Welcome back: 104-year-old alum returns to Trine campus
When Fred Kays graduated from Tri-State College, there was no apartment-style student housing, university commons, football field or ice arena.
The south tower of what is now Fawick Hall was only eight years old, having been built to house TSC’s aeronautical engineering program. Much of the technology in today’s state-of-the-art labs had yet to be developed.
And, by the way, Harry Truman was president of the United States.
Perhaps Trine University’s oldest living alumnus, Fred, who will turn 104 on July 27, recently returned to visit campus for the first time since he graduated in 1949 with a civil engineering degree.
Though most of his generation of Tri-State students has passed away, his story is representative of those who were part of the flood of students who came to Tri-State on the GI Bill post-World War II.
Coming of age during the Great Depression
Fred was born in 1915 in Cambridge, Ohio, nestled among the Appalachian Mountains in the southeast corner of the state. High school graduation came in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression.
Jobs were scarce and he had to piece together what he could to get by. College was out of the question. He put off getting married to his high school sweetheart until 1941 out of fear he wouldn’t be able to support a family.
“I worked in steel mills when they ran,” he recalled. “I worked on farms in the summertime quite often. I worked at a hamburger stand on weekends. I put in time at a gas station.”
Barely a month after his wedding, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the nation joined World War II.
Fred was activated with the Ohio National Guard in 1940 and eventually served in the European theater with the C Battery of the 243rd Field Artillery. His duties included surveying and communications, and, after he was promoted to first lieutenant, he served as reconnaissance officer for the battalion.
Transporting 8-inch heavy guns, the 243rd landed at Utah Beach two months after D-Day and was instrumental in capture of Saint-Malo, France. German forces had occupied the city’s Citadel, which was inaccessible by infantry troops, but the C Battery’s artillery was able knock out the site’s anti-aircraft and machine guns, ultimately forcing a surrender.
Part of Tri-State’s post-war boom
Returning from the war, Fred was hired by the Ohio of Department of Transportation, were he went to work on a survey crew. He and his co-workers talked about the benefits of the GI Bill, and one shared a catalog from Tri-State College.
Attracted to the idea of a civil engineering degree following his surveying work for the military and the Department of Transportation, Fred made the trip to Angola to visit campus with a high school classmate.
“They told us then that they had room in the college, but we’d have to bring our own housing, which meant we had to find a trailer,” Fred said.
His classmate went to another college, but Fred decided to attend Tri-State, despite the housing inconvenience caused by the post-war enrollment boom. He and his wife, Martha, found a 29-foot travel trailer for sale in Columbus and bought it.
They brought the trailer back to Cambridge and lived in it with son David, born in 1945, until Jan. 1, 1947, when they hooked it to their 1940 Buick and headed to Angola. They parked the trailer near a gas station on U.S. 20 about a mile east of town, their home for the 2-1/2 years it took to complete an engineering degree.
2-1/2 years in a trailer
The property, home to several such trailers housing Tri-State students, had hook-ups for electricity and water, but no sewer. The family of three used an outhouse and shower facility shared by several of the park’s residents.
“It was a tough time for Martha, living in a trailer, taking care of David and making sure he didn’t get too dirty,” Fred recalled. “I had to do my studying at the table, and more than once she would threaten to sweep all my stuff off so she could set it for the meal.”
After a trip back to Cambridge in March 1947, the family got caught in a heavy snowstorm on their way back to Angola.
“The coil in the car that had the voltage for the spark plugs got snow in it and got wet, and the car broke down quickly,” Fred recalled. “A truck driver came by and said he could take Martha and David and keep going. She had to carry David 100 feet up to the trailer and she only weighed 120 pounds and couldn’t carry him through a snow drift. So she threw him over the drift. He was wrapped in a blanket and she went over it and got him and got in the trailer. We couldn’t find the blanket until after the snow melted.”
Fred found his classes challenging, particularly curve geometry, where “all the angles were the same but the lines were all curved.” The head of the civil engineering department at the time, Cecil Hauber, didn’t allow students to use a slide rule on exams.
“I really had to work to get through a lot of it,” he said. “It used to irritate me a little bit: The next door neighbor, at 10 o’clock his lights would go out and they’d go to bed, and I’d be halfway through.”
Though living in the trailer and the demands of school and family didn’t allow Fred to participate in campus activities, he and Martha did build friendships with other Tri-State students and families who lived in the trailer park. Russ Dewitt 1949 BSME became a lifelong friend, with the two discussing and debating problems in classes they shared.
“Our wives were afraid we would get in a fight,” he recalled. “We got pretty long and pretty tempered, but we were friends as long as they lived.”
Neither Fred nor Martha worked, with the couple relying on savings from money Fred sent home while he was in Europe. Though Martha had saved quite a bit, it began to run out by 1949 as Fred prepared for his last quarter of college.
“I went to the head of the civil engineering department and asked him if he knew anywhere that I could get a job,” he recalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have time for a job.’ ”
Fortunately, not long after, the state of Ohio awarded money to those who had served in the war, and the couple received a payment of more than $400. By the time Fred graduated, they had $150 left.
Successful civil engineering career
After graduation, Fred was hired as assistant city engineer for Three Rivers, Michigan, and was eventually promoted to acting city manager. He held that position until 1952, although he said he “didn’t know beans” about working as a city manager.
“I was surprised that when I quit they threw a party and the whole city board and all the employees gave me an Elgin watch,” he said. “I figured I did a lousy job as city manager but I must have done a pretty good job of personal relations.”
He managed a Ready-Mix plant that summer and then went to work for Michigan’s State Highway Department as a project engineer. He would continue working for the department until his retirement in 1980, overseeing projects such as the initial build and rebuild of Interstate 94 and U.S. 131.
For 20 years after retirement, until Martha passed away at age 94, Fred said the couple “had a ball.” Fred did volunteer work for FEMA, helping conduct damage surveys after severe weather events. He and Martha also did some volunteer work supervising construction of shrimp farms in Belize for a charity organization.
They traveled to 49 U.S. states in their Airstream travel trailer, as well as southern and western Canada and two trips into Mexico.
“In the 1980s they had a saying that, ‘It’s 10 o’clock, do you know where your kids are?’ ” Fred said. “Our kids would call one another up and want to know where their parents were.”
Though he has slowed down a bit as of late, Fred still has his own apartment in suburban Chicago near daughter Jolie and her husband Ken, who take him on regular trips.
For his 99th birthday they went to Normandy during the 70th anniversary celebration for D-Day. They used his battalion diary to follow the route he traveled with C Battery in 1944.
For his 103rd birthday they went to Scotland and Ireland, finding birth certificates for some of Martha’s ancestors in Northern Ireland. Last October, they traveled to Florida to watch the launch of a rocket that Fred’s son Randy worked on for Lockheed-Martin.
And this year he returned to his alma mater for the first time in 70 years.
Tri-State College and the GI Bill played a big part in the life he has had, giving him the opportunity to get out of poverty. That, in turn, allowed him to provide a future for a family that now includes four children, 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
“I’m still amazed at the children of two people who were dirt farmers when they grew up,” he said. “What our kids are doing now, and our grandchildren, it’s even more amazing.”
Top photo: Fred Kays, center, stands with his son-in-law and daughter, Ken and Jolie Fredette, outside the Sponsel Administration Building during their visit to the Trine University campus on June 14. It was Fred's first visit to campus since he graduated in 1949.