When you were a child, were you lucky enough to have someone who inspired you? Someone who filled you with the wonder and passion needed to pursue a fulfilling career? Was it a parent, a teacher, a friend? For me, it was my mother.
Mom grew up on a farm in west-central Wisconsin back in the 1930s. The Depression was on, and she and her siblings learned how to be resourceful at a young age. That’s how you survived in the days before rural electrification, high speed communication networks, interstate highways, big box stores, and many other things that we take for granted in the United States today.
When I was a kid back in the ’60s, my mom was the plumber, carpenter, mechanic, and general fix-it person of the family. No, my father wasn’t dead or absent, he just wasn’t handy, nor did he desire to be. Unlike many housewives, Mom didn’t call for professional help when the vacuum cleaner or washing machine was on the fritz. Instead she learned how they ticked, determined what she had to do to get them working again, then got busy fixing them herself. Whether it was a lack of money to pay a professional for their services or a genuine appreciation of the subject matter that motivated her, I don’t know. I just know that Mom, whether she realized it or not, approached technical challenges in our home much like a systems engineer. She had an eye for improving product design and used forensic engineering skills to get to the heart of her dead appliance’s problem.
Mom’s lack of formal technical training didn’t hold back her fix-its, and the basement workbench in our home was similar to a product development laboratory. As her apprentice on household repair projects, Mom would get me involved. It didn’t take long before I, too, understood how the timer in her washing machine made valves open and close, how the motor in her sewing machine made the needle move, how the toaster turned on and off, and how to fix a clock that wasn’t keeping time.
The education that my mother gave me formed a real world technical foundation for my future studies of engineering in college. Mom’s school gave me a practical understanding of the workings of machines and other devices that many of my classmates lacked. And the desire to keep things hands-on has stayed with me through my career, where the sanitary conditions of an office environment were often supplemented by activities that would continue to get my hands dirty.
I still love to take things apart, problem solve, and innovate. Thanks to Mom, I’m the engineer that I am today. My writing skills I had to pick up elsewhere…