Happy endings

1 Jun


Tom Fitzgerald knew he would be a writer.

But sometimes a career path does not move forward in a linear way. Sometimes it zigs and zags and meanders and does not dash a straight to the finish line.

Tom’s career has been like that. A native of upstate New York, Tom went to Clarkson College in Potsdam, N.Y., where he majored in math and minored in physics. “I knew that was not the right program for me,” he says. But he stuck it out for four years. He then briefly pursued law school, another mistake.

“I was looking for direction,” Tom says. He went back to Clarkson and got a master’s degree in industrial administration.

Over the years, he’s been a door-to-door salesman, a vocational counselor, a stockbroker, the assistant to the president of a large health-care corporation, a lobbyist, and a corporate manager. He was a Navy SEAL during the Vietnam conflict, swam distances longer than the English Channel, and ran the Boston Marathon three times.

But – “I knew I wanted to write. I loved story, loved language, loved the whole dynamic of storytelling. I loved being on the receiving end, too: My brother told campfire ghost stories, and it was magic for me.”

He came to Iowa State – along with a wife and three small sons – and earned a master of arts in English in 1974.

By this time, Tom had already written his first book, Chocolate Charlie. He found Iowa State to be a welcoming environment; he found a mentor and studied under many “fine teachers,” whose names he still remembers. He blossomed. He wrote half a novel for his thesis.

He became a technical writer, using both his English skills and his math/physics background. Plus, the job allowed him to do his own writing on the side.

Tom has now written four novels, including his most recent, Poor Richard’s Lament, that asks the question, “What if Ben Franklin came back?” Critics have called it “a grand and gorgeous book” and “an astonishing feat of imagination.”

He says he has 50 or 60 plots just waiting to be written. “I could go for nine lifetimes,” he says.

Giving new life to old buildings

1 Jun


Angela Ward Hyatt (’91) followed up her Iowa State architecture degree by getting a master of architecture with distinction at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

Not bad, right?

And then she was hired by a firm right up the street from Cambridge: Schwartz/Silver Architects Inc. of Boston, where she’s been happily working since 1994.

Her first project was to design a major addition to Boston’s New England Aquarium – a plum assignment for a new architect. Since then, Angela has developed a focus on library projects, working with such diverse libraries as the Hyde Park branch of the Boston Public Library, the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., and the campus library at Connecticut College.

“I like libraries as a project type because it has a long life,” she said. “I want to know that this thing that I’m working on will be there for a long time and that a huge number of people will experience it.”

Angela also appreciates that her library projects are not new, from-the-ground-up buildings but rather additions and renovations of existing buildings.

“I like giving new life to these buildings,” she says.

Angela and her husband, Matthew, whom she met in graduate school, have two sons, Owen and Miles, both fledgling computer geniuses. They live in a 160-year-old house in Brookline, Mass., and have an adorable mixed-breed dog, Axel, for whom Angela designs high-end doggy duds.

“Oh, that’s my 4-H side coming out,” Angela laughs. “I’ve always liked to sew.”

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.


Snow man

1 Jun


Three million people have visited the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeastern United States. But few have made the trek more times than Ken Rancourt (’72 meteorology), director of summit operations emeritus for the Mount Washington Observatory.

Ken has worked at the observatory since 1979 and estimates he’s made the 7.6-mile trip up the precarious Mount Washington Auto Road more than 3,000 times. In the summer, the drive takes a leisurely 30 minutes. In winter, it can take several hours in a snow cat, driving on top of up to 20 feet of snow.

It’s been said to be the world’s worst commute up a mountain that’s famous for having the worst recorded weather on the planet, but to an outsider surrounded by an ever-changing landscape and a view from the summit that on a good day spans 130 miles, it seems more like the world’s coolest commute.

This job is all for the love of weather: The 8-day shifts, the round-the-clock weather observations, the incredibly brutal conditions (in 1934, observers on Mount Washington measured a wind gust of 231 mph, the highest wind speed ever recorded by man). The observatory is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In addition to documenting the weather, the staff conducts experiments and tests products – such as anti-icing coatings for airplane wings and tents built to withstand high winds.

Ken said he found that life at the observatory fit his skill set.

“I was not good at forecasting,” he said. “The joke when I was a meteorology student back in Curtiss Hall is that the secretary could do a better job of forecasting than I could. Forecasting is hard; the atmospheric system is extremely complex. I focus on cloud physics.”

Ken stepped down as director of operations in October 2012, taking on the “emeritus” title. But he will continue to be involved, primarily with the Eastern Snow Conference, an organization that focuses on the study of snow and snow technologies.


Under cover

1 Jun


Meeting with Tom Twetten (’57 psychology), you get the distinct feeling that there’s much more to his story than he’s telling you.

Tom spent his career working for the Central Intelligence Agency as an operations officer and head of clandestine operations. He will verify that he worked in six countries, but he won’t say which ones. (An Internet search suggests that he worked under cover in Libya, Ghana, India, and Jordan.)

Living in some of those countries in the 1970s, he developed an interest in the preservation of rare books. Twenty years later, he took a night class on bookbinding and found that he had a talent for creating artistic leather bindings.

When he left the CIA in 1995 after 34 years of service, he said, “I could have been a senior adviser in intelligence, but I wanted to get as far away from Washington as I could.”

He and his wife, Kathryn, already liked New England, and they decided to locate “far away” – in terms of both geography and culture – in the tiny village of Craftsbury Common, Vt.

“The second part [of retirement] was to do something entirely different,” he said. Tom launched Craftsbury Antiquarian Books in the basement of his 19th century home. It’s a business in which he both buys and sells rare books – focusing on travel, art, archeology, military, and culture – and also binds books with his own artistic designs.

He says the book business is perfect for retirement. He can work as much or as little as he wants – for a day or an hour. “I can go visit grandkids and take a book to work on,” he says.

It’s a quiet life that seems so counter to his top-secret government career that one can hardly NOT ask the question: Can’t you tell us any stories about your career?

“Well,” he says with a sly smile, “I could tell you stories about book binding.”

The psychology of Maine

1 Jun


It’s hard not to love a location with a name like Little Deer Isle, Maine. Dave Mills certainly couldn’t resist.

He and his wife, Susan, both had high-stress jobs in Washington, D.C. – he with the American Psychological Association and she in mortgage banking – and they had vacationed in Maine to get away. They bought some land there, thinking they’d retire in the area. But they were anxious and decided not to wait for retirement. Instead, they built their dream home overlooking the Penobscot Bay and moved in.

Dave (’55 industrial administration; MS ’57 psychology) had taught psychology, administered ethics education programs, and worked with the CIA and other governmental agencies, but he had never been in private practice. But once he and Susan moved to Maine his clinical practice took off and his offices in Bangor and Blue Hill were soon “swamped with clientele.” Though Dave is mostly retired, he still works one or two days a week, meeting with patients on topics such as depression, alcoholism, marital issues, and spousal abuse.

Little Deer Isle is about three miles long by one mile wide. Its population consists of just a few hundred year-round – mostly artists, writers, and lobster fishermen – but swells during the summer with “the people from away” as the locals call them.

“I like the cooler weather here,” Dave says. (He says he has a different pair of boots for every occasion.) “It’s a different lifestyle here.”

A chance encounter

1 Jun


Looking back, an odd series of unrelated events led Robi Polikar to Iowa State for graduate studies.

Robi grew up in Istanbul, Turkey. He really thought he’d choose an American grad school near Washington, D.C., an area he knew from his time as a foreign exchange student in Pennsylvania during high school. But he decided he would visit just one university outside the area, and that school – randomly selected – was Iowa State.

Robi took a bus from Washington, D.C., during his winter break. He arrived in Ames on an unusually warm day in February. He met one faculty member – Mary Helen Greer, then chair of the biomedical engineering program – who made him feel so welcome that he never considered another school.

After his parents spent their entire savings on Robi’s first semester, Iowa State offered him an assistantship that lowered his tuition, plus a job washing pots and pans in Linden Hall.

“Dr. Greer knew I needed [the money],” Robi says. “I might not have been able to continue otherwise.”

He spent a total of seven years at Iowa State, earning both a master’s and PhD in biomedical engineering and electrical engineering.

“There are few people I can list who have had a major impact, who made me what I am today,” Robi says. “Mary Helen Greer is at the top of the list, along with my parents.”

Robi’s career has soared: He is a professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. He recently received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award for faculty early career development. He’s an active researcher and administrator but continues to teach upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses in wavelet theory, pattern recognition, neural networks, signal processing, bioinformatics, and biomedical systems.

In his office in Rowan Hall, Robi proudly displays two awards from Iowa State: Excellence in Teaching (2000) and Professional Progress in Engineering (2012).

He says he still misses the wide-open spaces of Iowa.

“I truly enjoyed the time I spent there,” he says. “I’ve been to a lot of college campuses, and Iowa State is one of the most beautiful – if not THE most beautiful – campuses I’ve ever seen.”

Food of the gods

1 Jun

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John Kaiser gets surprised looks when he tells people he tastes chocolate for a living.

John (M.S. ’87 chemical engineering) is a global director – process technology for cocoa and chocolate in the Global Chocolate Science and Technology Group at Mars Chocolate.

“I taste chocolate every day,” he said. He leads global teams – in France, Poland, Indonesia, China, Russia, and beyond – to ensure the quality of Mars Chocolate, helping to establish best practices and refine the company’s process development.

When he’s not globetrotting, John reports to work at the Mars factory in Elizabethtown, Pa. (just up the road from his home in rural Manheim), where, he says, “raw beans come in and candy bars come out.”

Indeed, the factory smells like a big pan of chocolate brownies fresh from the oven.

“When I come home, my hair and clothes smell like chocolate,” he said, smiling.

“I was standing in line at the airport the other day,” John said, “when the woman behind me said, ‘Mmmm, I smell chocolate.’ And I just thought, ‘Well, that would be me.’”

Until he went to work for Mars – the company famous for producing some of the world’s most popular candy, including Snickers, M&M’s, and Dove – John says he didn’t really like chocolate. But once he “got a taste for it,” he developed not only a highly refined palate but also an interest in the fascinating history and culture of the product.

“I can taste the roasted beans and tell you the country of origin,” he said.

John and his wife, Colleen, an Iowa native and graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, have three sons. The two eldest, Justin and Jason, are both 2013 ISU grads; son Joshua is currently enrolled at ISU in industrial engineering and business. Justin’s degree in food science makes him the fourth generation of the Kaiser family to work in the food industry: His great-grandfather was a baker and his grandfather was a food technician at Procter & Gamble.

I heart New York

1 Jun


During Rachel Beardsley’s first New York City half marathon, the route took runners through Central Park and Times Square and along the West Side Highway to Lower Manhattan.

“It was overwhelming,” Rachel remembers, now an eight NYC half marathon veteran. “To run through Times Square – they were playing Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York – I got misty-eyed.”

Rachel (’02 Spanish & political science) runs several days a week – often on the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway near her high-rise apartment building in Lower Manhattan, sometimes across the Brooklyn Bridge to Prospect Park or in Central Park, the most visited urban park in the United States.

Since she moved to New York in 2003, Rachel has also found a new passion: sailing. Her husband, Peter Beardsley, grew up sailing in New Rochelle, N.Y., and introduced Rachel to the sport. She’s now on the water with him for as many as 100 sailboat races each year.

Rachel and Peter met at Brooklyn Law School. Rachel practices immigration law with Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, the world’s leading global corporate immigration law firm. She oversees as many as 850 foreign nationals at any given time, working with individuals and employers to obtain employment-based visas and green cards. The process is complex and sometimes takes years to complete.

Rachel says she loves the vibrancy of New York City.

“The city is so alive, and there is always something new to explore,” she says. “With so many people always out enjoying the city, I rarely feel alone. When I moved to New York, I wasn’t sure if I would make it here. I feel very lucky.”

A place to land

1 Jun


It’s 7:30 a.m., and Michael Clow (’78 naval science) is walking through the Morgantown Municipal Airport. He’s checking out the facility and the airport grounds, looking for anything out of the ordinary, anything that’s not functioning properly, anything that’s not perfectly clean. He stops to talk to the pilots, the rental car representatives, and the United Express agents.

It’s the way Michael starts each day as the director of the Morgantown Municipal Airport. The daily walk-through is followed by meetings, perhaps a discussion with the FAA or the state aeronautical commission, and media inquiries.

“When anything is going on in the world regarding air travel, [local reporters] call me,” Michael said.

The Morgantown position is a step up from Michael’s previous jobs at the Tallahassee, Fla., airport, where he spent 13 years, most recently as the airport’s planning and development manager. He arrived in Morgantown in September 2011, just as West Virginia University joined the Big 12 Conference.

“This is the first time I’ve been anywhere that Iowa State came to play,” Michael says. “The volleyball and women’s basketball teams flew in here last fall, and I got to greet them as they got off the planes.”

Morgantown Municipal is a relatively small airport, with about 40,000 operations (takeoffs and landings) each year. The airport is served by United Express through Washington, D.C.

Michael and his wife, Teri, enjoy living in a college town.

“Morgantown is a great place to live,” he says.