Jul. 19, 2015 @ 11:25 PM
HUNTINGTON - Our story begins at a time where Huntington was a lot like Andy Griffith's Mayberry.
America was in the middle of what is now known as the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Children practiced bomb drills at school, and families had fallout shelter plans. Radio and TV stations broadcasted daily civil defense and emergency preparedness instructions.
Then, in October of 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite into Earth's orbit, shocking the world. "Sputnik I" could be seen in the night sky, making passes over the heartland of the United States. Could it drop bombs? Were they using it to spy on us?
The U.S. government was stunned and embarrassed. It was apparent the U.S. had underestimated the U.S.S.R.'s capabilities.
Congress reacted quickly with emergency legislation creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). That same Congress decided the U.S. needed to immediately develop a group of scientists and engineers with state-of-the-art skills required to counter the Soviet Union's technological supremacy. They passed another piece of emergency legislation known as the National Defense Education Act of 1958.
NDEA funding was responsible for the development of the Electronics Technology program at Huntington East High School in the fall of 1962. Fifteen students from Huntington, Barboursville, Milton and St. Joseph High Schools graduated from the inaugural program in 1965, 50 years ago.
These students ended up working for the FDA and the U.S. Air Force with top-secret jobs at places like Area 51, owning their own businesses and running companies, to name a few.
This is their success story.
The Electronics Technology program was a rigorous curriculum. Students were required to enroll in the HEHS college-preparatory curriculum, take all science and math classes offered in high school and attend summer school for additional technical training, all in addition to three years of electronics instruction that lasted two class periods every day.
Students needed to excel in math and science, along with boasting a high IQ, to be invited to participate in the program. Three classes of students started the in the fall of 1962, but one-third of the original students had to be cut at the end of the first year. Half were cut at the end of the second year, leaving just 15 students working toward a certificate in electronic technology.
The graduates mastered conventional AC and DC electronics theories. They learned to integrate electronic circuits for practical applications including radio, television, RADAR, X-rays, motor controls and medical devices. They were trained to use many of the latest sensors and controls found in commercial, industrial and military applications. Their laboratories had provided valuable hands-on experience using sophisticated state-of-the-art electronic instrumentation to perform alignment, diagnostic and test procedures. Troubleshooting exercises in the labs helped develop cognitive skills needed to analyze complex circuits with multi-variable interactions. The graduates joined a relatively small group of electronic technicians who were competent to work with both solid-state and vacuum tube technologies in 1965.
Robert Fischer was one of those students. He was in eighth grade when he was approached about the program.
"Back in those days, electronics engineering was somewhat of a field, but back in those days electronics was still considered as much as a branch of physics as it was an engineering science," he said. "So we didn't know what we were signing up for, only that it was going to be tough."
Fischer went on to get a degree in physics and general science at Marshall University, eventually getting a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. He now runs his own business, Fischer Technical Services, and teaches college courses.
But Fischer is adamant this story is not his, it's theirs.
Fischer followed up with the class 25 years after they graduated to find out if the students that completed a quality "technical education" curriculum can compete and prosper in both the academic world and in the professions.
With the help of Marshall professor Lee Olson, Fischer tracked down his classmates and their achievements following completion of the program.
West Virginia has never had a federally funded "tech prep" program, but Fischer points to the legal definition of "tech prep" - an advanced placement program providing students with academic and applied technical skills together - to say the Huntington East program was the first in West Virginia.
Regardless of what you call it, though, the program certainly succeeded.
Fischer said some Cabell County educators said the class of '65 left high school with a better electronics education than anything available in college associate degree programs at the time. One student's achievement certainly supports that notion.
The young man passed both the "Fundamentals of Engineering" and the "Engineering Principles and Practice" tests required to become a licensed professional engineer before ever taking an electrical engineering course in college.
These tests equate to taking 10 final exams in one day. Only 10 percent of electrical engineers in the United States have P.E. licenses.
Fischer said at the time, they had no idea why the program had been started or what the objectives were. It wasn't until much later when he spoke with one of his teachers, Robert H. Irvin, did Fischer realize there was a bigger picture.
One primary objective of the NDEA was to help close the technology gap with the Soviet Union and reestablish global dominance of the U.S. military. Nine of the graduates either served directly in the military and/or worked for defense-related contractors. At least one of those Department of Defense contractors have been linked to "black projects" involving some of the government's most sensitive military technologies. Most are not at liberty to discuss their work, Fischer said.
Others went on to become leaders in automations, electronic controls, computing, aerospace, robotics and pharmaceuticals. In addition to the engineers, there is a doctor of pharmacology, an M.D., three certified public accountants and a cryptographer. Three have served at colleges and universities, and one as a high school math and science teacher.
Only 17 percent of West Virginia high school graduates were completing college in the 1960s and 1970s, but 87 percent of the electronics class went on the earn college degrees. Four have advanced degrees, and 20 percent have doctorates.
College degrees are by no means the only indicators of successful careers, Fischer said. Both graduates who chose not to complete degree requirements did attend two years of college. They have become successful entrepreneurs and businessmen.
"Twenty-five years before 'tech prep' was a buzzword in educational circles, the concept was successfully applied right here in Huntington, West Virginia," Fischer said.
Funding for the program eventually ran out, and the teachers, which were paid by the federal government and Cabell County schools, had to move on.
This class was a collection of the brightest students in Cabell County, so they probably would have been successful without the program. But Mary Gene Caldwell Beheler, one of the female students, said the program made her grow a set of wings and gave her a sense of adventure.
"What I was doing was different," she said. "It wasn't normal. At the same time, I realized I was just like everybody else, I just had a different opportunity and different mindset."
She said the program gave them a boost and a new world.
Beheler went on to get an engineering degree at Marshall, though she wanted to go to what is now Virginia Tech. It was a historically all-boys school, but this was after the Civil Rights Act. She was told her grades, test scores, everything was perfect, but freshmen were required to live on campus and the women's dorms were too far away from the engineering building. So she wasn't accepted.
"It opened doors for me eventually, but pushing that door open wasn't easy to begin with," she said. "It was an adventure."
She became a drafter, raised a family and worked for the Tri-State Literacy Council, which she said was the most rewarding work.
She said she doesn't know what she would have been if she hadn't had the opportunity to go on a different path.
"I got to go into a subject people weren't going into at the time," Beheler said. "It was things that has made me go, 'It looks like that, but maybe it's not,' and being able to have a little more adventure in me than most people have."
Something else she learned, she said with a laugh, is the doctors, engineers and all the other professions these men have where people do exactly what they say, she knows they can make mistakes, too.
"I've seen them make mistakes in labs," she said. "They made things go pop that shouldn't go pop. ... They usually get things right, but they can goof."
Fischer said in retrospect, they were the nerds and the geeks of Huntington East.
"We were in clubs, we played on sports teams, but we knew where we belonged," he said. "We belonged in this first class."
The class will get back together in September for their 50th high school reunion. The world has changed since they graduated in 1965, and it's safe to say they helped change it.