Remembering "Boss" Kett

Oct 13, 2009

Richard William Treharne Jr. did not graduate from Kettering/GMI, but he spent a number of years working alongside Charles F. "Boss" Kettering and fondly remembers the man in this reminiscence.

Editor’s Note: The following was recently received by the PR & Communications Office at Kettering and edited for content and space considerations. Although Richard William Treharne Jr. did not graduate from Kettering/GMI, he spent a number of years working alongside “Boss” Kett and fondly remembers the man. Charles F. Kettering (1876-1958), founder of General Motors Research Laboratories, was a distinguished American engineer, scientist and humanitarian. Kettering was also a strong advocate of cooperative education and was influential in shaping what Kettering University is today—a school that rests on the foundation of cooperative education. Among Kettering's notable accomplishments was his development of the automatic cash register, automobile self-starter and leaded gasoline. Later in his career he devoted his research interests to magnetism and solar energy. In this brief article, Treharne describes his perception of Boss Kett during his years of working closely with Kettering.

During the Great Depression years of the 1930’s, the vice president of Research at General Motors often spoke to many groups around the country on a number of different topics.  Even though he was not handsome, had thick, unattractive glasses and spoke with a squeaky voice, he was a popular speaker who was in high demand for many occasions. His folksy speaking style connected with the common man as he assured everyone that through science better days were ahead for our nation and that new scientific inventions would create wealth for America.  The name of that speaker was Charles F. Kettering. The theme of his speeches was that a combination of hard work, ingenuity, technology and teamwork would get us out of the depression and make the world a better place.  He often told his audiences to look past the present and toward the future.

“My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there,” Boss Kett often told those who attended his talks and speeches.

His upbeat, positive, forward thinking talk was a welcome relief from the dreary days of the Great Depression. People everywhere were eager to hear his message. Charles F. Kettering became so popular that later in his life he addressed the nation in five minute weekly radio addresses during the intermission of the General Motors Symphony of the Air.  The title of his talk was “Science and Invention.” 
Charles F. Kettering became, in effect, the nation’s first Mr. Wizard, its champion for science, as well as its coach to rally the team for an economic comeback.

I had the privilege of working for “Boss Kett” from 1953 until his death five years later. I started work in the basement of his house (the first one in the world with Freon-based air conditioning, one of Kettering’s inventions).  Today, his 90-acre home at Ridgeleigh Terrace in Kettering, Ohio, is where the Charles F. Kettering Memorial Hospital now stands. When I drove up to his house in my 1951 Ford car for my interview, I thought to myself at the time that it probably wasn’t such a smart idea to drive up to the vice president of General Motors’ house in a Ford car.
He met me in the driveway and the first thing I said to him was, “I don’t suppose you would hire a man who drives a Ford?” 
He said, “I might, but I may question his judgment.”

Then he laughed and smiled.  I like him instantly.
In his private lab, which expanded over the years, we investigated a wide variety of scientific subjects that interested him—electronics, magnetism, chemistry and his favorite subject, photosynthesis, the study of how plants turn light into food, which later evolved into the Kettering Research Laboratory at Antioch College in Yellow Springs.
“We’re going to run out of fossil fuel some day,” he would say. “So we better figure out why plants are green.”
He encouraged us all to have lots of children because this effort would be a long term research project. He had a knack for putting people on projects although they were not necessarily the best qualified person. “An inventor is simply a fellow who doesn't take his education too seriously,” he would say.  He liked people who were smart but not hindered by prior thought into thinking something could not be done.
“Keep on going and the chances are you will stumble on something, perhaps when you are least expecting it,” he sometimes said.
He always believed there must be a better way and he expressed this to me and others on numerous occasions.  All we had to do was find out what it was.

So what would “Boss Kett” think and say about the events of today?  I think his first reaction would be surprise.  He would be startled to find out that his beloved General Motors (GM), the largest company on earth at the time, had filed for bankruptcy.  Being the analytical man he was he would try to figure out the reason for GM’s demise.  “A problem well stated is a problem half solved,” he often said.  So what is a well stated version of GM’s problem?  I think he would conclude that GM lost its and his vision and never rediscovered it.  What was his vision for GM?  As the company’s vice president of Research, he had the vision that GM would have led the world in science and innovation.  Lose the lead and you lose the future lifeblood of the organization.

Written by Richard William Treharne Jr. and provided to Kettering University by his son, Richard William Treharne III, vice president of Orthopaedic Research at Active Implants Corp. of Memphis, Tenn.