Growing Up to Gratitude
How I got into the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering as a freshman is still a mystery. The filtering process at the admissions office was not as good as it is today, of course, but the standards were reasonably high even in 1959. My SATs were fine but my high school record of achievement was extraordinarily unimpressive. All my energy had gone into my automobile—a highly polished, lightning-fast, chromium-plated beauty. The younger kids marveled as I drove by. I thought I was king.
When I arrived on the Vanderbilt campus from Georgia, it was without my highly polished suit of armor—we were not allowed to bring our automobiles. It would not have made much difference anyway, because the values of my classmates had moved on. I went abruptly from being ruling monarch of my tiny kingdom to the lowliest serf in a bigger world. It is what happens when you are a couple of years behind the curve, out of step and unprepared.
I did not adjust well to my new environment. I was lost. Daniel Boone was once asked if he had ever been lost. He answered, “I can’t say I was ever lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.” I can attest that I was bewildered once for four years at Vanderbilt.
I did find some of the courses on mechanics quite interesting, and on occasion, I actually applied myself.
Socially, I faked it the best I could. Some of my classmates went along with me, but my professors were not fooled, of course. It is difficult to fake thermodynamics. I did find some of the courses on mechanics quite interesting, and on occasion, I actually applied myself. History and English, on the other hand, were, I thought, a complete waste of my valuable time. I expressed my disdain by flunking them, only to have to take the courses again. My approach was highly inefficient.
I actually loved the School of Engineering and identified with it, but forward progress at that time was in slow motion and difficult, like in a bad dream. A quote by E. B. White (paraphrased) helps explain the awkwardness of the time—“When one simultaneously wants to graduate and have one helluva good time and enjoy one’s personal hobbies, it makes it difficult to plan the day.” I had difficulty planning the day. Priority was not yet a meaningful concept in my development.
It is true. A professor actually stopped me in the hall one day and asked, “Why are you here?” I was speechless. I had no answer. I kept showing up though—in spite of myself—and graduated in 1964 with a degree in mechanical engineering.
A Continuing Process
A university can do just so much. I find it remarkable that there is such a great chasm between the relatively sound judgment of a mature 19-year-old, as an example, and the incredibly poor judgment of an immature 19-year-old. (I represented the latter, in case you have not already figured that out.) But it is far more relevant to understand that immaturity at a young age does not mean immaturity for life. It is true the maturation process can be, and I hope is, a continuing process for life. A desire to understand, a willingness to put your ego aside and make corrections, along with a failure or two and a couple of hard knocks, can do wonders.
I enjoy coming back to the reunions at Vanderbilt from time to time. It is an opportunity to see old friends, of course, but also to show that I did grow up, I am normal, and I can converse in complete sentences.
So why do I think so highly of Vanderbilt today and choose to give back now that I can? It’s not a mystery. I always loved Vanderbilt and what it stands for. I had great respect for my professors even when they saw straight through me. I came up short; the university did not.
Before I came to Vanderbilt, I had learned about giving back. My grandfather was successful in the corporate world and made cash donations to individuals in need from time to time. My grandmother balanced the family checkbook and when she found a disbursement that was unexplained, she had a pretty good idea what it was about. She noted in the margin “GKW,” which stood for God Knows What.
When I started a charitable foundation, initially with funds left by my grandfather many years ago, I called it the GKW Foundation. It seemed an appropriate way to carry on the tradition. Since then it has gotten more specific. A fund to assist teachers with travel and research grants during their summer months is called the God Knows Where Fund. A scholarship for a School of Engineering student is the GKW Scholarship, but maybe should be the God Knows Who Fund. Each student who receives it has the potential and opportunity to do God Knows What with his or her education, career, life, dreams. That’s exciting to me. And it’s fun.
And giving should be fun, don’t you agree?
Gerry Hull, BE’64, is the former CEO of Automated Logic Corporation of Kennesaw, Ga. He says he has always reserved time from his corporate management duties to work hands-on with engineering design projects, which he so enjoys, and he holds a number of patents. Hull is a longtime supporter of the School of Engineering and serves on a variety of community boards. In keeping with the GKW giving philosophy, Hull made possible the construction of Jacobs Believed in Me Auditorium in Featheringill Hall as a tribute to legendary former professor Dillard Jacobs. Gerry Hull was inducted into the School of Engineering’s Academy of Distinguished Alumni in 2004. He and his wife, Patricia, live in Atlanta.