A Hero Departs

Friday, December 24, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Our modern day heroes tend to be celebrities – movie stars or rock stars that we recognize as popular, but do not hold up as champions of virtue or moral behavior.  We might admire a war hero or firefighter for their courage; we may respect a politician for their principled stand on an issue; in the aftermath of a natural disaster we could appreciate the sacrifice of a doctor or nurse who provides aid. 

Why aren’t there more role models for scientists and engineers?  In some ways, society today holds up those that work in these fields as experts – many a study is justified simply by saying “scientists have found…” without any further evidence.  In contrast, technical experts are also portrayed in popular media as narrow, absent-minded brainiacs who miss the big picture, who misunderstand the impact and possible danger of their devices, who lack social and cultural graces.  Perhaps our ambivalence towards the creators of technology stems from our conflicted feelings towards technology itself. In the December 2010 issue of The Alantic, editor James Bennet notes:  “It seems part of the contemporary condition to feel simultaneously blessed and cursed, liberated and trapped, by technology.” (p. 12) 

One engineer (and amateur scientist) who stood as an example and mentor was Charles P. Spoelhof.  Chuck studied physics and optics as a young man in college, then pursued engineering as a graduate student.  He spent his career as an optical engineer at Kodak Corporation, rising to the position of Vice-President of Engineering.  But Chuck was never one to pull rank or tout his own credentials.  He was a humble servant who was always curious about how things worked.  He constantly dug beneath the surface to figure out what made something tick, whether it was a man-made contraption or a wonder of the natural creation. 

Chuck Spoelhof was an engineer par excellence, a problem-solver who always had another idea or another approach to try.  During the height of the cold war, he became part of a small group of experts that consulted with the newly formed National Reconnaissance Office, developing the highly sophisticated camera technology used in spy planes and eventually in satellites.  In effect, Mr. Spoelhof was one of those that helped us win the cold war without having a war. These cameras provided the intelligence information vital to keeping the cold war from erupting into full fledged nuclear warfare.  After keeping his involvement secret for many years, he was finally recognized publicly 40 years later in a special ceremony. He went on to work with NASA to develop the techniques of lunar photography that identified appropriate landing sites for the Apollo missions. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1981.  He also served on the blue ribbon commission to fix the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990.  In 2006 he was honored by Calvin College with a Distinguished Alumni Award.

Chuck had a special desire for sharing his passion with generations of engineering students.  Over the past twenty years, from the start of our four-year accredited program until just recently, Chuck has come twice yearly for a week-long visit to review senior engineering project teams at Calvin College.  Meeting with teams for two hours, he advised them based on his extensive expertise in management, business, and engineering.  Students found him kind and warm-hearted, but also sharp-witted and quick to identify risks and weaknesses in their projects.  He steered more than one team away from near disaster to a successful finish.  It is particularly meaningful to me that one of the first teams Chuck reviewed was my own team when I was a student at Calvin and as he finished out his many years of service, Chuck reviewed teams that I now advised as a faculty member at Calvin. Virtually every semester he has also given a seminar for our department, covering a wide variety of topics, including: “Design of a Unique Camera”, “Engineering Goofs and How They Could Have Been Prevented”, “Lessons from the Wright Brothers”, “Engineering Past, Present, & Future”, and “The 21st Century Engineer.” Along with Professor Ned Nielsen and me, he taught our first business and engineering interim in Europe in January, 1997.
Chuck Spoelhof was a role model because of his intelligence, drive, curiosity, and passion.  More importantly, he was a mentor to generations of engineers and scientists because he was also humble, kind, and gentle—he modeled the fruits of the spirit in his professional and personal relationships.  Even at the end while battling cancer, on a recent visit I found Chuck in his hospital bed with papers, books, and notepads strewn about.  He wanted to be sure that the current engineering seniors at Calvin understood the importance of leadership and innovation.  Chuck was my mentor and friend and I will miss him dearly – he went to be with his Lord and Savior last week, passing away on December 18, at the age of 80.

Chuck also loved astronomy.  He sought a deeper understanding of the heavens, appreciating the stars not only for their visual beauty but also for their complex inner workings.  At his funeral, the pastor shared these words from scripture, noting how Chuck beautifully integrated his faith with his science and engineering in appreciating the skies above:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
  the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
  night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
  no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
  their words to the ends of the world.
      (Psalm 19:1-4, NIV)

On this Christmas eve of 2010, I am mindful of the star that stood over Bethlehem to guide those mages from the east to find Jesus.  Certainly Chuck has followed that star throughout his life and now is home with his Savior, Christ the Lord.


Page 1 of 1 pages
(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest