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Professor Gordon Hellman, P.E

 

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Employers from around the nation comment that graduates from Michigan Tech’s ME-EM Department often share a key characteristic: the energy and vigor with which they pursue practical engineering solutions.

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Gordon Hellman
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Gordon Hellman speaking about Michigan Tech reputation
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Gordon Helman speaking about the history of the Michigan tech Central Heating Plant and its use as a hands-on lab for ME-EM students

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One businessman who has worked extensively with MTU engineers recently commented, “If I wanted an equation I could call an engineer from any school. If I needed the problem figured out and solved by the next day, I would call one of our MTU grads.”

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Heating Plant

Heating Plant

A Legacy of Sharing: Professor Gordon Hellman, P.E.

Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering

1947-1984

Gordon Hellman was powerful in physical stature, powerful in presence, powerful in education and a powerful influencer. He exuded self-confidence and he could physically outwork just about anyone. His faith and dedication to others was demonstrated in both his personal commitment, and the way he shared his time and resources. Gordon truly believed an individual’s personal and physical surroundings could influence his or her life as a student, patient, citizen and family member. He once wrote: “Each individual carries a responsibility to improve his own traits, acquire new ones, and utilize these combinations in creative effort,” words that guided his own life.In many ways, Gordon’s life represented the American dream. He was the son of Finnish and Swedish immigrants who came to this country to seek employment and a better life. Gordon was the youngest of 12 children. He rarely saw his father, who would rise early in the morning and take the cows out to the pasture, walk all the way from Dollar Bay to Ripley, work a hard day at the copper smelter, walk back home at night, eat supper, smoke a pipe and go to bed. Even though they didn’t have much time together, Gordon adopted his father’s tremendous work ethic through example.

Gordon’s character and determination to succeed were also formed to a great extent through his relationship with his mother, who wanted Gordon to have a college education and a professional career. She passed away while he was attending Michigan Tech, and to have Gordon complete his education was her dying wish. Gordon did just that, earning his Bachelor degree in Mechanical Engineering. In later years he received advanced degrees from Michigan Tech with a Masters in Mechanical Engineering, Engineering Administration and was a registered Professional Engineer.

While attending Michigan Tech, Gordon drove a soda pop delivery truck for Mattson Bottling to earn money. One afternoon the brakes gave out while he was driving down Brockway Mountain Drive in Copper Harbor. He immediately threw the transmission into low gear, jumped out onto the running board, and steered the truck through the open window down the hill and through the curves. He was all set to jump if it looked like he wouldn’t make it. But he did, saving the truck, the soda pop, and himself. Even then, Gordon had courage: he didn’t give up easily on anything; and if needed, he usually had a backup plan.After graduating from Michigan Tech in 1942, Gordon enlisted in the US Navy. He was sent to Officer Candidate School in Plattsburg, New York where he received his commission as an Ensign. Returning to civilian life, he worked at Buick in Flint where he did engineering on military components for the war.After his stint in the automotive industry, he returned to Michigan Tech in 1948, starting as an instructor in Mechanical Engineering and eventually rising to the position of Professor of Mechanical Engineering. During his time as professor, he taught thermodynamics, heat transfer, and power plant operations. He established the first courses in industrial engineering, helping to start the first production engineering and power generation labs. He also set up tours for students in the manufacturing factories at Buick, and in power generation plants in lower Michigan at Detroit Edison and the local Victoria Dam.

“You should go out of your way to make the world a little better place for other people,” – was something Gordon often said. His practice of this philosophy was evident in the high regard his former students had for him.

Samuel T. Wineman, Class of 56, knew Gordon as a teacher, an inspirer, a friend and later, as an associate in the engineering community. “I first met Gordon in 1954 as my teacher in Power Plant Engineering at Michigan Tech. This was a course that, at the beginning, I was somewhat interested in and thought it would be good to take,” Wineman admits. “By the end of that relationship, I fell in love with the subject matter.

“He had a way of inspiring you to learn by showing you what the subject was really about and how you could apply it in your engineering career. He made you want to learn, he made the subject interesting, and he showed you the value of the individual steps that the course had to take in order to reach the end goal. I think that’s the mark of a true teacher, instructor or professor,” adds Wineman. “To make you like the subject so much that you wanted to learn.”Gordon and his wife Gertrude, used to take his students into their home for dinner. “Those were not affluent days,” Wineman recalls. “Gordon always said ‘we’ll just put more spaghetti in the pot. After dinner we would sit around with Gordon while we discussed what else, Power Plant Engineering.”As his next challenge, Gordon was asked to take on management of the Michigan Tech Central Heating Plant. This started his career in physical plant administration which led to his position as Director of Michigan Tech Campus Planning and Development and Director of Physical Plant. In this position, Gordon was head of an extensive department with many employees at all levels from lawn maintenance crews to professional engineering staff. Under Gordon’s direction, a large part of the Michigan Tech buildings and campus that can be seen today were conceived, designed, funded, built and maintained. The beautiful Michigan Tech campus is a fine example of Gordon’s philosophy that physical surroundings have a significant impact on the quality of people’s lives, and can influence their ability to create and achieve.Adds Wineman: “Later in life I got to know Gordon in his capacity as Director of Physical Plant. He handled this job with the same zeal that he taught class. He put his life into it. From my point of view, he conducted himself with a degree of professionalism that is seldom seen. His job was his life and there was no such thing as turning it off when he went home. He represented Michigan Tech with a fair, firm guiding principle that made his staff, fellow Tech department heads, outside vendors, and contractors respect his principles.”Thor Jackola was a student at Michigan Tech working part time for the University’s Physical Plant Department when Gordon became the director. “Gordon’s professorial qualities and attributes were ever-present in his administration of that department during an exciting and vibrant period of growth and renewal of the campus, Jackola recalls. “He was a mentor to me, and we continued to remain in contact through the years. I will always remember him with great respect.”As a manager, Gordon emphasized the personal development of his employees, much as he did with his own children. He instilled a sense of responsibility that gave young people a good foundation to build on. He believed that without a good foundation it is impossible to build a solid building and he extended this philosophy both to raising his children and teaching his students.
He encouraged all of his own children to achieve their full potential in education and later in their careers. He was ahead of his time in supporting his daughters to succeed in business. He would often say quite proudly that between himself and his extended family are held ten degrees from Michigan Tech.

When Gordon became Michigan Tech’s Physical Plant Director in 1965, he held the responsibility for the university power generation and distribution, security, campus planning, development and maintenance. This included his responsibility for overall construction management for new university buildings such as the Library, Fisher Hall, Civil Engineering, Chem Bio, Mechanical Engineering, Married Student Housing, Student Activities Center and the Hockey Arena for a total of nearly $300M.
“Gordon Hellman was an excellent judge of character—after all he hired me in 1977,” jokes Bill Blumhardt, Michigan Tech Physical Plant Director from 1983 to Present.“The campus environment we all enjoy today is a direct result of the planning efforts directed by Gordon in the 1960s,” Blumhard explains. “The 1966 campus plan remains the underlying guide to Michigan Tech’s physical development today. That plan and Gordon’s skills in putting together a great organization made it possible for MTU during my tenure to have the lowest operations and maintenance cost of all of Michigan’s state universities over the past 20 years. He was a great act to follow.”

Well known for his dedication and accomplishments as an educator, administrator and planner, Gordon was also a visionary in the community, participating and promoting growth not only through his contributions at Michigan Tech University, but also the Physical Plant Administrators Association, Hancock Planning and Development Commission, Kiwanis, Newman Foundation, Boy Scouts, the Sisters of Crandolet and the Portage View Hospital Board.

Through his service and tenure with these organizations and their members, Gordon was also able to promote and support new fire stations, community hospital development, and the ultimate challenge—the relocation of US 41.
Jason Wang, CEO Basso Associates, worked for the architectural firm that was involved with Gordon Hellman on the ME-EM, the EERC and the Chemical Engineering Building on campus. “Mr. Hellman was actually my mentor during the early years of my career,” Wang recalls. “He showed his passion and patience for teaching and guiding a young engineer with a different cultural background through completion of a rather challenging project. It was truly my privilege to have
worked for him. He will always be in my memory.”

Gordon retired from Michigan Tech in April of 1984 being recognized as Professor Emeritus in Mechanical Engineering. Later in life when he was retired and when I would visit Houghton, he always found time to spend with me and again take me out to dinner,” Wineman recalls. “I don’t think he ever really retired in his mind. He represented Michigan Tech to the very end.”

“Although much time has passed since I had the pleasure of being involved in several exciting projects at Tech under Gordon Hellman’s direction, the memories of working with Gordon are very clear,” says Peter Basso, Chairman of Peter Basso Associates in Troy, Michigan.

“Gordon was demanding, always keeping the best interests of Michigan Tech foremost in our dealings, but, at the same time, he was always fair and was open to new ideas. The thing that stands out most in my memory is that, in addition to the sense of professional achievement, there was also a distinct sense of personal enjoyment from my interactions with Gordon on a human level,” adds Basso. “It was always a challenge and a pleasure working with Gordon Hellman. He brought out the best in us.”