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Home is where the job is

1 Jun


Ruth Fitzgerald is at a good place in her life.

She’s no longer the day-to-day boss of the company she launched in 1987. She mostly works out of her historic, Victorian home in the West End of Hartford, Conn. She chooses the projects she wants to do. At age 62, she enjoys working less and traveling more.

“I’m cruising along,” she says.

Ruth was born in Northern Ireland and lived there until she was 9 years old, when her family moved to Ankeny, Iowa. She got a bachelor’s degree in history from Iowa State in 1971 and a master’s in urban and regional planning in 1974. And then she was quickly hired by a big architectural and engineering firm in Connecticut.

“I worked there for 13 years, and then I started my own company,” Ruth says. “I started out in my home. I had a six-month-old. What was I thinking?” She laughs. “Actually, the coolest thing in the beginning years is that I was a divorced, single mom, with flexibility as a parent.”

With Ruth as founding principal, president, and CEO, Fitzgerald & Halliday grew and flourished. Ruth continued to work out of her home for 15 years, hiring engineers and planners who came to her house for staff meetings but worked from their own home offices.

“We started telecommuting before there was telecommuting,” Ruth says. “We didn’t even have a fax machine.”

The transportation and planning firm – now with a physical headquarters in a historic building on Oxford Street in Hartford – has grown to 30 employees and is again in “hiring mode.” Ruth recently stepped down as president and CEO.

“I’m trying to be retired,” she says. “I’m proud of managing this transition. I feel great pride that the firm stands for what I stood for and is successful and vital without me leading it. I’m in a terrific position.”

Ruth is married to David Sageman (PhD ’72 chemical engineering), whom she met as a student at Iowa State.


Let there be light

28 May

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You walk into a dark room and the lights magically come on. You’re sitting at your desk and the room lights dim as the sun streams through your window. You’re away from your home, but the lights turn off and on to suggest that someone’s there.

You have modern lighting control systems to thank.

Ben Hahn (’98 electrical engineering) works every day to make sure that his company’s sophisticated lighting controls are the lowest cost, highest performing systems in the country.

Ben is vice president of Sensor Switch in Wallingford, Conn. A division of Acuity Brands, Sensor Switch manufactures occupancy sensors, time-based controls, and photo sensors for energy savings and occupant convenience.

On a tour of the manufacturing plant on a Friday afternoon in early May, I was struck by the similarity between lighting control sensors and computers. Ben explained that the sensors really are tiny computers. We saw robotic machines and a human work force assembling, labeling, testing, and boxing the products in a precise, streamlined way.

“We’re very efficient here,” Ben said. “With our automated systems, we’re competitive with overseas manufacturing.”

Sensor Switch provides lighting control systems for new construction as well as retrofitting existing buildings.

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Ben started with the company in Minnesota, where he got involved with marketing and product management. He moved to Connecticut in 1999, and he decided to stay.

“I liked the job, and I met a girl,” Ben says. He and his wife, Marci, now have two sons, Simon, 7, and Tyler, 5.

“My kids know I’m a Cyclone fan,” Ben says. “Even out here, we can watch 95 percent of football and men’s basketball games” on Direct TV or online.

Ben took Simon to visit the Iowa State campus last July.

“It’s never too soon,” Ben said with a smile.

New York and beyond

21 May

Jim and I managed to miss the Midwestern snowstorm in early May by traveling to New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York, where we couldn’t have asked for nicer weather: It was warm, sunny, and bursting with spring color.

We also couldn’t have asked for nicer alumni. Everywhere we went, Iowa Staters went out of their way to make us feel at home in the Northeast.


We flew into the Newark Liberty International Airport and rented a car. Our first two New Jersey alumni meetings were very near Philadelphia, so we stayed in Philly our first two nights and took advantage of all that city has to offer: historic architecture, parks and squares, and great food. We visited the Liberty Bell out of a sense of obligation but really preferred the Mural Arts Program (all over the city) and the creepy coolness of the Eastern State Penitentiary.


We met our first alum on Day 2: Bing Howell. Bing (’03 MIS & international business) works for the New Jersey Department of Education in Camden, making a difference in one of the most challenging school districts in the country. I’ll tell you more about Bing (and some of the other alumni we met) in the coming weeks.


Next we met Robi Polikar at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. Robi (MS ’95 electrical engr/biomedical engr; PhD ’00) was born in Istanbul and is currently a professor and department chair for the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering. After meeting with Robi, I felt really proud to live in Ames – he said such nice things about his experience in Iowa and at Iowa State University.


We left New Jersey behind us and headed next to the town of Poughquag, N.Y. Never heard of Poughquag? You can find it on the map near Poughkeepsie in the Mid-Hudson River Valley. Poughquag is home to Robert Antol (’78 mathematics), who has a crazy-cool space observatory built onto his home. Bob and his wife, Barb, not only let us play with his telescope but they also fed us New York-style pizza on their back patio. What a great day! (I love this photo Jim took of Bob and me in his observatory with the alien!)


We set out for the state of Connecticut next, to meet with Ruth Fitzgerald (’71 history, MS ’74 urban & regional planning) in Hartford. Ruth is the founding principal of Fitzgerald & Halliday, a planning and environmental analysis firm that specializes in transportation and community planning projects. That’s Ruth above, working with her IT specialist, Howard Latimer.


Just down the road in Wallingford, Conn., we met Ben Hahn (’98 electrical engineering), vice president of Sensor Switch. Ben took us on a fascinating tour of his firm, which manufactures occupancy sensors and network lighting control systems that provide energy savings. We probably embarrassed Ben with all the crazy things Jim had him do for photos (sorry, Ben!), but it was a really fun tour.

IMG_6351After our meeting with Ben, we spent the night in New Haven, home of Yale University. Jim and I both love to see other college campuses, so walking on Yale’s Old Campus and the New Haven Green was a real treat. We also ate some of the famous New Haven-style pizza.

The next day, we did what every red-blooded Iowan fears the most: We drove through New York City. Actually, not so much “through” as “around” the city, en route to the Newark airport to drop off our rental car. But still, we did drive in the Bronx and I was pretty nervous that we’d take a wrong turn and end up totally lost and have to pay for an extra day on our car and miss our connection with the car service that was scheduled to pick us up. I was worried for nothing, because we sailed through with only one teensie wrong turn, which the GPS fixed for us very quickly. We actually turned in our rental car almost an hour early.

The car service (which, I cannot stress enough, is such a better option than a taxi) picked us up and delivered us directly to our inn in Brooklyn that we had booked for the next few nights. From then on, we relied on public transportation and the kindness of ISU alumni to get us around the city. Oh, and lots of walking.


I almost feel like this was “Part II” of this trip, because when we got into Brooklyn, everything changed. And not just because we were without a car. There’s just such a different vibe in the city. Brooklyn was a great (and considerably less expensive) place to stay – and it was easy to jump into the subway and get to Manhattan in less than 20 minutes. We were lucky to be in New York when we were: The trees were all in bloom, the weather was beautiful, and New Yorkers were just grooving on it everywhere we went.


Our first meeting in New York City was with Rachel (Hollrah) Beardsley (’02 Spanish/political science) and her husband, Peter. The couple lives in lower Manhattan and can tell you lots of stories about surviving the effects of Hurricane Sandy. Rachel and Peter met as students at Brooklyn Law School and both are practicing attorneys. To say they were good sports about the photo shoot is putting it mildly; we had Rachel change clothes three times! She went running for us in Central Park; they took us sailing on Long Island Sound; she posed with the Statue of Liberty – and also with her cat. Most grueling photo shoot ever!


The next morning, alumnus Trent Preszler  (’98 interdisciplinary studies) picked us up in his Chevy Volt and – after grabbing lattes and egg sandwiches and taking a quick peek at his Brooklyn apartment – took us with him on his 80-mile commute out to the north fork of Long Island. What a fascinating drive – from the city to the countryside to the New England-styled towns and wineries. Trent is CEO of Bedell Cellars winery and vineyards in Cutchogue – located in the prettiest setting you can imagine. Jim photographed Trent out in the vineyards and in the sophisticated tasting room, above.

Bedell Cellars wine had already made quite a name for itself through awards for its wines and its tasting room, but the winery’s most recent claim to fame happened just this year when its 2009 Merlot was chosen to be served at President Obama’s inauguration luncheon. Trent gave us a wonderful tour of not only the winery and vineyard but of the North Fork itself.


The next morning we met Maureen Hurd Hause (’94 music) in Midtown Manhattan. Maureen is actually a New Jersey alum who teaches clarinet at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, but she often plays as a professional musician at Carnegie Hall, so our idea was to meet her there. The fact that the lower fourth of Carnegie Hall was covered in scaffolding didn’t deter Jim from photographing Maureen on the street corner in front of the building. We drew quite a crowd! Maureen was belting out Gershwin tunes, Jim was lying on the ground, and more than a few people photographed the goings-on with their iPhones.

And then our New York adventure came to an end, but not before having a picnic in Central Park.

Next up: North and South Dakota!