Imagine opening a time capsule and finding personal accounts about the School of Engineering from its beginning in 1886 to its youth in the 1930s and up until today. What would those early graduates say? What stories would they tell? What memories would they have in common and what experiences have changed?
To celebrate our 125th year, we asked one alumnus from every decade since 1930 to tell us their Vanderbilt story: how they got here, what they studied, what college life was like. We also asked a current student to do the same as a representative of the 2010s.
Their responses tell tales both personal and representative of their eras. It’s possible to trace the historic changes in the school and in society through their answers. It’s also possible to see a common core: while many things have changed over the years, some things remain consistent—great experiences, quality education, caring professors and a love of Vanderbilt School of Engineering.
|After finishing high school at Hume-Fogg, I joined the workforce. I was a hometown boy and after one year I had saved enough money to attend Vanderbilt.Charles E. Harris, BE’34|
When I arrived at Vanderbilt, I was 23 years old and had been out of high school for five years. The Navy awarded me a scholarship where I received full tuition including room and board.
Ralph J. Long, BE’49
|My father was an Eastern Airlines pilot based in Miami, and Vanderbilt was the best school in a city that Eastern flew to. Very fortunate for me.Cathy Jo Thompson Linn, BS’74, MS’78, PhD’80|
|I had an interest in math and science and I was interested in studying engineering. After visiting Vanderbilt during the spring of my high school senior year, I knew it was the school for me.Charles Westfield Coker Jr., BS’81|
|I chose Vanderbilt to study engineering based on the school’s educational reputation and its location. Being from Arkansas, I wanted to go away for school but not too far away.Ronald A. Lewis II, BE’93|
|I chose Vanderbilt School of Engineering upon recommendation of my guidance counselor who spoke highly of the university. She thought my personality would fit in well with the university.Roli Kumar-Choudhury, BE’00|
Choosing Vanderbilt was easy. I have lived my entire life in Tennessee, and I have many alumni in my family. Having the opportunity to attend a top-20 school this close to home was a no-brainer.
Seth Dean, current sophomore
Classes and Coursework
|Senior-level classes were taught in the Mechanical Engineering Hall where there were fewer than 10 students in a class.Charles E. Harris, BE’34|
|I enjoyed my civil engineering classes. Most teachers were eager to have veterans in their classes because they were motivated and hardworking compared to the students fresh out of high school.Ralph J. Long, BE’49|
|My favorite classes involved the actual design of a water system and sewerage system for a fictitious community, “Crockett, Tennessee,” because it gave me a chance to practice engineering. However, I enjoyed all my classes—especially the seminars.Walter A. Casson Jr., BE’56|
|I enjoyed all of my engineering and math classes and endured the rest. Probably my favorite class was sophomore chemistry. Professor Robert Dilts made it so interesting that I actually enjoyed it, although not everybody did. Once we got past memorizing the periodic table, most of the rest fell in place.M. Timothy Carey, BE’66|
|It is hard to choose, but I’m going to say Computer Organization. In this course we programmed in assembly language and learned how a computer worked. Suddenly there was no magic—you could see how it all worked. Later in my career I came back to Vanderbilt and taught the Computer Organization course, among others. I always loved seeing the light bulbs turn on in the students’ heads as magic turned into understanding.Cathy Jo Thompson Linn, BS’74, MS’78, PhD’80|
|My Intellectual Property/Patents class helped me understand the practical applications of what we were learning and why we were studying physics, calculus and thermodynamics.Charles Westfield Coker Jr., BS’81|
|I took a linguistics class as an elective and the professor made learning about how sounds make up the languages of different lands and groups of people very interesting. Vanderbilt not only gave me a great engineering education but a great liberal arts education. Vanderbilt engineers are not all about the numbers—they can communicate well and a vast majority of us do have personalities.Ronald A. Lewis II, BE’93|
I enjoyed the Design of Biomedical Devices. I still remember learning about submitting a 510(k) and completing a risk analysis for device design. It was nice to see the real-world applications and when I first started in my quality engineering job, I was able to understand these two topics.
Roli Kumar-Choudhury, BE’00
That Class Was Torture
|My two most difficult classes were outside of the normal range of civil engineering: Electric Circuits and Machines and Steam Engineering. I had the attitude, “Why do I need to take these classes?” I am sure that the electrical engineering majors felt the same when they had to attend the four-week Vanderbilt Summer Surveying Camp at Sparta, Tenn.Walter A. Casson Jr., BE’56|
I hated Saturday morning classes for obvious reasons. As time went on and I was in the more advanced computer science classes, we tended to work all night. Back then you had to share the Xerox Sigma 7 (the computer in that round building) with everyone on campus. You could get lots more done at night, so computer science majors became nocturnal. Getting up to attend an 8 a.m. class on Saturday—most likely in a subject to fulfill a distribution requirement—was torture.
Cathy Jo Thompson Linn, BS’74, MS’78, PhD’80
|Thermodynamics!Charles Westfield Coker Jr., BS’81|
|My least favorite class was an introductory mechanical engineering class. There was a reason I chose chemical engineering as my major. I just could not figure out those darn vector forces on a pair of pliers on the midterm exam.Ronald A. Lewis II, BE’93|
|Although I enjoyed math and calculus in high school, I have found that certain upper-level math courses here are not for me. They are probably a little more abstract than what I would like, which sort of serves as an antithesis to the EE courses.Seth Dean, current sophomore|
|We spent good times in the basement of the mechanical engineering building with machine shop instructor “Papa John” Lawrence.Charles E. Harris, BE’34|
I looked up to all of the faculty members. It would be difficult to select any one of them as my favorite since they all had different personalities. … However, the man that gave me the opportunity to continue my studies after the death of my father, and thereby was most influential in my life at Vanderbilt, was Fred J. Lewis, dean of the engineering school. I will never know where he got the money to pay my expenses. He got me a job in Barnard Hall as the laundry agent. He allowed me to be a teaching assistant in mechanical drawing classes, and I worked as a TA during the summer at surveying camp. I graduated with a BE degree in June of 1956.
Walter A. Casson Jr., BE’56
I came to VU to major in chemical engineering but Professor Robert Dilts actually got me interested in chemistry, so he ranks high on my list of favorites. Professor Tom Harris was always available to help in my senior year. I will always be indebted to him for his help getting me through the last semester of chemical engineering so I could go on to an MBA at Stanford the following year.
M. Timothy Carey, BE’66
|Professor John Williamson taught the Intellectual Properties course. He was a very senior member of the Vanderbilt engineering school faculty and he was passionate about his area of expertise and encouraging of the students. He would hold court after class with a group of us to talk about our ideas and interests.Charles Westfield Coker Jr., BS’81|
|If I had to choose one most influential faculty member, it would have to be Brock Williams (assistant vice chancellor for student recreation and associate director, student athletics). He helped me find my first on-campus job and convinced me that I did not have to be a sociology or psychology major to live in McGill Hall. I lived with a great group of free spirits for three years and worked as a reeve at the front desk of Towers I and II.Ronald A. Lewis II, BE’93|
|Professor Bob Galloway was my faculty adviser and was very helpful in guiding me in class choices, answering questions I had from his classes and helping me choose the right master’s program in biomedical engineering.Roli Kumar-Choudhury, BE’00|
My father worked for the Army Corps of Engineers and from 1919 to 1923 we lived in Alabama while he worked on the Wilson Dam in Muscle Shoals. Although he wasn’t an engineer, his line of work influenced my decision to join the Army Corps and become an engineer.
Charles E. Harris, BE’34
|My father and maternal grandfather were longtime employees of DuPont and I grew up in Wilmington, Del. My father’s advice was “if you have a chemical engineering degree, you will always be able to get a job.”M. Timothy Carey, BE’66|
|In high school I was good at math, and my older brother (attending Georgia Tech) suggested I try computer science. At the time, the only thing I knew about computers was the jobs for keypunch operators that I saw advertised on T.V. and I didn’t think that was such a good idea. He took the time to explain the difference, and so I checked that box on the application. It was called the systems and information science department and was in the engineering school. Once I took my first course I was hooked.Cathy Jo Thompson Linn, BS’74, MS’78, PhD’80|
|It really selected me. I enjoyed my mechanical engineering and math classes, yet I wanted to take business electives. The BS in general engineering allowed me to balance these interests.Charles Westfield Coker Jr., BS’81|
|I knew I wanted to become a chemical engineer since eighth grade. I took an aptitude test and engineering came up as a good fit. I researched the different engineering disciplines and chemical engineering sounded most appealing as it was the most versatile. You could be a lawyer, doctor, scientist, professor, researcher, product developer and work in many different aspects of a large corporation.Ronald A. Lewis II, BE’93|
We arrived at my assigned dorm, Old Kissam Hall. It was a four-story brick building with no elevators. It had wooden fire escapes. When my father saw the wooden fire escapes attached to the building, he said (in jest), “If this is an engineering school, I think we should go back home.”
Walter A. Casson Jr., BE’56
|My first memory of VU is driving onto the campus in September 1962 to matriculate. Prior to that I had never been west of the Pennsylvania border. I was struck by the beauty of the Vanderbilt campus and Nashville in general.M. Timothy Carey, BE’66|
|My first memory of the engineering school is walking into the ladies’ room, only to see a line of urinals. After backtracking and checking the sign, I realized that at one point the engineering school hadn’t had a need for ladies’ rooms.Cathy Jo Thompson Linn, BS’74, MS’78, PhD’80|
|Moving in the dorm the first day, lots of Bee Gees (Saturday Night Fever) music radiating from the dorm windows and girls on campus! Seeing girls on campus was really different for me as I had attended an all-male high school.Charles Westfield Coker Jr., BS’81|
|During an assembly for the 1989 freshman class, word got out that it was my 18th birthday. A few people started singing “Happy Birthday” and then the entire freshman class of about 1,300 students began singing to me. It was kind of cool but also a little embarrassing.Ronald A. Lewis II, BE’93|
|My first memory was attending the VUSE Summer Research program. It was nice to get my bearings before the start of the school year and explore the opportunities the university had
to offer.Roli Kumar-Choudhury, BE’00
Life on Campus
During my school days, I was living with my family in Sylvan Park where I would walk to the corner of West End Avenue and catch a streetcar to campus.
Charles E. Harris, BE’34
|Veterans were considered role models and my younger roommates referred to me as “Pop.” The resident conditions on campus in the ’40s were somewhat primitive. To shower, I had to go down four flights of stairs to the basement. Although coming from a fleet, the dorms seemed quite spacious!Ralph J. Long, BE’49|
|I spent most of my time the first semester with the NROTC. The engineering curriculum was difficult and we all spent a great deal of time studying. Of course, we participated in campus activities such as the Pajama Parade through downtown Nashville during Homecoming.Walter A. Casson Jr., BE’56|
|The ’70s were a time of great social change for Vanderbilt. When I was a freshman in 1970 we lived in an all-female quad. We had to sign out if we left at night and sign in by curfew (midnight on weekdays, 2 a.m. on weekends). The big news that year was that now men could enter the dorms during certain hours with an escort. Three years later I was living in a coed dorm (The Towers) and the idea of a curfew was nonexistent. The drinking age was 18 and Saturday night activities included imbibing, dancing and just plain fun.Cathy Jo Thompson Linn, BS’74, MS’78, PhD’80|
|Life on campus was great—friendly people and a beautiful setting. Dorm life was super as we all had our own single rooms in the Kirkland Quad which I believe had recently been built/renovated. We really had a good group of guys (and gals). A typical weekend might involve a football game and visits to the frat houses, the Exit/In, Rotier’s and Waxies, and most of Sunday in the science library.Charles Westfield Coker Jr., BS’81|
|Campus life was a lot of fun. My freshman year, I was in Kissam Quad on the third floor of Currey. We had many social activities with the adjacent girls’ dorms. Most weekends, we would make our own parties on the dorm floor until the RAs would tell us to turn the music down. We would also check out the movies at Sarratt. This went on until we discovered Fraternity Row and the occasional sorority crush parties.Ronald A. Lewis II, BE’93|
|University life included the sounds of the Spice Girls as you walked down the halls of my freshman dorm, plus all of us gathering on a Thursday night in our dorm room to watch Friends. I remember freshman year living in Branscomb Hall with a very spacious room but with the increase in enrollment the study rooms were converted into rooms with six-plus girls living in one room. The weekends included a movie at Sarratt. We would go out to dinner on West End to Chili’s, Calypso Cafe and Las Palmas. Later we would go downtown clubbing.Roli Kumar-Choudhury, BE’00|
|We certainly have a few more amenities now than I am sure Vanderbilt students had in the past, but it is cool to think about how many other students lived and worked in the same little room I now live in.Seth Dean, current sophomore|
Life Lessons Learned at VUSE
|There are many things I learned at Vanderbilt that have been most valuable in my life; three of them are: 1) Work hard—it’s worth it; 2) When circumstances are difficult, don’t give up; and 3) What you do for others gives you the most satisfaction in life.Walter A. Casson Jr., BE’56|
|The most valuable part of my VU education was the friendships forged during those four years. We all worked and played as hard as we could which resulted in the perfect academic and social growth experience. It set the stage for the next steps which would never have been possible without my Vanderbilt experience.M. Timothy Carey, BE’66|
|This is a hard one to answer. Probably that there is no magic. No matter how confusing or complicated something may seem at first glance, you can figure out how it all works if you keep after it.Cathy Jo Thompson Linn, BS’74, MS’78, PhD’80|
|Balance. Balance your work, interests, distractions, friends and relationships and you’ll likely do OK in the long run.Charles Westfield Coker Jr., BS’81|
Vanderbilt taught me many life lessons. I interacted with people from all walks of life and backgrounds. I learned how to find a common thread with anyone to relate with them if only for five minutes. I pride myself on my ability to assimilate into any situation with any group of people and make everyone feel included.
Ronald A. Lewis II, BE’93
|Vanderbilt teaches you how to multitask and balance education, participation in organizations and a social life. This has been really helpful in balancing a career and family.Roli Kumar-Choudhury, BE’00|
|To relax. With so many intelligent people vying for a fixed amount of A’s, the stress can start to accumulate. I have really just tried to focus on acquiring knowledge and bettering myself instead of being worried about whether or not there will be a curve.Seth Dean, current sophomore|
Alumni through the Decades
As a civil engineer, Charlie Harris had a notable and fruitful career in the hydroelectric branch of the Army Corps of Engineers before retiring with nearly 40 years of service. He specialized in electrical design projects along the Cumberland River and its tributaries, leading projects on the Caney Fork River, Dale Hollow Lake, Obed River and more. Now 100 years old—yes, 100—Harris still lives in Nashville.
Ralph Long entered the School of Engineering on an NROTC scholarship and still on active duty from World War II naval service. A 1949 graduate in civil engineering, Long served as senior vice president of Utah International, one of the largest and most successful multinational mining companies in the world at its time. He joined the company in 1956 and was instrumental in managing operations in Arkansas, Utah and in the Blackwater Mine in Queensland, Australia, among others. He lives in California.
Walt Casson started his civil engineering career at a Florida engineering company and later, started his own land surveying and civil engineering consulting firm. Casson Engineering Co. designed local highways, water and wastewater systems, and thousands of residential lots as well as commercial projects in Florida for more than 35 years. He and his wife, Lauzanne Sims Casson, divide their time between traveling and maintaining residences in Florida and Virginia.
After receiving his chemical engineering degree, Tim Carey earned an MBA from Stanford before serving in Vietnam. His management experience with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion One set the stage for a career in the pipeline construction industry. In 1978, he became president of CRC Automatic Welding, a small pipeline equipment company, and continued to lead the company as CEO when it became CRC-Evans Pipeline International. Thriving amid leveraged buyouts, the 1980s oil downturn and changes in management teams, Carey eventually sold CRC in 2010. He lives in Houston.
Cathy Jo Thompson Linn might not consider herself a trailblazer, but she is. After being one of Vanderbilt’s first female computer engineering graduates, she went on to work for IBM, several universities, the Department of Defense and Microsoft. At Microsoft, Linn helped develop object linking and embedding technology before supporting interactions and communications for different Microsoft groups. She retired from Microsoft in the late 1990s after being a program manager for the team that shipped Windows CE 1.0. She and her husband, Joe Linn, BS’74, PhD’80, met at VUSE as undergraduates, and today split their time between Seattle and Hawaii.
With an interest in business as well as engineering, Charles Coker found that a bachelor’s in engineering science provided the right mix for his future. After receiving an MBA from the University of Virginia, Coker joined Sonoco Products Co., a global leader in consumer and industrial packaging. Over the next 25 years, he applied his engineering and business knowledge to manufacturing operations, finance, materials sciences and managing processes in industry. Parlaying his skills into a new profession, Coker moved into commercial and residential property development in the late 2000s. Coker says that he would not trade his engineering education and time at Vanderbilt for any other—especially since he met his wife, Sylvia Sparkman Coker, BA’81, on their first day on campus. The Cokers reside in South Carolina.
Ronald Lewis leveraged his chemical engineering degree and two internships with Procter & Gamble into a job with the top consumer goods company right after graduation. He worked as a development and process engineer on over-the-counter health care products for five years. He then joined Nestlé Purina as principal scientist developing new products and received seven patents for his work. Lewis moved to marketing after earning a master’s in management, and then to Henkel, the multinational corporation behind well-known brands Dial, Right Guard, Soft Scrub and adhesive Loctite. He and his family live in Arizona.
Roli Kumar-Choudhury chose to combine her love of science and math by majoring in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt. She then earned a master’s in biomedical engineering–biomaterials/biomechanics before joining medical device manufacturer LeMaitre Vascular. She earned an MBA in 2007 and is now director of quality affairs for LeMaitre Vascular, which develops, manufactures and markets disposable and implantable devices for vascular disease. Kumar-Choudhury and her husband reside in the Boston area.
Seth Dean comes from engineering alumni on both sides of his family. His father, J. Bruce Dean, graduated from the school in 1980. His mother’s grandfather, Allen Dunkerley Jr., earned his Vanderbilt engineering degree in 1934. A lot has changed in the engineering field since his great-grandfather’s time and Dean plans on exploring areas that his ancestor could never have imagined. “There are a lot of undiscovered and exciting frontiers in electrical engineering,” Dean says. “Electric cars have become a reality, computers are able to do more a lot faster, and electronics have become such a huge part of daily life.”