Lessons from an unlikely career
Bob Forbess began his UW-Madison education in mechanical engineering during World War II, then embarked on a career that spanned from rockets to education.
Perhaps that’s why Forbess, now retired, takes such a broad view of the value of a mechanical engineering degree. He is leaving a portion of his estate to the mechanical engineering department, to support undergraduates at the department’s discretion. “In almost every industry, mechanical engineering is a root requirement for success,” Forbess says. “No matter what kind of engineering you practice, there have to be buildings, equipment, design, and all kinds of questions answered that are mechanical in nature.”
Forbess came to UW-Madison during a time of great national sacrifice, enrolling as part of the Navy’s V-12 program aimed at training recruits for duty as engineering officers. Because the military had recruited away so many student teaching assistants, Forbess’ professors had to form an intimate bond with students. “I had major professors not only for lectures, but also for labs and quiz sections, and that gave me the best possible experience,” he says.
Similarly, Forbess hopes his gift will open up an intensive learning experience to future ME undergrads who might need help paying for their education. But beyond tuition support, he wants to make sure the department trains them well in analytical thinking and teamwork. “A professor is almost an observer as much as a teacher,” he says. “A good professor knows how much to teach and how much to just sit back and let students wrestle with a problem for a while.”
That emphasis on analytical problem-solving has steered Forbess through an uncommonly varied career. After earning his BS in mechanical engineering in 1946, he spent six years with Pratt and Whitney in East Hartford, Connecticut, working on the development of jet aircraft engines. In 1952, he joined an upstate New York company, General Laboratory Associates, where in the early 1960s he managed the development of ignition devices for the Apollo space program that sent several astronauts to the moon.
His later career drew him back to Madison, where he served in a variety of administrative and educational roles in UW Extension and the College of Engineering. He earned a master’s degree in educational administration from UW-Madison in 1972. At UW Extension, he drew on his engineering background to teach the course, Managing the Systems Project, for 12 years. “The mindset of solving a problem, I carried over to the administration here and to my teaching,” he says.
From 1987 to 1991, Forbess served as department administrator for the Department of Chemical Engineering. That experience gave him insight into the challenges of running a successful academic department. He learned that it’s important for department chairs to have discretionary funds.
Despite the unlikely course he charted through his working life, Forbess always found himself drawing on his early experience as an undergraduate. The important thing, to Forbess, is that it provided him with not only engineering fundamentals, but also problem-solving skills that enabled him to adapt.
“Sometimes you draw on your immediate background or training,” he says, “and sometimes you have to do a heck of a lot of innovation.”