Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Spotlights: A Letter to Thayer Students

By Sam Florman ’46 Th’46

Sam Florman ’46 Th’46 is a former Thayer Overseer and the recipient of Thayer’s 1983 Robert Fletcher Award for distinguished achievement and service. His career in construction spanned more than 60 years. He has served on numerous civic boards and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. A tireless advocate for engineering and the liberal arts, he is the author of seven books, including The Civilized Engineer and, most recently, Good Guys, Wiseguys, and Putting Up Buildings: A Life in Construction.

Sam Florman
Photograph courtesy of Sam Florman.

As I join the celebration of Thayer School’s 150th anniversary, my thoughts flash back a mere 75 years to December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day, the beginning of World War II. It was a Sunday and I spent the afternoon in a car on my way home to New York City after a trip around New England. A high school senior, I was taking a final look at prospective college options, and an older brother-in-law had offered to be my driver on a quick tour. The visits only helped to confirm a decision already made: Dartmouth was my first choice. I fell in love with the place for many reasons, but Thayer School—the study of engineering and liberal arts in a five-year curriculum—was very much a factor in my thinking. Our nation had been living through Depression years and I had seen the Hooverville shacks in Central Park and the breadlines all over town. I didn’t have a clear concept of what engineers did, but I had formulated my own definition: math and science, which I liked a lot, along with a paycheck, which seemed important. Also, after a fashion, I viewed engineers as cultural heroes with talents that the nation needed. The newsreels that I saw every weekend between two movies at my neighborhood theater often featured the dedication of a new TVA dam or some other impressive public work, each event celebrating a counter-attack against rural dust bowls or urban slums. When the movies themselves depicted engineers, they were stalwart men in high-laced boots engaged in heroic endeavors such as building railroads across the desert. And often those lucky guys ended up with the pretty heroine. So there it was: Intellectually appealing, financially sensible, and with a touch of romance and adventure—engineering seemed like an ideal calling.   

When news of the Pearl Harbor attack came over the radio—in the middle of a New York Giants football game—it was a shock to be sure, but remote, hardly believable. At school the next day we gathered in the gym to hear a radio broadcast of President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech. Soon there were air-raid drills, evening black-outs, and many other indications that life had changed. Yet I was just on the verge of turning 17 and the draft registration age was 21, not lowered to 18 for another year. News of the fighting lacked immediacy, and when we graduated from high school in the spring of 1942, few dreamed that the war would last for more than another three years.

I was admitted to Dartmouth, entering in July 1942—a year-round schedule having been established—and good fortune granted me one full year of fairly normal college life, including football weekend hijinks. And when, shortly after my arrival in Hanover, the Navy and Dartmouth, and specifically Thayer, offered students a plan to enlist yet remain in school until a degree was earned, followed by military training leading to a commission, I signed up. The Navy needed a flow of college-educated engineer officers, and Dartmouth and Thayer met that challenge by developing the largest V-12 College Training Program in the nation.

Along with a number of classmates, I was called to active duty in July 1943. We put on sailor uniforms and moved into assigned dormitory rooms, four to a suite. We were in the Navy, yet we were students with daily schedules determined by classes. There was military discipline, reveille at six, taps at ten, rigorous physical ed, and long sessions of marching in parade. Doesn’t sound like fun. Yet, morale was high. Thayer Dean Frank Garran gave guidance and encouragement, and I recall especially his urging us to take liberal arts courses while we still had the chance. Bill Kimball, destined to become Thayer’s next dean, led a small faculty that I remember as being friendly and upbeat.

Like all engineers, we studied math and science and took basic courses in electricity, fluid mechanics, and thermodynamics. As civil engineers, we especially studied structures—designing beams, walls, trusses. Then soil mechanics and highways, water supply and sanitation. There was a good amount of “hands-on” work, pouring concrete into tubular forms, curing it and testing it to failure, analyzing the behavior of water in pipes and over weirs. We visited the river to check water flow, spent hours at a local construction site, and one cold midnight trained our transits on the North Star.

Our learning experience didn’t end within the halls of Thayer School. In November 1944, two and a half years after arrival on campus, a few of us qualified for a four-year degree and were granted a Dartmouth BS. After one more semester, still a bit short of the five-year Thayer degree but educated enough by Navy standards, we were sent to Rhode Island for two months of Officers Training School. Commissioned as ensigns, we spent two months in military training, hiking, crawling, tenting, shooting, taking guns apart and putting them back together again. We then journeyed to the Philippines, where we joined Seabee units mustered for the invasion of Japan. As the fates would have it, the war was in its final days.

Once the war ended, discipline among the troops tended to ease, and in my Seabee battalion the enlisted men took special pleasure in teaching us rookie officers the tricks of the hardhat trades. My first overseas assignment was maintenance of dirt roads on the Philippine island of Samar, and I suddenly found myself operating bulldozers, road graders, backhoes, and cranes. When we were sent to repair damaged buildings, I laid brick and wielded a variety of tools. This was an introduction to construction that I cannot imagine encountering under any other circumstance.

When my battalion was sent to restore facilities on Truk, the Japanese control center in the Pacific that had been bombed almost into oblivion, I shared in the design and oversight of a small earth-fill dam, a challenging project. Most of the reconstruction work on Truk was performed by Japanese soldiers under a special provision of the surrender agreement, and friendships evolved between our men and our former enemies. The written certificate of friendship given to me by the young Japanese lieutenant who was my counterpart on the dam project is one of my most prized possessions.

The post-war years saw hectic catching up for Thayer students and for just about everyone. In spite of an urge to return to Hanover, I stayed in New York. Most of my friends were returning to complete their schooling, but I had a degree, considered myself an engineer, and my first thought was to get a job. Belatedly I recalled Dean Garran’s advice not to forget that liberal arts education. Also, the GI Bill encouraged vets to return to the classroom. So I signed up for a master’s degree in English literature at Columbia. I also attended classes to prepare for tests leading to a Professional Engineer license, not required for most engineering careers but which I earned and maintained with pride. I found a solid job with an old established firm and then partnered with a couple of young daredevils who had just started a construction company. Our firm, Kreisler Borg Florman General Construction Co., has recently been closed after 60 splendid years.

We erected apartment houses, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, college dormitories, religious edifices, just about every type of building. Along with architects and structural and mechanical engineers, we builders, we construction engineers, take pleasure in a handsome facade, in a daring and exhilarating structure, and delight in successfully putting it all together, cleverly, on time and under budget. And then, when the project is dedicated to good purposes—for example, affordable housing for low-income citizens—how rewarding it is to be associated with such works, to attend the ground-breaking ceremonies celebrating the goodness of human endeavor. 

Engineers do such a variety of things that it is impossible to capture the essence of the professional experience in any one pronouncement or in a hundred examples. I do believe that we all share that occasional jolt of delight or satisfaction—as I have called it in a book title The Existential Pleasures of Engineering—when we perceive a truth, solve a problem, achieve a goal. And, of course, beyond one’s formally defined career, an engineer will want to devote time and energy to public service. Young engineers with technical know-how and help-your-neighbor impulses are an important asset for our society.  I’ve had the pleasure and satisfaction of serving on the boards of a school, a hospital, and a science museum, and I’ve returned to Thayer for activities serious as well as congenial.

Thayer School made me the engineer I am. And as we celebrate the school’s 150th anniversary, I’m grateful for having been part of its history. And I’m so proud of what Thayer has recently achieved: the National Academy of Engineering’s Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education, many accolades for its professors, and the distinction of being the first American research university to graduate more women engineers than men!

I wish for the Thayer students of today, engineers of tomorrow, lives and careers as full of satisfaction as mine has been. I know that our world will be in good hands.

Categories: Alumni News, Spotlights

Tags: alumni, career, history, students

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