My University of Cincinnati Journey
by Clark Beck
When I arrived on the University of Cincinnati campus the very first time, my nervous system was very nervous. My mom and I had driven from Purdue University, where I had been informed that “your people cannot be engineers,”and, “if you enroll here you will not graduate.”
What a devastating message to give to an aspiring farm boy who had been taught that he should always listen to and respect the words of educated individuals!
Just being told that I couldn’t do it only made me want to do it more. After all, my high school teachers had told me that I should go into a career that involved math, science, or some other computational area. Should I believe them or this guy who must know more about engineering than my high school teachers?
I didn’t have much fight in me at that time, as those words kept ringing in my ears. But I had to keep fighting, even though I didn’t know where the road ahead would lead. The oldest child, the first in the family to go to college, such great expectations of me, especially from my mother. The thought of the embarrassment if I failed. I had heard of a school in Cincinnati that had a co-op program that would help finance the degree after the first year if one could pay for the first year. I decided on the spot that we should drive to Cincinnati that very day to find that school.
It makes no sense now, but I didn’t even think about it then. I had no money and did not know how much that first year would cost or where I would get the funds, did not know the location of the school, had no idea of where I would live, and wasn’t sure what engineering course I wanted to take. I am not sure what madness kept me going on a road so unfamiliar and unknown. Now that I think about it, I have no idea what caused me to do what seems today to have been insanity.
I had no appointment at the University of Cincinnati and had spoken to no one before arriving unannounced and asking to see the dean of engineering. Dean Howard Justice was called out of a meeting to speak to me. After listening to a short explanation of why I was there, he took my envelope and opened it to look at my transcript.
It is strange that I have no memory what our conversation was like or what he said, except “You can come if you want to but you will catch hell from both sides
of the desk.” I think I heard only the first part of his statement (accepted!) even though the second part was a warning I did not understand until later.
Now, after all these years have passed, I feel that my personality caused some of my hardship in those early days at UC. I was an independent young man who had been a loner working in the field all day, knowing that I had to fix whatever broke by whatever means available to me. I never expected or asked for help when I needed it in my younger days, and certainly felt I could not now at UC. Asking for help was a sign of weakness to me. I could not ask for help from people I didn’t know, especially when I felt that I was not wanted or welcome in the group. It was almost impossible to make friends under those circumstances. How could I when I recalled the prediction at Purdue and the warning from a friendly Dean Justice at UC?
My situation was exacerbated by not being able to live on campus. I didn’t even apply for housing because of my lack of funds. Or even near campus. When I heard “no room” I gave up. I feel certain that being close to campus and classmates would have made a great improvement in my UC years (socially, academically,and mentally).
However, the reality was that, after a day at UC, I rode across town to a poor part of Walnut Hills near Peebles Corner. My first landlady was an elderly widow who owned two identical side-by-side houses in an area that is now underneath I-71. I rented a sparse single room with no cooking facility and no refrigerator and a bath shared with two other familial groups. It was an old house cut up into one- or two-room units. Someone must have had the kitchen and someone else the living room. My room was a small former sitting room with one outside window facing the wall of the next house, a small gas fireplace for heat, a bed, a small desk,and a single chair. My clothes hung in a small portable wardrobe.
I have seen similar room arrangements in TV movies depicting people living, as I was, below the poverty line. They usually had a cheap TV, a luxury I did not have. For my first year, that was home-not-so-sweet home. It was not easy to study on weekends while the couple living in front of me argued. I tried to ignore all the noise, but that was impossible. I cannot forget the night that the younger of the two male lovers on the third floor knocked on my door and asked if he could spend the night since his partner had locked him out. It was my mistake to admit him. That was a sleepless night.
I suppose I would have had more pleasant living quarters if I had accepted the offer from my funeral director brother-in-law. In exchange for a room, I would be the person “on call” to pick up and transfer to the funeral home any calls received during the night. I felt that working a night shift would have made study impossible and make the Purdue prediction a reality. I never second-guessed that decision. I needed all the time I had to study. But the most inefficient study arrangement is alone. Not having a study partner to point out where you made the mistake in the three pages of equations means that you will probably miss it every time you recheck the solution. How frustrating that can be! Especially when you see the solution and note the simple error you made.
The first year in Cincinnati was definitely the worst. Living in a strange city, among strangers in a very lonely environment, was a great strain on me. Even my physical system was stretched to its limit. The sun seemed not to shine the winter of 1952–53.
In the whole of Cincinnati there were only two places I could visit—the home of my half sister and her husband and two teenage daughters; and that of my good friend Jim Hargreaves, to whom I owe a great debt. Jim helped to keep me connected to reality and gave me hope for the future. My sister’s house was not a place of refuge: I sensed problems with a man more interested in money than people. I visited seldom, only when invited to have dinner and to help the girls with homework.
I still feel that the man in that house did not think that I would graduate, but
would be another failure like others he knew. It is no wonder that the specter of failure was always in the back of my mind. Dogged determination, the need to prove the naysayers wrong, the never-ending desire to fulfill my mother’s dream for me, the need to be successful in spite of the odds, just trying to get by today and trying not to think about tomorrow because tomorrow appeared to be no better than today, just plodding ahead with the intent to beat whatever was thrown at me. These things and some other unknown internal force kept pushing me forward into the unknown future.
There were times when the thought of “no future” did cross my murky mind. It was at the times when all seemed hopeless, when it seemed the future held immediate and impossible failure. That thought came at times when the weather was at its worst, when the skies held no sunshine. It was much like the day in Chicago when—as a high school senior—the Naval Training Center gave me the news that I had failed to pass the physical exam and I would not be accepted into the ROTC program.
You see, ROTC was my way to success, out of the lowly place I was in and a chance to wear that beautiful marine dress uniform that my cousin wore when he came home for Christmas during my sophomore year in high school. Although this happened years before I had the UC challenges, it was just another incident in my childhood that contributed to the negative visions about my future, my probability of success, of being a worthy human in this world.
What made that Navy announcement so devastating was the fact that I knew
that I had not failed to pass the physical. Consider—I was born and raised on a farm, the oldest son who did his share of hard work, an amateur boxer (until my mom found out), playing baseball, playing football, being on the track team (long jump state finalist as a junior and mile relay-team state-finalist as a senior)—at six feet and 185 pounds, how could I not pass the Navy ROTC physical exam? I had already passed the academic exam before I was invited to Chicago for the physical. There were three of us from Marion High School who passed the academic exam and were invited to Chicago for the physical. When we met at the end of the exam, I was elated that I had passed—until the loudspeaker bellowed out for me to report back to station “X.” I could not imagine why, but I returned to a place that I had been earlier that day. I was informed in a casual manner that I was overweight and not accepted. But how could that be? I saw many young men more “overweight” than I who were celebrating their acceptance.
My health problems began during that first winter in Cincinnati. All the clothes I had in Cincinnati were those from Richmond, Virginia, where I had lived the previous four years. Those clothes were no match for the winter in Ohio. Looking back, I realize I could have gone to some social welfare agency to ask for a suitable coat. But that was not the Beck way and the thought never crossed my mind. I was driven and all I could see was a path ahead of me—one foot in front of the other approaching a goal that was too far ahead to see. I recall having that feeling several times as I worked on the Beck farm and neighboring farms while in grade school.
I do not recall those as good times. However, I felt I was doing what was best for the family. Living on a neighboring farm from Monday through Saturday where the work meant one less mouth to feed at home and the $5.00 for the week’s work did help. Those “earning opportunities” were created when the male son joined the armed forces or left home for a job in the city. I spent two summers like this before finishing grade school. Neither of the farmers had children at home and no children lived close enough for social contact. The pleasant times those summers were Thursday evenings the first year when the local community showed a free outdoor movie. The second year the couple went to the city for a moving picture show every Saturday night and took me with them. They also took an elderly gentleman who played cards at the local bar. He always brought them a special beer-cooked hamburger that they always gave to me after dropping him off at home. I got to spend Saturday night through Monday morning at home. These experiences only strengthened my “loner” characteristic since I was in the field all day.
There was an earning opportunity created for me during my first year at UC. Jim belonged to a Presbyterian church located in the poorer section of town. It participated in a church basketball league with a few other churches in the area. They could not afford uniforms and I think they could not afford the very small salary I was given as the coach. We practiced in the church basement and played games in a local YMCA once a week. I do not remember how many games we played or what our team record was. I do recall that the nights were colder than the days and my teeth chattered as I walked from the church to the bus stop, transferring to the cross-town bus after a cold wait and the cold walk from that bus to home. The warm house was a blessed relief. The other thing I recall is the nervous and scary walks, especially through the neighborhood from church to the first bus.
I always felt that I was in danger after dark in that area, and silently prayed for a short and safe walk and wait for the bus. Even when the wait for the bus was not short, my prayers were answered.
Again with my friend Jim’s help, I was introduced to a small family-run Greek restaurant a few blocks from where I lived. I bought a card, which had punch circles around the perimeter. Each punch hole was good for breakfast. The cost of the card was within my limited budget. With cards purchased each week I had a breakfast consisting of coffee, two slices of buttered toast, and jelly. After breakfast, I went off to catch the trolley with a warm but not-too-full stomach. Most days I had enough money to buy a sandwich or a box lunch from the food truck. Some days I was fortunate to have the offer of unwanted fruit from a classmate’s box lunch. Some of them must have suspected my situation because only one offer was made on a given day, sparing me the embarrassment of “collecting.” I never asked. It was always offered. The lunch meal made a small dinner adequate to get through the night. My evening meals often consisted of a half can of whatever I had from my dear Mom’s care package that came each month and contained cans of food that did not have to be cooked (fortunately). The pears, peaches, hominy, corn, beans, pineapple, and peas never tasted so good as they did that winter. I have often asked myself why heavy cans shipped in boxes that required considerable postage were the mode of help rather than a letter with cash? Perhaps it was because she knew that sending cash in the mail was not safe and I had no bank account that could be used to cash a money order or check. Often the postage approached the cost of the food.
Along this entire journey my mother was my greatest supporter. I owe her more than I can say and I pray that she understood this even though I was not an expressive son. I also pray that she did not know just how difficult the first year was. She always appreciated education. Although a good student, she never had a chance to attend college. She was living in a time and environment that did not permit young women to go to a larger city alone, for any reason. I can only imagine how heartbroken she was to be denied a chance to excel as she would have in college. In spite of the lack of formal education beyond high school, she was an influential person in the community. She was respected by both political parties and worked to elect chosen candidates.
I would not return to my single room for a second year since the landlady asked that I pay rent year-round even while I was in Dayton for my co-op job. I was fortunate that Jim knew a widow who was a retired Cincinnati public school math teacher who lived in a relatively large and well-kept house in a much better part of Walnut Hills. She agreed to a reasonable rent and I moved in. She was kind enough to share her Sunday dinner when I did not go with Jim to his church. It was so much better living as a normal person once more! If the first winter in Cincinnati was the worst for finance, hunger, and cold, the second year was academic horror. At the end of the term I had three condition removals. That meant I was too low to receive a D but above an F. My choices were to do nothing and get an F or take a conditional removal exam to get a passing or failing grade. My decision was easy to make. I would take the conditional exam for two of the three courses. The third course, strength of materials, was far too important to mechanical engineering to settle for a barely passing grade. So, I took the F grade and repeated the course and got a passing grade. That voluntary F was the only one on my transcript, as I recall. I guess I was just not able to grasp it or know what was happening because the three condition removals came as a surprise. There was no other time when I came so close to disaster.
In the third year my co-op job was paying my expenses—not the life of a king, but more like a normal poor person. I knew the importance of conserving money for tomorrow’s emergency and did so. I was also blessed by friends of the family and my mother’s connections to find a couple in their seventies who offered
reasonably priced room and board. I had found a car pool to and from work at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. I had no social life and found a weekend job working at a gas station owned by the well-known and respected Lloyd Lewis Sr. I was now living a dream!
Thanksgiving of this year did change my social life. I was invited to attend a
party on the night before Thanksgiving to provide a number of males to match the females. The girls were all college students home for Thanksgiving. I was to be the escort for a student at some other Ohio college. After all, this was a safe one-night adventure and I did need to meet college students who were not male engineering students. During the evening, my partner was attracted to another young man it seems she knew from an earlier time. But there was another young woman who always seemed to be near me with much conversation. She had graduated from the University of Dayton and had her first teaching job in Cleveland. She was back home for the holiday. I walked her home and accepted an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner the next day. My social life was looking up.
Recalling all the things that have happened to me in this life makes me wonder why and how I am still alive. There is no doubt that some power greater than me stepped in several times to lift me from the canyon of destruction, out of the murky sea, away from men of terror and away from thoughts of self-destruction. I do know that during the second year of grad school, more than once I was saved from probably fatal crashes as I drove home from a late class after 10:30 p.m. The rumble of the tires on the side of the road woke me before going down the embankment.
The need for sleep and the drowsiness caused by complications from a deteriorating kidney condition were an undesirable combination. I have found many more reasons to believe that I have been and am a blessed individual. After I finished my bachelor’s in engineering and started a job, I ended up going back to UC graduate school under rather unusual circumstances. I was working at Wright-Patterson and was called to the colonel’s office with no clue why. After some small talk, he instructed me to “fill out those papers.” A brief scan let me know that it was an application to be approved to attend graduate school at the government’s expense. Although it was my desire to attend grad school I had discussed it with no one.
The colonel did not tell me why this honor had fallen on me and I didn’t ask. After a few days rushing around to complete the forms and deciding that I would apply to UC, I think I knew the reason why. This opportunity was a consolation prize or payment for a wrong done to me a few months earlier. I had been denied a promotion at Wright-Patterson because my supervisor, a major, had decided to promote another civilian. I felt that I should have been chosen, but was not. The colonel was my boss’s boss, who had to approve the promotion. He also reviewed the other applicants’ resumés. It was never said but I feel I know the answer. I am still indebted to the colonel who had been promoted to a position at another Air Force base when I returned from UC with the MS degree in aerospace engineering.
The major was also missing. It was not long until I received a promotion. Now that it is over, I often wonder how I was able to complete those graduate courses. I did not know it then, but my kidneys were progressing to total failure mode. My doctor in Yellow Springs never mentioned the word “kidney” although he had to have seen the progression over the years that he treated me. He only prescribed stronger blood pressure pills. The combination of the stronger pills and the increasing level of uremic poison in my body sometimes made me wonder which end was up. I am sure I was saved from death when, feeling ill, I took a cab from Dayton to Yellow Springs and found my doctor missing. I was so sick that a new young doctor saw me immediately and just as quickly put me in the back seat of a couple going to Miami Valley Hospital. By this time, I could not sit up without passing out.
I felt like I was leaving this planet. The hospital had a room ready for me, where I stayed for three days while they lowered the amount of poison in my body to a level safe enough to perform dialysis. I distinctly remember someone saying, “He looks like he’s dead.” I thought I was hearing visitors talk about my roommate, but I now know I was alone in that unit. I must have been close enough to touch the other side.
It is appropriate that on this day I should write this part of my UC story. It was October 29, 1972, that I received a non-living, non-related kidney transplant. It was at University of Cincinnati hospital that the gift of life was given to me. It is amazing when I realize that the kidney I received in 1972 has been in my body for almost forty years, almost half of my life—the better half. After receiving it I have seen my two children graduate from high school and college, get married, and give me three grandchildren, allowing me the opportunity to be involved in an interesting life with teenagers. I have also done some of the most beneficial and gratifying work and community service. After a rewarding engineering career in the field of elevated temperature reentry from space for the Air Force Research Laboratory I was able to have a second career in higher education as professor at Central State University and assistant dean at Wright State University’s Engineering School. I am most proud that the Wright STEPP (Science, Technology, and Engineering Precollege Program) that I designed and implemented at Wright State in 1987 has provided training and scholarships for hundreds of inner-city high school students. I also take pride in knowing that the industrial arts courses that I taught and improved from 1957 until 1972 have resulted in an accredited manufacturing engineering major at Central State University.
It is no accident that I am still active in sports and have competed in twelve Dayton Senior Olympics competitions and nine U.S. Transplant Games against men thirteen years younger than I. Knowing that each day is a gift and that more is expected from those who have been given more, I gladly serve Life Connection, the Red Cross, the Optimist Club, Good Samaritan Hospital, the University of Cincinnati Foundation, the Antioch University Midwest board of trustees, and a number of other community service organizations.
As I write this it is evident that I have learned from relating thoughts and feelings long pushed out of memory. I have learned that life is not always fair. I have learned that situations are not always what they seem to be, you can’t always know what other people feel, and there are things you will never understand. I have learned that if you want a friend you must be a friend, and you may be misunderstood as you misunderstand. But I also learned never to give up on myself and thatI owe more to UC than UC owes to me.