Faculty and Teaching Staff Stories

Bill Dalzell

Bill Dalzell photo

Department of Chemical Engineering

My three sisters and I were born and grew up in Chatham, NY, a small farming community about 15 miles from the Massachusetts border. My father was a carpenter and my mother was a stay-at-home mom except when money got tight. My father dropped out of school after 4th grade and my mother, after 8th grade. Few people went to school past 8th grade and essentially no one went to college in those days.

Our parents stressed and inculcated a strong work ethic and a good education in my sisters and me. There was no question in my parents’ minds that all of their children would attend college and there were plenty of chores to keep us busy. I worked at a gas station after school on weekdays and all day Saturday throughout high school to earn money for college.

I had no idea what I was doing when I applied for college. There were no computers, no internet, and no one visited college campuses before applying. I perused college catalogs in the library and thought it might be cool to be an engineer (whatever an engineer was). I applied to and got accepted at Cornell, RPI, and Union and decided to attend Cornell because they offered financial support. A friend, who had gone to MIT the year before, said I should apply there since it was the best engineering school. The application deadline had passed two weeks earlier but I applied anyway. I got accepted and have no idea why or how.

My high school class had 52 students, half of whom attended sporadically, since their farming responsibilities took precedence. My math background consisted of algebra, trigonometry, and plane geometry and my physics and chemistry knowledge was even worse. I seldom took schoolwork home.

I arrived in Cambridge the day after Carol, a force three hurricane, had devastated the area. This storm may have been an omen. At the start of my first physics lecture, the professor reviewed three-dimensional vector relationships. My question was, “What in the world is a vector?” My first math class was equally incomprehensible. My reading speed was around 300 words per minute and I could not write an acceptable paragraph. There was no “pass/no record” for first term grades nor fifth week flags but our grades did get sent to our parents (but not to us) around Columbus Day. If there had been fifth week flags I would have collected more flags than one sees at a regatta. Late in the term, I learned how to study and I taught myself to speed read. By some miracle, I passed all of my first term courses.

I had earned enough money during high school to cover tuition, books, plus room and board for my first two years at MIT. Tuition at MIT was $900/year and all other expenses were a couple of hundred dollars a semester. Unfortunately, my father was on strike and unemployed for several months before I headed to MIT. Some of the money I had saved was needed so I had barely enough left to cover tuition for a year and expenses for one semester. I took a job in the MIT dining service for 25 hours per week and worked construction jobs each summer. I moved off campus where room and board were cheaper. With the exception of a scholarship I was awarded in my senior year I earned my way through MIT. Unfortunately, one cannot do that today.

I was torn between Chemical Engineering and Physics as a major. Plastics were hitting full stride, the chemical and oil industries were booming, and the importance of biology in chemical engineering was becoming evident. Understanding the composition of matter was in full swing with the study of atmospheric neutrinos generated by cosmic rays. I decided on chemical engineering since I was more interested in using an understanding of materials rather than discovering the fundamental relationships among primary particles in matter.

When I graduated the chemical/oil industry was sputtering and few jobs were available. I stayed at MIT for a masters and doctoral degree. After graduation, I taught chemical engineering for four years at MIT and a year in London and then left academia to work at Polaroid for more than 26 years. I returned to MIT about 16 years ago to teach chemical engineering and be the Environmental, Health, and Safety Coordinator for Chemical Engineering. Looking back, the main thing I learned at MIT was to define clearly what I did not know and to have the confidence and ability to learn it quickly.

I met my wife on a blind date arranged by one of my doctoral students. We live in Marshfield, an eclectic coastal town, about 30 miles south of Boston. We have a daughter and a son who grew up there. Both attended UNH and are very happy and successful. I know that my children have no idea of how I grew up and I cannot relate to how they grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood.

One of the ironic and regrettable things about my life and those of my sisters is that our parents sacrificed and worked hard to get us into and through college but they were in no position to comprehend what college, or even high school, was like. Once my sisters and I left home and attended college we were in a new world with enormously different ideas, values, and goals.