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A Maxim to Live By

Posted by on Friday, September 24, 2010 in Fall 2010, Impact.

Sam McCleskey, BE’51, lives by the motto, “Learn, earn, return.”
Sam McCleskey, BE’51, lives by the motto, “Learn, earn, return.”

Learn, earn, return. Civil engineer Sam McCleskey, BE’51, has made that phrase his philosophy for every stage of his adult life. That dictum, combined with McCleskey’s success, has in turn made an enduring difference in the lives of students in the School of Engineering.

McCleskey began the learn phase of his adult life when he arrived at Vanderbilt’s campus in 1947 from Memphis, Tenn. McCleskey and 2,499 other recipients nationwide had been selected out of 50,000 applicants to receive Naval ROTC scholarships. “It was an immense honor,” McCleskey says. He would not have been able to attend the School of Engineering without the aid, he says.

The scholarship paid for his tuition and books, and allotted him $50 in spending money each month. “My scholarship required that I take 15 hours each semester as well as three hours of naval courses,” McCleskey says. “It was a challenging four years, but well worth it.”


Within two days of graduating with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, McCleskey obtained his naval commission and married Arden Keillor. McCleskey served in the Navy for three years and with the Army Corps of Engineers before returning to Memphis to follow in his father’s footsteps by working as a surveyor.

In 1956 he went to work for Gulf Oil Co. as a construction engineer in Louisiana. A few years later, he was hired as vice president of construction for J.C. Milne Co., an Oregon-based company that specialized in building mausoleums.

“After learning the industry of mausoleum construction and the principles of business, I started the McCleskey Construction Company in 1961,” McCleskey says. He simultaneously opened an architectural engineering division, MCF Architects.

Over the next decades, McCleskey built a business that combined engineering, design and customer service. Applying engineering know-how to considerations for structural design, environmental and climatic conditions, local development codes and material durability and maintenance, McCleskey Construction soon served clients from coast to coast. Sam McCleskey served on the boards of directors of the Georgia Cemetery Association, the Southern Cemetery Association and the National Association of Cemeteries. Today, he is one of only six people inducted into the Suppliers Hall of Fame for the cemetery and funeral industry, and his Atlanta-based mausoleum and memorialization company is now celebrating its 50th year in business. In 2007, he was named a member of the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering’s Academy of Distinguished Alumni.


Twelve years ago, Sam and his wife, Arden, established the McCleskey Honor Scholarship to support exceptional undergraduate engineering students who otherwise might not have the means to attend VUSE. “The scholarship benefits well-rounded individuals who demonstrate broad-based interests. This was created to help students in much the same position I was in when I entered Vanderbilt,” McCleskey says. “I am appreciative of my opportunity and felt an obligation to return it.”

“The next generation of engineers will inherit a unique set of problems.
. . . It will be up to you to solve these problems.”

~ Samuel McCleskey, BE’51

One of the first recipients was Jordan Winston, BE’02. “The scholarship served as motivation, as I knew I had to maintain a high GPA to keep the scholarship. I ended up graduating summa cum laude with a double major in biomedical and electrical engineering,” Winston says. That high GPA and his engineering background helped Winston get into medical school.

The scholarship also pushes students to reach their full potential and receive a quality education. “The McCleskey Honor Scholarship was a huge blessing for me,” says Lauren Shepherd, BE’05. “Not only was I appreciative of the recognition for my hard work and commitment to academic excellence, but also the financial aid from the scholarship meant that I could focus my attention more fully on my education. The financial burden eased by the scholarship directly impacted the freedom I felt to devote myself completely to my studies.”

Scholars’ Turn to Learn, Earn and Return

McCleskey believes that now, more than ever, a Vanderbilt education is crucial. “With the global population expanding, the next generation of engineers will inherit a unique set of problems,” the veteran entrepreneur says. He advises current students to learn as much as they can. “It will be up to you to solve these problems.”

McCleskey with former scholar JoAnna Todd Anderson, BE’05
McCleskey with former scholar JoAnna Todd Anderson, BE’05

McCleskey’s former scholars are doing their parts. Physician Winston is finishing up his training as a hospitalist. Derek Detring, BE’05, has started an energy advisory firm in Houston.
“When I received the McCleskey scholarship, it reinforced that a good work ethic and a good attitude are not only appreciated, but also rewarded in the ‘real world’ away from home,” Detring says. “This continues to cultivate an environment of solid work ethic in my life, which is especially important now as I am a new small business owner.”

Shepherd is currently in graduate school at the University of Washington in bioengineering. Her research focus is in the development of cheap, rapid and portable diagnostic devices for global health applications.
“As a graduate student, I now realize just how rare and valuable my experiences were as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt,” she says, noting that she feels the School of Engineering’s reputation continues to help and support her. “I feel like my acceptance to graduate school, as well as my success in securing a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to help fund my work, was definitely aided by the quality and reputation of the education I obtained at Vanderbilt.”