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Memoirs of the First Forty Years, by Dan H. Pletta

Departmental Administration Reminiscences and Conferences

The impressive achievements of the faculty summarized in the previous pages were supported by a competent, loyal staff of technicians and secretaries, and by the following three department heads whose active leadership spanned three generations:

1932-1948 - Dr. Louis O'Shaughnessy
1948-1970 - Professor Dan H. Pletta
1970-------- Dr. Daniel Frederick

A word or two of this support, especially in the department's early years, seems apropos here because available resources then, like now, were perpetually inadequate. Faculty salaries were much lower at that time than the national averages. Nine month salaries for instructors to full professors in the 1930's ranged from $1,200 to $3,500. A $2,400 twelve month salary was enough then to build a seven-room house, buy a second-hand car, pay for a new baby, and have a full-time maid seven days a week living on the premises. Such perquisites, coupled with the low cost of living existing during the Great Depression of the 1930's and the contemplative life which college teaching provided were sufficient to attract and to hold a bare nucleus of competent staff. Funds were scarce. For instance, in 1936, Frank Maher as a graduate assistant was provided with $25 to purchase the stress-free lenses for the photo-elasticity polariscope he needed for his master's thesis.

Salaries remained below the national average until 1963 when Dr. T. Marshall Hahn assumed the Presidency. Until then salaries were supplemented with the opportunity to enjoy the local mountainous scenery, and to rear a family in a wholesome social environment. No one on the faculty in those early years had tenure. No one on the faculty was ever concerned about it! They had security! Professors felt that salaries were too low for the administration to fire anyone because of the difficulty it would have trying to find a replacement. Tenure was first granted at VPI in 1953.

The emphasis in the early days was on teaching. The teaching of graduate courses was approved as long as the faculty also taught 15 to 19 hours of undergraduate courses and everyone carried a full-load. Department heads taught 9 to 12 hours with the balance allowed for administration. Paper work was miniscule in volume. Dr. O'Shaughnessy, who also served as Director of Graduate Studies, had two small files of correspondence, one in each side coat pocket. Professor Pletta, in the early 1950's, continued the tradition of minimizing irrelevant paper shuffling. One example will suffice. He served as the departmental search committee for new staff, and remembers writing the Dean of Engineering the following letter:

Dear Dean Norris:

Please appoint Dr. Victor G. Szebehely* as an assistant professor at a salary of $XXXX beginning in September 1948, and arrange the necessary paper work.

Respectfully yours,


Dan H. Pletta, Head
Engineering Mechanics Department

Department heads in those "good old days"' also minimized other redtape by selecting their own graduate students and nominating fellowship and assistantship appointees. Gradually, however, as the university grew in size, administrative constraints multiplied. Teaching loads declined and emphasis on research increased as such funds became available for research, conferences, and buildings, especially after the launching of Sputnik in 1957.

The first mechanics conference at VPI was held in the summer of 1950. A $3,500 grant from the General Education Board of New York provided partial funding for the $250 honoraria (excluding travel) for some of the seminar speakers, for ocean passage for Sir Richard Southwell and his assistant Miss Jill Vaisey from England, and for the $75 fee for the five-week term for the 26 official representatives of other engineering schools who attended. They came from the eastern half of the United States and Canada. All out-of-town speakers and students were housed in Hillcrest Dormitory at $2 per night for single occupancy. Meals were $.50 each. Dr. Hans Bleich graciously volunteered to take a 7 a.m. taxi from the train station in Cambria to Hillcrest so that I could meet my 9 o'clock class instead of the train. The taxi fare was $.50.

The theme of the conference emphasized Southwell's relaxation techniques for 'solving' the partial differential equations of theoretical physics and engineering science, and Hardy Cross' moment distribution method to analyze indeterminate structural frames. Their methods solved the required partial differential and/or simultaneous equations with only arithmetic, converging quickly on the answers without the need to use prolonged iterative techniques of higher mathematics. Today iteration is no longer an obstacle because electronic computers are available. In 1950, only mechanical desk calculators were capable of such arithmetic computations. Frieden, Marchant and Monroe machines were loaned free of charge for use of the conference attendees. A display of strain gage equipment was provided by Magnaflux Corporation and by the Baldwin-Locomotive Works.

The conference included other modern engineering experimental and theoretical applications like the use of electrical resistance (SR4) strain gages and photoelasticity as well as of the application of structural vibrations, dynamics of package cushioning, etc. as Table II illustrates.


* Dr. Szebehely was on the ESM Staff from 1948 to 1952.


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