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100+ Years and Continuing

Posted by on Tuesday, May 22, 2012 in Impact, Spring 2012.

A young H. Fort Flowers, BE’12, MS’15 (left), with his three-wheeled Motorette and friend Sam Hunt (leaning on seat) in downtown Nashville.

Some philanthropic families put their names on buildings. Others endow chairs. Still others choose to create scholarships. Rarely does one family do all three—but the Flowers are no ordinary family when it comes to supporting Vanderbilt.

For more than a century, members of the Flowers family have attended and supported the Vanderbilt School of Engineering. It started with H. Fort Flowers, a young man from a farm in Adairville, Ky.

Flowers was born in 1887 as the last of seven children and attended a one-room schoolhouse. In the early years of the 20th century, he graduated at 15 and moved to Nashville to live with an aunt. He apprenticed with Nashville’s Tennessee Central Railroad locomotive shop for nearly four years. H. Fort’s son, Daniel Flowers, G’49, picks up the story from there.

“At the end of the apprenticeship, my father entered Vanderbilt to be trained as an engineer,” Dan says. “I don’t know if there were scholarships back then, but Vanderbilt found him a job teaching machine shop [then part of the engineering school]. He was invited to join a fraternity—Phi Kappa Psi—and that gave him lots of contacts he would use in the future.”

After graduating in 1912, H. Fort headed to New York City and a job with Otis Elevator as a draftsman.

“It was while working in New York and living at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at Columbia University that he met—at a fraternity convention—the chief engineer of Cleveland Electric Power,” Dan says. “That gentleman told my father that he needed a special kind of railroad car. My father sketched one out on the spot. The man from Cleveland Electric told my father that if he could build it, Cleveland Electric would buy it.”

Railway Car Magnate

The design H. Fort roughed out that day was for a street railway dump car that unloaded bulk material from the side. H. Fort turned to the Nashville Bridge Company to build it and within five months, he delivered the first car. While it was being constructed, he completed requirements for a Vanderbilt graduate degree in mechanical engineering. It was 1915 and the Differential Steel Car Company was born.

Many railway cars, as well as mine cars and trucks and more than 80 patents later, H. Fort decided that it was time to give back to the school that had given him so much.

“My father had a good reason for supporting Vanderbilt—because Vanderbilt supported him,” Dan says.

In 1969, the highly successful engineer, inventor and manufacturer funded the H. Fort Flowers Graduate Wing of the Heard Libraries. Of no less significance was that he encouraged his children and grandchildren to follow in his philanthropic footsteps.

“The family has gone in and continued to support Vanderbilt,” Dan says. “We owe a great deal to Vanderbilt and we have a duty to keep that up.”

In 1980, H. Fort’s children, Daniel, Barbara, Joan, Sara and Fred, G’72, created the H. Fort Flowers Endowment Fund at the School of Engineering. It funds the H. Fort Flowers Chair in Mechanical Engineering, first awarded in 1990 to Thomas A. Cruse. Today the chair is held by Michael Goldfarb, H. Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering, who is doing breakthrough development of robotic artificial legs and arms for amputees.

By 2011, the fund had grown in value and a second endowed chair was created. The second chair is named for H. Fort’s late son-in-law, John R. Murray Sr., also an engineer. The John R. Murray Sr. Chair in Engineering is held by Sankaran Mahadevan. H. Fort’s grandson, Joseph Flowers, BE’88, explains why these chairs would’ve meant so much to his grandfather.

“After my grandfather passed away in 1975, there was an interest in putting together a way to honor him at the school,” Joseph says. “The idea was to focus on teaching, particularly on the teaching of design. He always felt it was important to push design and to encourage new thinking and creativity—especially as the world became more compartmentalized.”

Buildings to Chairs to Scholarships

Joseph and his wife, Lori Manix Flowers, BA’88, took the family’s giving in a new direction in 2003 when they endowed the Joseph and Lori Flowers Scholarship in the School of Engineering.

“When I was at Vanderbilt, I was lucky enough to receive a General Motors scholarship during my junior and senior years,” Joseph says. “The sense of freedom that came with it was really nice. It’s great to share that freedom with other students and help them concentrate on their work and not worry about the financial stuff.”

Lori says she hopes the scholarship helps students make the decision to come to the School of Engineering. “I like to think that we’re helping students go where they truly want to go and not just where they can afford,” she says.

It’s remarkable to consider that the Flowers family has been part of Vanderbilt for more than 100 years—especially as the School of Engineering celebrates its 125th anniversary. The family has supported virtually every area of the school and Vanderbilt as a whole—from buildings to teaching to scholarships. Members of the Flowers family have been involved at a variety of levels, providing time, gifts, expertise, guidance and support, as well as graduating several generations of alumni.

“With a quality institution, you have to support the infrastructure and promote the quality of the students,” Joseph says. “Otherwise, the legacy can’t continue. My parents and my grandparents have a history of supporting Vanderbilt. Without people like them, it would be a different place.”