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Prof. Powers

A great teacher has died.

Professor Gary Powers was more than a Chemical Engineer. The lessons he taught us at Carnegie-Mellon were about problem solving skills and how important it was to rely on our colleagues. He made us work as a team to solve the most difficult things he could throw at us, and taught us how to do it with precision, diligence, and most important of all style.

A typical class would involve a handout or overhead of an incredibly complicated situation, one that we could not even get our arms around. Prof. Powers would build an air of exasperation that hung over what he presented like a sour note blasted by an orchestra. Something was wrong. What could we do?

That was when Maestro went to work. Conducting us, together, the bits and pieces of the problem would come out. His method was simple: Diagram it. What do you want? What do you know? What are the first principles involved? Exasperation gradually fell to a simple method built slowly on the fundamentals that we had been learning for so many years. He would pull out of us virtuoso performances, but in the end the first principles were his:

“And when all else fails, what’s the first law of Chemical Engineering? Everybody �”

As he conducted us to follow along, we’d all repeat in unison, “Heat the bejeebers out of it.” This was usually followed by a smug, “Amen?”

This was not a lesson in Engineering, as such. This was a lesson in life, a lesson in how to solve problems. It was a lesson in how to do it together, talking it out, and how to do it with great style and aplomb. I cannot think of a single teacher who changed my life more than Gary Powers.

He was also my advisor, and gave us inside information on companies we were all interviewing with. His mission was for us to succeed, not just learn stuff. I am sure that he told me something about 3M before I got a job with them; this job brought me to live in the city of Saint Paul, which I have come to love. My life is what it is because of Prof. Powers.

A few years after I graduated, I saw him again when I visited Pittsburgh. After he greeted me, the first thing he asked was, “Now that you’ve been out in the world, what could we have done better?” That was the classic Gary Powers.

He died on Monday at the age of 61. Apparently, when I knew him he was only about 40, which surprises me. He was already bald and grey and had the wisdom of so many years bubbling out of his personality. Now that I am that age, I have come to realize how very much I am like him. I cannot be happier with that.

On a final note, I believe that a proper eulogy is one that does not contain the word “I”. I cannot do that when I think of Gary Powers. There is too much of him in me to think of him as a distant person, apart. His love for his students and everyone he knew was effusive. I carry that love with me. It was worth the price of tuition and all the hard work it takes to get a Chemical Engineering degree at Carnegie Tech.

3 thoughts on “Prof. Powers

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