By: Amanda Coulson
“You are here for one main purpose, and that is to gain theoretical knowledge.” These are the words of a true believer of education, Frederick Willis. Graduating from Penn State University in 1970 with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and a Master of Engineering in Engineering Mechanics and later becoming a Professional Engineer in Pennsylvania, Fred was nothing but determined for success. He grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, living in Rhawnhurst and attending Northeast High School. Penn State was one of only fourteen schools in the country to offer a degree in engineering mechanics. Fred is highly passionate about this field and even after retirement two years ago he occasionally continues to work with the Independence Seaport Museum performing forensic engineering on the operating systems of the USS Olympia.
Fred went to Penn State Abington, or Ogontz as it was called at that time, for two years, then University Park to finish earning his bachelor’s degree, and continued there for grad school. Fred said “Penn State as a University, gave me what I wanted, which was the theoretical basis to be a mechanical engineer, and they did a good job.” He spent the majority of his time studying, but found some time to play some intramural sports. What he valued the most at Penn State was six years of small class sizes, even at University Park. During high school he was used to having a large class, so Ogontz was a shock in this sense.
Fred took much pride in his professors and thought all of the courses were well designed. At the time the Vietnam War was happening, so many students had the potential of being drafted hanging over their head. Even though school was a deferment, they needed to complete their degree in four years, so students were very focused on their work, especially Fred. Overall he enjoyed his time at Penn State, and learned all of the functions for his lifelong career.
As a mechanical engineer Fred has worked at several companies including Westinghouse and Tenneco Newport News Ship Building Company in Newport News, VA. He later went into nuclear engineering, then into pharmaceutical, and then back to nuclear. Technology evolved over his career. When he first started at Westinghouse calculators had just been developed, previously in school and at work everything was done using a slide rule. By the time he retired all calculations were computerize and pencils were pretty ornaments. Fred e dealt with a lot of numbers, and learning engineering with a slide rule made him learn to always make sure his numbers are correct, do math by hand, and to think more critically. As far as a major accomplishment, Fred has done solid work for 42 years.
Although college is filled with many distractions, Fred believes studying is the number one priority. Fred’s valuable advice to students is:
“You are here for one major purpose, and there are three related aspects of the major purpose; You are here to gain theoretical knowledge of the subject you selected. You are here to learn how to apply that subject, and you are here to learn how to learn additional theoretical information in the future, because no matter what you learn here it is never going to be enough. The school can be marvelous, the social aspects can be marvelous, but social aspects can all be done outside of the university. You concentrate on those three things, and they should be your primary concern here.”
Fred is very adamant that you stay focused with your education and not let the outside world distract you too much.
Today he is enjoying retirement and spending a good deal of his time traveling. He has a passion for trains and finds pleasure in building model railroads. He serves on the local executive Board of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Fred is also trying to get more involved and is exploring opportunities to fund projects conducted by Abington students. Penn State is exceptionally proud to have Frederick Willis as an alumnus.