‘Doc K’ celebrating 50 years at Kettering

May 7, 2014

“Kettering students are the best,” Kowalski said. “I learned that during my first lecture."

Henry 'Doc K' Kowalski with Tia Ewing.

Published in the Spring 2014 issue of Kettering Magazine

It didn’t take long for Dr. Henry (“Doc K”) Kowalski, professor of Mechanical Engineering, to find out what was special about Kettering University: the students.

“Kettering students are the best,” Kowalski said. “I learned that during my first lecture. I was discussing the bending of beams and mechanics, and one of the students raised his hand and said, ‘That’s not how we do it at Chevy.’ Right then I knew these students were very focused and pragmatic, and that has stayed constant over the years.”

Kettering will honor Doc K’s 50 years of service during Homecoming Weekend 2014 in May. Kowalski, who earned his PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Wayne State University, started at Kettering in 1964, has a background in engineering mechanics and aeronautical engineering. He’s built his reputation among students at Kettering as a teacher who encourages ‘outside the box’ thinking and a mentor who cares about the success of his students both inside the classroom and out.

“He helped me with my first invention, a self-cleaning pilot tube, and more when I worked with him at GMI’s Business and Industry Development Center in the mid-1980s,” said Michael Salmon ’77, who currently works for the Miltec Corporation in Huntsville, Alabama. “His mentoring led me to start three business and turn a fourth one around. His enthusiasm for invention was infectious and led me to get 26 patents. He made a huge difference in my life and I know that he has positively influenced virtually all of his students.”

Kowalski has often used innovative teaching methods to keep students engaged in learning, including experiments in which students blow up mailboxes or retrofit skeet shooters to test catchers’ mitts. His Experimental Mechanics class, in particular, is well-known for allowing students to unleash their creativity.

“Doc K was always thinking ahead of the times,” Salmon said. “I’ve been blessed to have him as a mentor and friend.”

Another former student, Monica Roca (formerly Denis) ’08, has similar memories of Doc K’s impact inside the classroom and out.

“Doc K is an effective teacher because he gets to know his students,” she said. “I was a tour guide while at Kettering. I always brought the tours through the basement of the Academic Building and into Doc K’s ‘blue room.’ Doc K went over his 'Wall of Fame' and the excitement that he held for that class and its students always captured the students on the tours. Whether Doc K was explaining how much force is exerted on the heel of a high heel shoe, or the different stresses in a bone, he could not contain his excitement for all the projects and what was learned from that project. As Doc K talked about his classes, he couldn’t hide the love he has not only for teaching, but also for his students.”

Doc K has made a major impact on the lives of many students, but in particular on students involved in FIRST Robotics. He became involved in FIRST nearly 10 years ago. Roca led a group of Kettering students interested in starting a FIRST team that would work and build at Kettering.

The team needed a faculty advisor, and Roca approached Doc K. After first suggesting the students wouldn’t be able to use the machining labs because he didn’t have a key, Roca got approval and access to the labs. Then Doc K raised a concern about liability and safety issues for the high school students but, again, Roca was able to resolve that concern, leaving Doc K no choice but to accept.

 “Well, I agreed to do it because Monica was relentless,” Kowalski said. “She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and now that I’ve been involved and seen up close the impact of FIRST, I’m glad she didn’t.”

Roca, noting that Doc K actually never said ‘no,’ says that once he became involved in FIRST, the program took off from there.

“Students, whether high school or college, are Doc K’s life,” she said. “Once we started the team, there was no way anyone could stop Doc K! This is the greatest asset Kettering has – professors like Doc K that are one in a million who truly care about the students. Having a professor like Doc K happens once in a blue moon.”

Kettering’s FIRST team has impacted students from 17 different school districts and home-schooled students that provided opportunities from disadvantaged districts who wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to get exposure to FIRST.

“We’ve had a lot of kids involved who are good, disciplined kids,” Kowalski said. “They just didn’t have the opportunity to participate in FIRST through their schools either because the school was too small to have a program or they didn’t have the funding for one.”

Kowalski has also been instrumental in Kettering’s program ever since he became involved, helping secure scholarships for high school students who couldn’t afford participation fees and helping admissions staff recruit potential Kettering students through FIRST activities.

“He’s been an important partner and inspiration for me,” said Bob Nichols, Kettering’s Director of Alumni Engagement, who first partnered Kettering with FIRST in 1998.  “Doc K’s energy and creativity have made a great impact on so many young people. He’s motivated by the fact that he cares for them and he wants to see them succeed and go to college.”

During Homecoming Weekend, FIRST Robotics will play a large role in the festivities. Along with honoring Doc K’s service to Kettering, the University will also unveil a FIRST Community Center, which will be housed in the old gymnasium in the Academic Building and provide a regulation practice field and a work space for high school FIRST teams in the region.  This is the first of its kind to be housed on a university campus.

“This is going to be a great use of the old gym’s space,” Kowalski said. “These kids need access to a modern machine shop, design space and a practice field, and this will give them a chance to have a simulated field that really prepares them for their competitions.”

“Once Doc K got involved in FIRST, he immediately recognized the impact that FIRST has on the career decisions for these high schools students. He also saw the potential of these high school students to attend Kettering. He personally mentors so many young students and he does not feel he is successful unless they definitely go to Kettering or at least a college or university somewhere,” Nichols said. “This FIRST Community Center is a major piece of the legacy he’s built at Kettering.”

Written By Patrick Hayes | Contact: Patrick Hayes - phayes@kettering.edu - (810) 762-9639