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Fifty years of honoring UW-Madison engineers

The back of an Engineers' Day Dinner Program, with its list of past Distinguished Service Award winners, reads like a time-line in engineering history. This year, the college pauses to look back on the accomplishments of alumni honored over the past 50 years. There are names familiar to Wisconsin and to the world.

Beard growing contest

Winners of the beard growing contest (and their dates!) at an early Engineers' Day celebration. (large image)

For example, Reuben N. Trane received the Distinguished Service Award in 1951. The son of Norwegian immigrant James Trane, Reuben Trane and his father incorporated The Trane Company in 1913 to produce a new type of low-pressure steam heating called Trane Vapor Heating. Today, the Trane Company is one of the world's largest suppliers of comfort systems for the heating, ventilating, air conditioning and building management industry.

The sons of a well-known UW-Madison professor are also among the honored. Charles Sumner Slichter was a professor of mathematics and dean of The Graduate School in 1920. His sons Allen, Donald, Louis and Sumner were the only four recipients of the Distinguished Service Award in 1957. Although only Donald was an engineering graduate, the college honored the entire family for their contributions to the university and society.

There are many other familiar names. Luna B. Leopold, professor emeritus of geology and geophysics and second child of naturalist Aldo Leopold, received the Distinguished Service Award in 1969. In 1971, Engineers' Day honored only one outstanding individual for the only time in its history: COE Dean Kurt F. Wendt. In 1973, Elizabeth Jackson McLean, president of EJM Engineering PC, was one of the first women to be honored. Space Shuttle Columbia pilot Brewster Shaw, Jr. took a break from space to be honored in 1986.

The achievements that helped create the computer industry have roots in still other honored alumni. Gene M. Amdahl, chairman of Amdahl Corporation throughout the 1970s, where the world's first large-scale integrated circuitry was developed, received the Distinguished Service Award in 1976. Jack St. Claire Kilby, who first thought to build circuit elements on a single slice of silicon, received the award in 1986.

Student becoming St. Patrick

Engineering student Fritz Kohli is installed as St. Patrick during a celebration held Engineers' Week. (large image)

On June 4, 1948, the College of Engineering awarded its first four Distinguished Service Awards to engineering alumni based on their contributions to the engineering profession, the college and society as a whole. Since then, nearly 400 engineers have been recognized. Fred L. Dornbrook, George G. Post, Gould W. Van Derzee and Montrose K. Drewry, all officials of the Wisconsin Electric Power Company, received citations during the 1948 convention of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in Milwaukee. They were cited for "outstanding work in the first application of powdered coal and high-pressure steam to the production of electric power."

The college and university played an important role in the lives of the honorees. Montrose K. Drewry is a fine example. Three generations of Drewrys attended the College of Engineering. Drewry's daughter Barbara graduated from UW-Madison in 1950. Drewry's son Kenneth graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1948. Kenneth Drewry's son, James Kenneth Drewry, graduated in 1974 with a degree in industrial engineering.

Montrose K. Drewry was born October 20, 1899. He entered the College of Engineering in the fall of 1918 and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1922. He maintained an excellent scholastic record and participated in student activities like the Wisconsin Engineer Magazine. He was elected a member of Tau Beta Pi, the honorary engineering society, and Pi Tau Sigma, the honorary mechanical engineering society--both known as fraternities at that time. Drewry took the position of test engineer of power plants with Wisconsin Electric Power Co. in February of 1924.

Dynamo laboratory

The electrical engineering dynamo lab on display as part of an Engineers' Day open house. (large image)

The honorees that followed those first four share a common dedication to improving society through engineering. Their stories are often similar to Drewry's. They start out as hard-working students who can often be found participating in an engineering student organizations or societies. Their hard work and drive later translates into remarkably productive engineering careers.

In 1949, the college added to the ceremony by creating Engineers' Day. It was held March 15 in conjunction with the celebration of St. Patrick's Day March 17. A dance was held the following Saturday creating an Engineers' Week.

According to the April, 1949 issue of Wisconsin Engineer, the first official E-Day was characterized by an open house in the College of Engineering, featuring special exhibits in all departments. On display in the lobby of the Mechanical Engineering Building were plans for what ultimately became Engineering Hall. Also on display were the casting operations in the metal casting lab, and various electronic devices shown in T-23. In the evening, a banquet was held in the Memorial Union with Professor William H. Kiekhofer of the Department of Economics as the principal speaker. Citations were presented to 15 engineering alumni.

Students participated by battling law students in a St. Patrick's Day basketball game, which the engineers lost. There was a beard growing contest and several attempts to desecrate the Law School Building. It was reported that a mysterious foul-smelling fluid somehow made its way into the building.

On Saturday night, engineers danced to the music of Lou Rene in Great Hall of Memorial Union. Chaperones for the evening were the chairmen of the five engineering departments and their wives. Dean and Mrs. Morton O. Withey were guests at the dance.

The atmosphere surrounding Engineers' Day is not all that different today. Held in the fall on homecoming weekend, the campus is festive and filled with alumni. The evolution of awards stemmed from the honorees themselves.

The Benjamin Smith Reynolds Award is presented to the faculty member who contributes most to the instruction of engineering students. It was first presented to ChemE Professor Olaf A. Hougen in 1955, three years after Reynolds received the Distinguished Service Award.

Reynolds was born and educated in Wisconsin. He and his partner incorporated the Burgess Battery Company in 1917. Reynolds devoted his life to that company, its later affiliates and the Research Products Corporation. The award is a memorial to his belief in the power of new ideas for the development of industry.

Dean and chaperones

Dean Withey (left), his wife and other chaperones at the St. Pat's Day dance. (large image)

Ragnar E. Onstad received the Distinguished Service Award in 1974. As an industrial engineer with the Burgess Battery Company, Onstad worked his way to the top of the company and its subsidiaries. He was known for his skill in managing and developing businesses that produced a wide variety of engineering products. Onstad was elected chairman of the board of Research Products Corp. in 1954 and was primarily responsible for establishing the Benjamin Smith Reynolds Award.

In 1978, Mechanical Engineering Professor Phillip S. Myers was the first recipient of the Ragnar E. Onstad Service to Society Award. A memorial fund was established in Onstad's name to honor teachers of engineers who have been leaders in finding solutions to societal problems.

The Byron Bird Award for Excellence in a Research Publication was added in 1980 as a memorial to an alumnus who dedicated much of his professional career to public service. Bird made major contributions to solving water supply problems related to the rapid growth of Washington, D.C. and its surrounding area.

The Bollinger Academic Staff Distinguished Achievement Award was established in 1989 through a fund at the UW Foundation. It honors Charlotte and Elroy Bollinger, parents of Dean John G. Bollinger. The Bollingers dedicated their lives to excellence in education and a strong belief in service. Their fond memories of UW-Madison attribute the institution with providing the start to careers of lifelong learning and dedicated service.

With the E-Day banquet moving to the new Monona Terrace Convention Center, Engineers' Day 1997 marks another milestone in the evolution of celebrating the engineering profession. But for the most part, Engineers' Day will be celebrated in 1997 much the same as it was 50 years ago, by honoring Badger engineers who have continued the college's tradition of engineering excellence.

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