might want to share with me because I feel it is so important to show
what would never have been if you had drowned in the lake that day.
Bert: Well, mostly we wouldn't have Barbara, Julie,
Craig and Dave, and all the grandkids.