Alum, Class of ’54, Remembers an Influential Professor

Submitted by Richard Gilbert ’54

Milton Caleb Stuart was Chairman Emeritus of the Mechanical Engineering Department. He was a recognized authority in his field, having authored textbooks on thermodynamics and steam power plants. Silver-haired, he always wore a suit and tie. He liked his students, and the feeling was pretty much mutual. I liked his class so much that I didn’t need a reminder to do the homework, or so I thought. When one of us asked a question, his answer would often be unpredictable but salient. On the last day before graduation, someone asked, “Professor Stuart, how do you think we should go about getting our first job as a graduate engineer.” His answer: “Decide where you want to live, go there and look for work.” At the time, that seemed like useless advice. Years later we would realize he had a good point.

Professor Stuart was a bit of a character. He would ask a question and then call a student, by his last name, to answer. If the good professor didn’t like the answer, he would simply say, “No, no,” and call another name. Finally getting a good answer, he would make his way to that person and say, “Stand up.” When the student stood, Professor Stuart would go to him and shake his hand. He would then make his way back to the head of the class and discuss the question. That was the routine. He was down to earth. In one case, he asked about the size of a boiler. “Mr. Abbott, how big is a boiler?”
“It depends…” began the student.
“No, no,” said Professor Stuart. “Mr. Jamison, how big is a boiler?”
“Well it does depend …” began Mr. Jamison.
“No, no, it doesn’t ‘depend’. It doesn’t ‘depend’” growled the professor, treating the word “depend” contemptuously. Well, of course the size of a boiler does depend … on at what rate it raises water to steam and to what temperature, but Professor Stuart obviously wasn’t happy with that approach. He then called on John Redmond, who looked too big and muscular also to be very bright, but probably was as smart as most of us. “Mr. Redmond, how big is a boiler?”
Redmond knew full well the size of a boiler depended on it’s rating, but that answer had just been twice rejected, so raising his voice in desperation, he simply said, “Pretty damn big.”
“Of course,” said Professor Stuart, “stand up.” The handshake ensued. “You people have been on field trips to three different power plants. Didn’t you notice that? Boilers are pretty damn big.” None of us would ever forget how big a boiler is.

Mech EngThe 1954 Mechanical Engineering Faculty. Professor Stuart is 4th from the left

My roommate and I shared a small room in a private house that also housed eight other students. He and I were compatible. In fact, for most evenings for three years, we sat facing each other across a small worktable doing our homework and never had a significant disagreement. Both car guys, we preferred sports cars to Detroit iron. Not that we were identical; he was more aggressive, I more laid back.  Had we been old enough for the Air Corp in WWII, he might have made a great P-51 pilot. I would have wanted that but I’d probably been stuck as a navigator in a B-17. He was raised Catholic and I Methodist, but neither of us was superstitious. He had a crewcut, so we called him “Curly.” I went with conventional combed hair. Most of us in the house had gotten in the habit of calling one another by our last name spelled backwards, so I was “Treblig.” We sat side by side near the front of Professor Stuart’s basic thermodynamics class.

Now we’re approaching “thermo” with a mutual friend, Dan, who asks, “So you guys know all there is to know about enthalpy?”
“What is it?” I ask.
“Enthalpy? What’s that?”
“Apparently you have not done your homework,” drawls Dan.
“Oh my god, I completely forgot.” Damn, I don’t do that. I may gloss over an assignment, or simply decide not to do it, but forget to do it? No. And I would never give short shrift to an assignment from Professor Stuart.  “What page is it on?”
Dan turns to his bookmark. “Seventy nine.”
In desperation, I quickly turn to the page in my book and scan the few pages in the section. It’s all text except for a single equation: h = e + pv. I know what e, p and v are and so h must be enthalpy. I can’t read any of the text; time has run out. We are entering the classroom. I quickly close the book.
Professor Stuart starts the class by asking, “What is enthalpy?”
Don’t call on me; all I know is that one equation. Well, the odds are in my favor; I’m just one of about twenty in the class.
“Mr. Zimmerman.”
C’mon Big Z, you know it.
“Enthalpy is a measure of the total energy in a gas.”
“No, no.” Then after a pause, ” Mr. Ellison.”
OK, Ellison, give him what he’s looking for.
” It’s the amount of useable energy in a gas.”
“No, no”. He looks over in my direction. “Mr. Gilbert.”
Damn, so much for the favorable odds. Could he have seen me trying to look invisible? All I can do is recite the equation. Well, here goes, “Enthalpy is the sum of internal energy and the product of pressure and specific volume.”
“Exactly right. Stand up.” Professor Stuart comes over to me and we shake hands. He turns and goes back to the front of the class and I sit down. “Didn’t you people read the assignment?”
I sneak a look at Curly, expecting something like a sad smile and a slow shake of the head. Instead he gives me a theatrical icy stare, heavy eyelids, the whole bit, pure, cold hatred. Curly could have made it big in Hollywood. I’m completely unprepared for that face. It’s all I can do to keep from bursting out with laughter.
After class, Curly and Dan walk away. I catch up with them. They’re quiet. I’m feeling good. I break the silence with “Enthalpy… no big deal.”
“Shut up,” says Curly.
“Shut up,” echoes Dan. It’s their way of congratulating me. Then I remember the look on Curly’s face and start laughing.
When we got back to the house, I tacked a homework schedule on the wall next to my side of our worktable. I almost never needed it, which is to say, of course, I did need it.

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