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Making History Winston-Churchill-Style

One surprising trait in Bill Woodburn, who earned his B.S. from our Chemical Engineering Department in 1956, is his admiration of history, and especially Winston Churchill. That’s why he likes to tell this anecdote. Once, when asked how history would view him, Churchill responded, “Quite well, since I plan to write most of it myself.” No wonder, then, that Woodburn was so enthusiastic about recalling his memories at the College of Engineering from 1952 to 1956. That way, just like Churchill, he gets to write part of the history himself.

Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Woodburn spent most of his youth in that area and graduated from Central Catholic High School in 1952. The economic downturn in this old mill town at that time shaped his decision to attend UMass, because most of the mills were closing down and relocating to the American South. His family was one of thousands decimated by the migration, because his father lost his job.

“I like to joke that I majored in chemical engineering to avoid electrical engineering,” Woodburn says, “which was part of what my dad did in the mill as a power plant engineer.”

Though Woodburn was accepted by MIT, Purdue, and other prestigious universities, UMass was most attractive because he knew he’d have to work his way through college.  “I looked at all my alternatives, and UMass looked like the best bet,” he remembers. “UMass, to me, was a bargain of an education. When I started there, room, board, and tuition averaged out to less than $900 per year. I actually beat that total. I hit about $850.”

He earned his living by joining the campus ROTC and working in the Greenough cafeteria part-time. He lived in room 405 of the Baker residence hall and jokes that he carried out an unintentionally fiendish plan for guaranteeing his own privacy. “The first semester alone, I had three roommates,” he notes. “I guess I drove them out. So, for much of the second semester, I was one of the few people in the dorms who had a single room.”

The attrition rate in the new Chemical Engineering Department was almost as high as the attrition rate in Woodburn’s room. There were 40 declared chemical engineering majors when he was a freshman, and by the time his senior year rolled around, that was whittled down to 10.

The ChE department was run by E. Ernest Lindsay, appointed the first head of the department in 1952, Woodburn’s freshman year. “He was a real Southern gentleman,” remembers Woodburn, “very gentile, a wonderful man, and also a good teacher of thermodynamics, which I found invaluable when I went to work as an engineer.”

The ChE department was housed in the old Engineering Annex, located near where the UMass Transit Services complex is now. The ChE department shared the annex with, of all people, the Food Technology Department.

“I can tell you a funny incident about that,” Woodburn says. “We were on one side of the hall, and Food Technology the other. One of our lab operations was the distillation of ethanol. On the other side, the Food Technology class was working on frozen orange juice. Well, through the miracle of communication, a batch of that orange juice ended up in the engineering lab and got mixed with the distilled ethanol.”

The result of this interdisciplinary research was a batch of what some people might call Screwdrivers today. It was used strictly for academic purposes, of course.

Woodburn also has fond memories of the College of Engineering’s founding Dean, George A. Marston. “We called him the Lean Dean,” says Woodburn, “because he was tall and lanky.” Woodburn took one course in “Strength and Materials,” taught by Joseph Marcus, but Dean Marston substituted for Marcus during one exam. “I got a hundred on it,” says Woodburn. “And in the margin of my paper, Dean Marston scribbled this message: ‘Remember, Mr. Woodburn, there is no substitute for hard work.’ That stuck with me for the rest of my life.”

It must have stuck, considering how well his chemical engineering education prepared him for his career. He joined Pratt & Whitney in 1956 as a development engineer for high-temperature nuclear fuels and reactor materials for aircraft and space applications. Later projects included the development of reduced emissions combustion systems for several military and commercial turbojet engines, followed by commercial fuel cell test and development with several U.S., Canadian, and Japanese utilities.

His fluency in French and working knowledge of several other languages landed Woodburn in the international marketing arena at Pratt & Whitney. He worked for a number of years as an area director in Western and Eastern Europe and interfaced with major airlines, aerospace companies, and government agencies until his retirement.

“On a practical basis, the accomplishment I’m most proud of was developing reduced smoke combustors for jet engines,” says Woodburn about the invention he patented. “We started out trying to reduce visible smoke from fighters and bombers in Vietnam to protect them so the VC couldn’t shoot them down by following the smoke trails. But my work also reduced emissions, which was a significant accomplishment. My invention went into the combustion chambers on the military B-52 bomber, C-141 transport, and F-100 fighter bomber, among others. It also went into the commercial Boeing 727 and 737, as well as the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 and MD-80. That was all mine.”

It just goes to show that Woodburn is just as good at making history as recalling it. Winston Churchill would be proud. (September 2010)