Profile on Wilton Hawkins - CMU Today
By Molly McCurdy (A'10)
The attack on Pearl Harbor was a defining moment in the world's history. For one young man, Wilton Hawkins, it unexpectedly altered the direction of his life. Because of that change, Carnegie Mellon has an alumnus who, through his support, has done his part in ensuring the university's future.
The college sophomore clutched the stationery, emblazoned with the crest of the U.S. Army. The induction letter wasn't a complete shock. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, like most young men, Wilton Hawkins had seized the moment. He joined the ROTC program as a freshman at the University of Kentucky in preparation for the day he would serve his country after graduation. But with the news he just received, he realized that the time had come for him to leave home.
In 1943, Hawkins was called into active service and joined the Army Specialist Training Program for engineers at the University of Alabama. It's there that he met another college-student-turned-serviceman, Mel Ripple, who had nearly finished his first two years at Carnegie Tech. Like Hawkins, he was studying engineering. The two became the best of friends. They were assigned to the 86th Black Hawk infantry division, and together served through Europe and the Asian Pacific. They spent time maintain army ordnance-talking about their lives and the hope to remain friends once (and if) they returned home. Both had every intention of returning to their respective schools. However, Ripple kept hinting that Hawkins should transfer. Knowing his buddy was competitive, Ripple slyly insinuated that Hawkins couldn't hack the more rigorous coursework at CIT and transferring would be out of the question.
After nearly three years of service, the two men were discharged in 1946. Hawkins hadn't forgotten Ripple's challenge. With the support of the GI bill, he transferred to Carnegie Tech. Ripple introduced him to Pittsburgh and his friends, and Hawkins thrived in the environment. One year later, he found himself at the top of his engineering class. He had also joined Alpha Tau Omega and become a member of Tau Beta Pi, the National Engineering Honor Society. Besides his academic rigor, Hawkins also made time for friends and fun. He performed in Greek sing and headed up the Spring Carnival committee and even starred in a radio show with fraternity brother Robert Pease (A'49). They would tell jokes and perform country songs with Hawkins playing the guitar. "I don't even know if anyone was listening," says Pease, "but we had fun. That's Wilton; he's smart, and he's fun."
Ripple and Hawkins earned their degrees in mechanical engineering in 1948 and would at last go their separate ways. Ripple would spend his entire career as an engineer with the Hoover company in Ohio, leading to his induction in 1995 to the Vacuum & Sewing Hall of Fame. Hawkins also had many offers to work in industry, but he was fascinated by the possibilities of plastics. He decided to take a job with DuPont as a product developer in its plastics department located in New Jersey. On the job, he began experimenting with a fluoropolymer called Teflon, which was a very difficult material unlike any other plastic. It was used to create specialized products for the aerospace, chemical, electronics, and semiconductor industries.
After eight years at DuPont, he thought there was untapped potential for the material. Hawkins took the $3,000 that he had to his name and started his own venture, Chemplast, in a nearby garage attic. There, he would use special processes to expand the possibilities of Teflon. To do so, the equipment had to be constantly monitored. So, he kept an old army cot in the plant and would sometimes work for several straight days to monitor production. Bill Martin, one of a handful of employees hired in 1956, says, "He constantly reminded us about the importance of making quality products and working smart. Wilt's favorite lines were "measure twice and cut once" and "always keep your eyes wandering."
While Hawkins remained incredibly focused on the job, he still found time to keep in close contact with his college classmates from CIT. "Wilton is such a personable person, if you're around him, you're deeply involved as a friend. He is the most loyal person I've ever known," says Harold Hall (E'48), one of his fraternity brothers. When Hall decided he should propose to his sweetheart, he let Hawkins help plan the whole thing. His friend hid the engagement ring at the end of a string that snaked around Schenley Park, something they would laughingly recall for years.
Hawkins' assessment of Teflon proved to be accurate. Chemplast initially made two products, Teflon rod and coaxial cable cores. Their first product was purchased by the U.S. government for the Defense Early Warning System. The demand for Teflon continued to grow during the Korean War in the 1950s as the government ramped up aircraft and naval craft production, which called for electronic components and coaxial cable, made of Teflon. Chemplast developed equipment and techniques to meet the demands. The company grew, eventually attaining more than $20 million in annual sales, 375 employees, and a listing on the American Stock Exchange. Norton acquired Chemplast and Hawkins became Vice President of Research and Development in its Performance Plastics Division, where he retired in 1999.
As his career prospered, Hawkins never forgot where his path to success started. He and his late wife, Teddy, became active philanthropists. Although he and his wife never moved back to Lawrenceburg, Kentucky-they had homes in New Jersey, Hilton Head, and Vermont-Hawkins helped his hometown establish a museum, library, and park. For his alma mater, he has donated more than $2 million that has led, in part, to a distinguished professorship in engineering and named rooms in both the University Center and engineering hall. He continues today to support the Inspire Innovation campaign.
Reciprocally, Carnegie Mellon hasn't forgotten him or his accomplishments, bestowing him with many awards and honors over the years. He says that of all the recognition, he remains particularly touched by an honorary doctorate from Carnegie Mellon in 1997. University President Jared L. Cohon said at the time that Hawkins was from the "Greatest Generation."
Molly McCurdy (A'10) is based in Los Angeles, pursuing a career in screenwriting and production development. She has been a regular contributor to this magazine since her senior year at Carnegie Mellon.