In the winter of 1993, I was rescued by a small-statured, big-hearted, full-of-energy academic dean by the name of Bob Stammer. I had entered Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering without a strong background in classes from high school, and it did not take long for me to fall into a deep, dark hole academically. I was surrounded by some of the most intelligent kids in the country, and now a sophomore, I was struggling to find my way.
One day while sitting in my dorm room, I got the call that saved my college education. Of course I knew that when the dean of students asked to meet with me in the morning, it likely was not a good omen, but at that point I was ready to face the music. As I walked into his office expecting the worse, I had no idea what a big day it would be for me, not only as a student but well beyond my time at Vanderbilt.
I sat down with Dean Stammer. I was mentally prepared for him to ask me to leave the school, but he asked me what I liked about the engineering school. I struggled to find an answer that satisfied either him or me. He quickly turned his questioning to what I liked about life in general and what got me excited. We spent the rest of our morning talking about all the classes that Vanderbilt had to offer. Dean Stammer listened closely, taking several notes.
The following day he called me back to his office. He had designed a curriculum that he felt I could get excited about, one which was a blend of engineering basics with a heavy focus on business. After seeing my delight, he promptly sent me off to pursue an engineering science degree.
Over the next two and half years, he spent many days with me providing personal tutoring as my engineering skills slowly developed. In the end I managed to balance enough credits in business and engineering to earn a diploma from Vanderbilt. Because Dean Stammer focused upon my strengths instead of trying to fix my weaknesses, he enabled me to see graduation was truly a possibility.
Looking back, I feel that I was very fortunate to be mentored by a professor who was interested enough to help me get back on track. He never gave up on me. It would have been justified and understandable for him to kick me out of school—but he didn’t.
I will always be grateful to Dean Stammer for believing in me, getting me remotivated and having the patience to see me through the program.
One of the happiest days of my life was getting a signed diploma with an engineering science degree from Vanderbilt. That evening several of us had one heck of a party, and Dean Stammer was the guest of honor.
DeWitt “De” Thompson V, BS’95, uses his engineering and business skills as president and CEO of Thompson Machinery Commerce Corp., founder and chairman of PureSafety, and board member of SouthComm Inc. and the Nashville Predators.