The Liberty Administration


Born and raised in Gray, Maine Dr. Stanley R. Liberty graduated from Cheverus High School in Portland. He earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering at the University of Notre Dame.

Dr. Liberty joins Kettering from Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., where he has been provost and vice president for academic affairs since January of 1998. Before joining Bradley he served as dean of engineering for 13 years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and as that university's interim vice chancellor for academic affairs. He was the Nebraska representative on the Science and Technology Council of the States, a working group of the National Governor's Association, and he advised Governor's Orr and Nelson on science and technology matters.

He also served as department chair of electrical engineering at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virg., and as a faculty member at Texas Tech University, where he was founding director of Texas Tech's center for energy research, an associate dean of graduate studies, and a member of the Texas Energy Advisory Council. Prior to his academic career he was employed as a design engineer by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command. Dr. Liberty's research has been supported by grants from several federal agencies including NSF, NASA and the Office of Naval Research.

When President Stan Liberty arrived on campus in 2005 as Kettering’s sixth president, he said he was looking forward to “facilitating the development of strong collaborative partnerships between Kettering and both private and public sector entities in Flint and the surrounding region.”

Just ask Professor Reg Bell.  “Integrity, a keen sensitivity to the concerns of others, and vision are just a few of Stan Liberty’s many qualities of character,” Bell said.  “Despite having the shortest tenure of Kettering’s six presidents, Stan’s achievements are significant and will endure.”

Or ask Bell’s favorite student, Gary Cowger ’70, chair of the Kettering Board of Trustees: “On behalf of the Board of Trustees and myself, I'd like to thank Stan and Angie Liberty for their dedicated service to our University during six of the toughest years in its history.  The last four years has seen an economic crisis unparalleled in this country since the great depression.  Despite these difficulties Stan moved Kettering forward and deepened our involvement with the community, city and state.  We wish them good luck and hope they will return to the campus to visit us often,” Cowger added.

Under President Liberty’s leadership, Kettering stretched both its academic prowess and economic footprint.  Campus accomplishments from 2005-2011 include:

  • Launch of new academic degree programs, minors and areas of concentration, including Pre-med, Pre-law, Bioinformatics, Engineering Physics, Chemical Engineering, the Business degrees were restructured, MBA program launched and expanded.
  • Received a Best in Class National Award for entrepreneurship and innovation.
  • Completed construction and dedication of the Innovation Center at Kettering University.  
  • Completed construction of the Dane and Mary Louise Miller Life Sciences and Bio-Engineering Laboratories, expanding the BioChemistry and Premed programs.
  • Provided leadership to help turn Flint into a College Town.
  • Embraced Flint’s Cultural Center, allowing students ready access to music and art extracurricular activities and lessons for the first time in University history.
  • Broadened Kettering’s international reach into China with new exchange programs, for both undergraduate students and professionals.  
  • Volunteerism in the community skyrockets.
  • Doubled Kettering’s engagement with FIRST to two large competitions a year.
  • Resized the University during Michigan’s economic downturn.
  • Hosted special visitors on campus, including Senator Barack Obama and the King of Sweden.

College Town -- It started with a billboard

Kettering’s new institutional mission and strategic plan allowed the University to become an active partner in regional economic development for the first time.  Dr. Liberty hosted the presidents of Baker College, Mott Community College and the U-Michigan-Flint in February 2006 to unveil the "College Town" slogan: “Preparing a workforce for the knowledge economy.”  It was the first of many “College Town” initiatives co-hosted by the four educational partners.

“Stan brought a level of expertise and enthusiasm to the table that always enhanced deliberations and promoted positive solutions well beyond Kettering,” said Dr. Julianne T. Princinsky, president of Baker College of Flint.  “Stan and Angie’s participation has consistently benefited the entire region.  It has been a personal and professional pleasure to know them as friends and colleagues; they will be missed!”

Other examples of Kettering’s economic redevelopment efforts include:

  • Established the Region 6 office of the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center (MSBTDC) on campus in 2007, which in 2010 was helping 76 clients invest $21.6 million in the region, create 257 jobs and 27 new businesses.
  • Created business incubation facilities and a business start-up and growth accelerator (Tech Works) focused on advanced technology commercialization.
  • Kettering's sponsored research activities are growing and a first faculty "spin-out" company has been created based on Kettering owned intellectual property.

“President Liberty definitely made a tangible contribution to the strength of this region,” said Tim Herman, Genesee Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO.  “He has done an outstanding job fostering research and integrating Kettering into the Flint community.  Both Kettering University and the region have benefitted greatly from his focus on academic excellence and his visionary leadership,” Herman said.

Promoting innovation and more

Dr. Joel Berry, professor and head of Mechanical Engineering said Dr. Liberty helped infuse a climate of innovative thought for students and faculty. “He understood the need to move Kettering's mindset from the traditional corporate model to one where risk taking and innovation in thought and deed was the norm,” Dr. Berry said.  “With a vision and framework for Kettering's future, he exhibited a vital pioneering spirit that can only spread and grow to secure our future.”

As a key institutional player in the state-designated Flint Center of Energy Excellence, Kettering continues to conduct research on enhancement of bio-methane production in collaboration with the City of Flint and Swedish Biogas International.

With grant support from the C.S. Mott Foundation, Kettering advanced marketing and branding efforts.  Media coverage soared to historical highs – more than 25,000 media hits in 2010.  “Additionally, we introduced, a mobile application,” Dr. Liberty said.  “The number of alumni events have been increased so the Kettering story can be told to and by GMI/Kettering alumni.”

Kettering's diversity initiatives - specifically its pre-college programs – received strong external financial support, and in 2009 Kettering's AIM program was named “Pre-college Program of the Year” by The National Association of Multicultural Engineering Professional Advocates.  Kettering's LITE program, a pre-college program for young women, received the 2010 WEPAN Women in Engineering Initiative Award for advancing women in engineering (WEPAN stands for Women in Engineering ProActive Network).

Faculty Senate Moderator Dr. Laura Sullivan said Dr. Liberty demonstrated that he delivered on his promises and served as a role model in serving society without expectation or the need for accolades. “It has been an honor to work with him, and I am grateful for the support that he has given to me and to the students of Engineers Without Borders,” she continued.  “I am excited about the future for Kettering, but I also want Dr. Liberty to know how valuable he has been to its past.”

The Arts at Kettering

Dr. Liberty ended Kettering’s limited options for students seeking the fine and performing arts while on campus.  “We established The Arts at Kettering in collaboration with the Flint Institutes of Music/Flint Youth Theater and The Flint Institute of Arts,” Dr. Liberty explained.  “The program is open to all Kettering students at no cost and is entirely co-curricular.  Students can take private lessons on instruments or voice and they perform in ensembles. They also participate in a wide variety of workshops ranging from photography to theater and dance.”

John B. Henry III, director of the Flint Institute of Arts, said the College Town initiative helped overcome the reluctance of students to venture beyond the boundaries of their own campuses.  “With Stan’s support and vision, the goal of students participating in the rich cultural offerings in this community is being realized.  We wish Stan and Angie all good things in the future,” he said.

Strengthened community ties

Kettering became better connected to the Flint community through his involvement on various boards including the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. Additionally, his wife, Angie, served on the board of the Flint Cultural Center Corp., Friends of Sloan-Longway and Kettering’s Friends of the Library and Archives (FOLA).

“It was always clear that he understood his leadership role at Kettering to include a strong community commitment, that it was not enough for Kettering to succeed if its hometown was floundering,” said Kathi Horton, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint.  “He wanted to play a role in generating a more economically vital community, one that was poised to succeed in the future and not just cling to past glories.”


The John Administration

Term: 1991-2005

Born November 6, 1933 in Montreal, Quebec, James E.A. John graduated from Princeton University, received his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland and spent his career in engineering education. Previous to becoming President of Kettering University, he was Chairman of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Toledo, Chairman of Mechanical Engineering at The Ohio State University, and Dean of Engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

 In 1991, Kettering University was a different campus with a different name. A crumbling parking ramp dominated the horizon and peeling paint abounded. Former Trustee Ed Harris likes to call it the years when GMI "was still a school run by a factory."

Then began the 14-year tenure of President James E.A. John.

"The enhancement of the campus during Dr. John's presidency is a great tribute to his broad vision and outstanding skills," Harris said. "Early emphasis on recreation and housing facilities for students set the tone for his administration. With a staff focused on fundraising and alumni development, and a faculty continuing to produce academic excellence, Dr. John truly created a balanced approach to governing."

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs John Lorenz likened his arrival to a famous Charles Kettering quote: think more about the future than the past, because that's where you're going to spend the rest of your life. "It's apparent that Dr. John, like Charles Kettering, preferred to think about the future of the school rather than dwell on its past," Lorenz said.

Lorenz described President John's legacy may be as "the building president" at Kettering University. Under his leadership, the campus experienced:

. . . the construction of the new Recreation Center, which is named in honor of him and his wife, Connie;
. . . the construction of the C.S. Mott Engineering and Science Center, which houses the Chemistry and Mechanical Engineering programs;
. . . the construction of Campus Village Apartments, which provide on-campus housing for upperclass students;
. . . new athletic playing fields;
. . . the McKeachie Pavilion for student activities;
. . . and the air conditioning of the Residence Hall.

In addition, he supported:
. . . the establishment of Kettering's Center of Excellence in Fuel Cell Technology;
. . . the automotive CRASH Lab;
. . . the Bosch Automotive Electronic Systems Laboratory;
. . . the Ford Design Simulation Studio;
. . . the PACE Lab for e-design and e-manufacturing;
. . . and the establishment of a research park adjacent to campus.

Also, during his presidency:
. . . the number of undergraduate and graduate degree programs increased;
. . . a curriculum reform effort was completed at both the undergraduate and graduate levels;
. . . international student exchange programs were established with six different countries;
. . . articulation agreements were established with community colleges;
. . . the number of companies employing Kettering co-op students was expanded to include more than 700 corporate sites;
. . . and the retention rates and graduation rates for both women and under-represented minorities increased.

"But, the most profound change for which Jim will be remembered," Lorenz said, "occurred on January 1, 1998, when the school changed its name from GMI Engineering & Management Institute to Kettering University. And, while most of the attention at the time was focused on the change from 'GMI' to 'Kettering,' I believe that history will prove that the change from 'Engineering & Management Institute' to 'University' will be far more significant," Lorenz concluded.

Dr. John died Nov. 28, 2010, at his home in Ohio.


The Cottingham Administration

Term: 1976-1991

Born December 1, 1933, in Chicago, William B. Cottingham grew up attending public schools and the Lane Technical High School. He admits to an early interest in engines, working on them “from age eight or so.” His father was president of the Henry Pratt Corporation, whose primary product was large butterfly valves and boilers for power plants.

During summer vacations in his teens he worked as a “re-tuber” for steam condensers for Consolidated Edison in Chicago and later “graduated” to building new boilers for the same company. He recalls with pride his hands-on approach to engineering and his status as a “card carrying member” of the Boilermakers and Steamfitters local union. Small wonder that he became a life-long advocate for cooperative engineering education.

Following graduation from Lane Tech he planned to enter Cal Tech to study astronomy. Unable to meet all the rigid entrance requirements, he decided to join a buddy at Purdue. He entered the university in 1952, intending to major in physics. “After the first year I was so bored with the slow pace of the physics program that I switched to engineering.” In 1955 he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering. A year later he earned his master’s degree and completed his doctorate in 1960. While attending graduate school he found it necessary to supplement his income to meet expenses. He found employment with a professor who was working on increasing the firing rate of the army’s 50-calibre machine gun. The project was of interest and much to his liking. He pursued this research, and when called for served during the Korean Conflict, he was granted a “scientific exemption” to continue on the machine gun project.

Following completion of his doctoral degree, he became a member of the technical staff of Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey. In 1963 he returned to Purdue as an associate professor of mechanical engineering. In July 1970 he was appointed to head the School of Mechanical Engineering. About 1972 he founded with four Purdue colleagues Tec-Tran, Inc., an engineering consulting and publishing firm in Lafayette, Indiana, specializing in low volume technical books with a limited market appeal.

Dr. Cottingham served as a consultant to many companies and organizations including the National Science Foundation, the Commission of Engineering and Education, and the U.S. Army Science Foundation, the Commission of Engineering and Education, and the U.S. Army Scientific Advisory Panel. He also spent six months in 1970 as a guest researcher in the area on infrared radiations patterns from surfaces for Medisch Fysisch Instituet-Tno in the Netherlands. Cottingham is the author or co-author of more than 200 technical and educational publications and presentations and co-author of five chapters in a major work entitled Physical Design of Electronic Systems. He participated in the development of a design patent on a “Cryostat”, a vessel for containing super conduction magnets suspended in liquid helium. This resulting patent was later assigned to the Bell Telephone Laboratories.

He came to General Motors Institute in 1975 as dean of academic affairs and became president of the school a year later. On July 1, 1982, the Institute gained its independence from General Motors and became GMI Engineering & Management Institute, with Dr. Cottingham as president. Over the next several years he, in many ways, presided over the creation of a new institution. A member of his staff commented, “That is entrepreneurship on a big scale. The school went from having one corporate sponsor to over 400.”  He successfully steered the college through the troubled waters of transition, maintained its reputation as one of the country’s top engineering and management schools, and established a solid base for GMI’s future.

Throughout his life, Dr. Cottingham was active in a number of professional and civic activities -- a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers, serving at one time as chairman of the Engineering Education Committee. Other professional associations included the National Commission for Cooperative Education, the Army Scientific Advisory Panel and the Distance Education and Training Accrediting Commission, on which he still serves.

His interest in music (mainly classical) goes back to his childhood when he took piano lessons for a while but did not retain any proficiency. While at Purdue he served on the Board of the Lafayette Symphony and in Flint continued that service, serving as president of the Pine Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the Flint College and Cultural Center, and was founding member of the consortium of local colleges. He continues to serve on the advisory board of NBD-Flint Bank.

When asked his philosophy of administration he said he preferred to, “hire good people and get the hell out of their way.” He viewed himself as a coach or angel rather than a dictator.”He recalled only twice during his tenure at GMI when he felt the coach type of administrator was not appropriate. The first time was when he arrived to find GMI in “disarray and its administration emasculated” following the cut-back of 1974-1975. He sensed that immediate and decisive action was imperative to the future of the Institute. The second time he resorted to “acting a lot like a dictator” was when GM “turned us loose.” But after the trauma settled down he returned to his preferred style of administration.

Under Dr. Cottingham’s leadership, the Institute confidently advanced into its future, proud of its well-earned reputation as one of the nation’s foremost private colleges, yet mindful of the expectations inherited from the past to remain at the cutting edge of innovative, productive and meaningful education of young men and women in management and engineering.

Dr. Cottingham died Sept. 29, 2009, at his home in Florida.

By Richard Scharchburg and University Sources


The Rodes Administration

Term: 1960-1976

Upon the retirement of Guy R. Cowing, the General Motors Institute Board of Regents decided to fill the GMI presidency through a nationwide search outside of the Institute and of equal importance, outside industry.

The man they selected was Harold Potter Rodes. Dr. Rodes had considerable experience and a broad background in teaching and educational administration at other engineering colleges. When Dr. Rodes accepted the appointment to GMI in 1960, he was president of Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. The hallmark of his tenure at Bradley included nurturing a close relationship with local business and industry. As local residents began to realize the value of his educational philosophy, the rapid increase in enrollment necessitated the addition of one new building for five of the six years he was there.

Dr. Rodes was born in 1919 in Morestown, New Jersey, and was graduated summa cum laude from Dartmouth College in 1941. During his senior year at Dartmouth, Rodes met his future wife, Edith Wilde, whom he says, “I met when the altos and basses in a South River, New Jersey, Methodist church choir sat conveniently near each other. We had our first date after choir practice.” Eventually the Rodes had five children, including one set of twins.

After a year of high school teaching in Bradford, Vermont, he went on active duty with the U.S. Marines as a lieutenant. He served in an engineering battalion in this country and in the Pacific area until 1943. Following his return from the Pacific Theater, Rodes was assigned as an aircraft drafting instructor at San Diego (1943-1944) and later as a mechanical engineering lecturer and assistant supervisor at the University of California, Berkeley (1944-1945).  It was during this time that he began graduate study in engineering and education at U. of California.

From 1945 to 1948, Dr. Rodes was a teaching assistant at Yale University, serving also as assistant director of student personnel at nearby New Haven Junior College. He received a master’s degree from Yale in educational administration in 1946 and his Ph.D. in 1948. From 1948 to 1951 Dr. Rodes was an assistant professor of engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Three years later, in 1951, he was offered his first full-time administrative appointment. He was called to become president of the Ohio College of Applied Science in Cincinnati, a two-year technical institution utilizing the cooperative plan of education.

In 1954 Dr. Rodes was offered the presidency of Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, Thus, at age 34 he was the youngest college president in the United States. The appointment was, no doubt, an expression of confidence in his experience and potential leadership so important to Bradley at the time.

Initially functioning in the capacity of a trouble shooter (the school was in academic eclipse, due in part to a basketball scandal), he was successful in restoring the college to the good graces of academe. Rodes recognized that, as an urban university, Bradley’s major support must come from business and industry; he provided leadership in gearing the programs to their needs, particularly in engineering and business administration. Under his leadership enrollment rapidly expanded, making necessary a major campus expansion program, which included academic buildings, residence halls, and a campus center.

Dr. Rodes thus came to the presidency of GMI from a solid academic background which included the following: college teaching experience that would enable him to understand faculty problems and points of view; a number of industrial contacts; experience in operating a cooperative educational program; and demonstrated success as a college administrator. His duties in Flint began in August 1960.

When Dr. Rodes arrived on campus, the Institute had six educational programs and two distinct educational activities:

  1. The full-time education of young men (the first woman student enrolled in 1965), who had the potential to assume positions of major responsibility in the engineering and administrative operations of a manufacturing organization.
  2. The part-time education and training of corporation employees to aid them in preparing for greater responsibility and professional advancement in management and technology.

GMI’s five-year engineering program was unique in several respects.  All students enrolled in the program co-oped for all five years.  The program aimed to equip well-qualified and highly motivated young men with a sound professional education in either industrial, mechanical or electrical engineering.

High on Dr. Rodes’ list of priorities for his presidency was accreditation, institutional first and then curricular.  Each proved to be a struggle because of GMI’s relationship with a single industry, General Motors and a mission statement to provide programs that were different, better and less expensive than could be obtained elsewhere – elements that trained the minds of the visitation team members.

Throughout Dr. Rodes’ tenure, continued careful and studied changes were designed to enhance and enrich the professional engineering and management educational opportunities offered by the college to better meet the needs of the Corporation which it served.

In 1963, the college acquired the former Hasselbring estate, containing 34 acres of land south of Third Avenue.  It allowed for the construction of the Campus Center and Men’s Residence Hall, later renamed the Frances Willson Thompson Residence Hall.  Soon a modern parking deck south of the residence hall was added.

As the physical campus grew, so too did an updated curricula.  Fifty-three outdated courses were dropped and 70 courses added.  The Bachelor/Master program was considerably expanded.

Dr. Rodes increased the number of women and minority students enrolled on campus.  GMI admitted its first black student in 1963 and first woman student in 1965.          

In May 1969, the campus hosted dedication ceremonies for the Campus Center and the Alumni Carillion in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the founding of GMI.  GMI fell on tough times in the 1970s during the automotive recession.  In 1974, GMI was ordered by GM to lay off about a third of the faculty and staff and cut the student body to about 1,000 students.

His last official day at GMI was June 30, 1976, but he served as President Emeritus until October 1, 1976.

He and his wife, Edith, traveled and spent winters in Florida and summers in northern Michigan.  He died unexpectedly at his daughter’s home in Flint on Nov. 29, 1993.

By Richard Scharchburg and University Sources


The Cowing Administration

Term: 1950-1960

Guy R. Cowing was born in Charlotte, Michigan, on June 22, 1895. The family moved to Flint in 1900 where Cowing’s father had accepted a position as assistant cashier of the Genesee Merchants Bank and Trust Company.

Cowing graduated from the old Flint High School in 1913 and completed a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Michigan in 1917. Following college, Cowing worked for the Illinois Bell Telephone Company in Chicago.

During the World War I, Cowing served his country in the Army from 1917 to 1919. He was an instructor in the Army’s radio schools in Washington, D.C., Maryland State Agricultural College and Columbia University. He was a company commander in the signal Corps when he left the service and returned to Flint where he was briefly employed by Chevrolet before entering the educational field.

In 1920, Cowing was hired by Albert Sobey and in 1926 was designated assistant director of the School of Automotive Trades.

The Cowing Era – 1950 to 1960: In 1949, the Founding President of GMI, Albert Sobey, became ill and Mr. Cowing took on increasing responsibility.  He became President of GMI in 1950.  From the very beginning of his presidency, he reaffirmed and invigorated programs and services to the divisions of General Motors Institute.

Cowing was committed to the basic concepts on which GMI was founded and believed in the essential contribution of General Motors to the economy and to the American way of life.

Throughout his career as teacher and Institute president, Guy R. Cowing was held in high esteem in the educational world. He frequently was called upon to address groups in engineering education and in the field of cooperative education. He was a member of the American Society of Engineering Education.

In 1956, the GMI Interfraternity Council established the Guy R. Cowing Trophy in his honor. It is still awarded annually to the GMI fraternity or sorority selected as performing the greatest public service in the community.

Three years after his retirement, Cowing died at his winter home in Mesa, Arizona. Commenting on his death The Flint Journal expressed the thoughts of his many students, friends and neighbors.

“His vision, enthusiasm and leadership contributed much to the development of the institution that produces top-flight automotive executives…

No greater monument could be erected in his honor than the institution he helped found and build at Chevrolet and Third Avenues. But his most significant contribution to the community is not of bricks and mortar but of hearts and minds – those of today’s industrial and civic leaders whose lives were influenced by his teachings.”

By Richard Scharchburg and University Sources


The Sobey Administration

Term: 1919-1950

The founder of Kettering University in Flint, Mich., did not live to see his school named in honor of Dr. Charles F. Kettering.  But Major Albert Sobey, the man who launched the school in 1919, would no doubt have been pleased.

“Boss” Kettering’s place in automotive history would be secure if for no other reason than he invented the self-starter, which greatly popularized automobiles. But that was only the beginning.  Over the decades, the pioneering scientist and inventor provided General Motors with a huge number of benefits as director of GM Research Laboratories.

When Major Sobey was struggling to build his school – which would become famous as GMI – Kettering was often a source of counsel and support.  Over several decades, they often had dinner together in the GM executive dining room and sometimes Kettering dined at Sobey’s home. Indeed, near the very beginning, when the institute started a new teaching program for factory foremen in 1920, Kettering was a speaker at the first meeting.

And when GM took over the institute in 1926 and provided new buildings and a new campus, Kettering may have helped engineer that decision from behind the scenes.  The decision was announced July 12, 1926.  On that date Sobey’s Flint Institute of Technology became General Motors Institute of Technology, with Sobey as its director.  It was not until 1998 that the institute became Kettering University.

“Boss Ket” is a widely recognized name, but who was Major Sobey and how did he get that title?  He earned the title in Army intelligence during World War I, but it carried over into civilian life because he lost his clothes. 

At least that was his story.  Immediately after his discharge from the Army at the end of World War I, Major Sobey sent his personal clothing to Flint – but it took several weeks for the package to find him.  Admittedly frugal, he decided that rather than buy new clothes, he would wear his uniform for a few weeks in his new job as first director of a teaching institute just created by Flint’s Industrial Fellowship League.  Students, noting the uniform, began calling him Major and it stuck.

Albert was born on or about August 7, 1885, in Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts into Lake Superior in Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula.  At the time the Keweenaw was in the middle of its copper mining boom – which preceded the California gold rush as the country’s first big mining frenzy. Pure Michigan copper was prized worldwide. Towns such as Calumet, Houghton and Hancock, built around mineheads, quickly rose as commercial and cultural centers with big stores, fine schools and substantial music halls and theaters.
Albert’s family lived in a lesser settlement, Boston, today a dot on the map halfway between Hancock and Calumet.

When he was four and a half, his father, a shift captain in the mines with a promising future, was killed when a rock fell several hundred feet down a shaft. The tragedy might have doomed Albert to poverty.  But his mother was a hard worker, holding the family together by organizing “free enterprise” business activities. These included Albert and his two sisters making and selling artificial flowers. She also took care of a schoolhouse which included, as a benefit, a house free from rent. At 14, Albert became an apprentice in the Boston mines’ machine shop.  At 17 he was being groomed to become its master mechanic.

But other forces were at work.  Albert’s quick mind had attracted attention.  A teacher took an interest and tutored him in high school courses.  When his mother remarried, her new husband, who had worked in mining management, loaned Albert money to attend college.  And so Albert went to Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) in East Lansing.  Albert, who had missed high school except for the tutoring, tested well enough for acceptance.  He earned his bachelor’s degree in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering from MAC in 1909.

For several years after college, he worked as a civil engineer in Lansing and Chicago. When he became seriously ill in 1911, he came home. His stepsister was a nurse and helped in his recuperation.  Before he fully recovered, his stepfather died unexpectedly of a heart attack.  Realizing the need to help his mother again, he gave up plans to return to Chicago and instead found work teaching mathematics and physics at the Michigan College of Mines (now Michigan Technological University) in Houghton.
As a young teacher, Sobey learned how to handle students who were sometimes belligerent.  Usually he was able to change their attitudes and often received their thanks after they left his class for teaching them discipline that helped them succeed.  He also noted young single men in the Copper Country had little to do, so he organized baseball, hockey teams and discussion sessions.  Sobey was learning he had a knack for teaching and for helping young people develop.

When World War I began, Sobey joined the Army as a captain, assigned as assistant chief of the radio section of the Military Intelligence Division.  He was 5-foot-8 ½ and so thin – seven pounds under the military’s minimum weight requirement – that the Army had to get a ruling that he was an expert “of importance to the war effort for which no other suitably qualified person is available.”  Sobey could recount many war stories – including capturing German military messages while manning an overseas interception station at Houlton, Maine. By war’s end he was a major and chief of the Radio Military Intelligence Division. The Army wanted him to stay, but Sobey wanted out. 

It was 1919 and another boom was taking place – this one in the automotive industry.  Thousands of people were moving to Flint to build Buicks in one of the world’s largest industrial complexes and to work in other local plants that produced Chevrolets, Dorts, trucks and auto components.  Most were part of the General Motors empire. GM had become a gigantic economic engine and Flint was one of the most prosperous cities in the country.

Local GM leaders began to promote a plan to create a school under Flint’s Industrial Development League. The primary leader was Buick’s general manager, Harry Bassett.  Sobey agreed to start the school.  The first class of the School of Automotive Trades started at 7 p.m. Oct. 20, 1919.  Soon 500 students were taking courses in their spare time and the school developed quickly. Special courses were held for foremen in management and leadership skills.  Company leaders including Kettering served as speakers or discussion leaders.  In 1923 the school was renamed the Flint Institute of Technology.  A program that covered major technical and business fields became the basis of the four-year cooperative engineering program in 1924 and the moment when cooperative education was born.

A critical moment came in 1926.  Harry Bassett, who by then had succeeded Walter P. Chrysler as Buick’s president, asked Sobey to attend the GM Executive Committee meeting in Flint in May.  Sobey was asked to present his views on the value of cooperative education to GM.  Then Bassett, emphasizing that the institute was outgrowing its facilities, unveiled a rendering of a new building.
“We should think of doing something like this in the future,” Bassett told the group.

Responded GM President Alfred P. Sloan Jr.: “Why in the future, Harry?  Why not now?”

According to Sobey’s son, Albert J. Sobey, Kettering may have been instrumental in setting the stage for Sloan’s endorsement of the plan.  The younger Sobey said he based that opinion “in part in what I overhead in discussion between dad and Boss Kettering.”
With Sloan’s endorsement, the building was approved.  GM had taken ownership of the Flint Institute of Technology and it once again had a new name – General Motors Institute of Technology.  And both Sloan and Kettering were speakers at the institute’s first graduation ceremony. 

The institute’s expansion during the next two decades was dramatic.  The number of participating plants expanded to include nearly all of GM’s U.S. facilities and included some non-GM Flint plants that were grandfathered in. By 1947 there were more than 20,000 people enrolled in GMI courses. And in 1948, Major Sobey was promoted from director of GMI to its president.

Sobey was certainly not a one-man show.  Besides his colleagues in GM and his assistants and teachers, he also received help from Bess B. Penoyer.  Albert and Bess began dating when she was head of the Genesee County Normal School, a teachers’ college. She resigned when they were married Aug. 16, 1923, because it was the custom in that era for teachers to be unmarried.

They were married at age 37. Bess, born Aug. 1, 1885, was one week older than her husband.  Their only child, Albert J., was born when they were 40. Young Albert recalled that his parents “were both deeply committed to education of young people – he for engineers, she for teachers.  They became what dad called ‘the Sobey team.’  Mother contributed as an unpaid adviser to GMI and supporter of the faculty and their wives – even as a matchmaker.  I remember many dinner table and car conversations about teaching styles and people problems.”

In his unpublished autobiography written for his son, Major Sobey said his life was greatly influenced by an ambition to make the most of his abilities and to provide service “that would live on in the lives of others after I had passed on.” He also had a faith in divine guidance which he traced to his mother.  That faith, he said, “was supported many, many times. When all other avenues of progress were seemingly closed, the one which divine providence apparently destined me to follow eventually worked out to my advantage.”

Albert J., who was 83 when interviewed in late 2008, noted his father “used to bring work home almost every day. I remember the dining room table covered with paper late into the night.  But he always had time to see if I had done my homework and talk about things in general.”

The younger Sobey, who graduated from GMI in 1945 with Mechanical and Industrial Engineering degrees, became an engineer at GM’s Allison Division.  He was later the founder and president of Transportation Technology, an outside company, and then returned to GM as director of Energy and Advanced Product Economics.  He still actively supports Kettering. His wife Barbara died in 2007 after 59 years of marriage.  Their two sons and a daughter are now in their 50s. There are two grandchildren.

In the World War II years, when the younger Sobey attended GMI, he recalled more than half the students were not from the Flint area.  There were no dormitories so students lived in rented housing or in fraternity houses.  They were serious students, with so much classroom work that there was little leisure time.  While the first woman to graduate was Karen (Morman) Stewart in 1970, some women were taking classes at GMI during the war years, Albert J. recalls.

Every now and then GMI and Sobey faced big challenges -- sometimes from GM or the GMI Board of Regents itself.  Sobey could usually find a way to defuse an issue.  At least once he reworded comments of the school’s critics to incorporate his ideas, and then presented them. The revision was approved.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression became so severe GM seriously considered closing the institute.  With so many engineers on the street, GM questioned educating new engineers.  Sobey’s successful response emphasized that someday GM would need the young engineers and at the same time he mapped out a drastic reduction in the budget.  Salaries, including his own, were cut and students took on the job of cleaning the classroom building and cafeteria. When GM’s financial situation brightened a year or two later, Sobey was able to hand out envelopes at a Christmas party giving each staff member the pay they thought they had forgone.

Another crisis surfaced during World War II.  GMI students had difficulty getting military commissions because GMI was not accredited. Sobey used his Washington contacts to get GMI grads accepted by the military. Another issue: Since GMI was not a public school, it did not qualify for advanced officer technical training. So its undergrads, when taken into the military, were sent to such schools as MIT, Yale and Stanford.  In general they were well received and helped create a good reputation for GMI.

“Dad hoped GMI graduates would not only be successful in their careers but be role models for succeeding generations,” said Albert J., adding “he sponsored supper meetings for GMI students at which business leaders were invited to describe their personal philosophies.  His objective was to show that successful people can have strong ethical convictions.” 

GMI decided to seek accreditation in 1945 and was approved largely because of the records of its graduates.  Sobey had taken the institute a long way from its one-class beginnings in 1919.
 As Sobey neared his 65th birthday and mandatory retirement in 1950, the praise for his work began to roll in.  There were honors in 1949 on the 30th anniversary of his arrival in Flint.  And on his retirement a year later, there were pages of comments about his leadership skills, his ability to influence students, his concept of service.  A tablet was placed at the entrance of GMI that reads:

Great advocate of training in industry and first President and Director of General Motors Institute, whose vision, faith, and leadership have contributed so greatly to the development of this institution and to the advancement of men in industry."

His son recalled: “After he retired, he continued to sponsor dinners at which speakers from GM and other companies could describe how they had solved ethical problems during their careers. He also started a program to help small colleges find senior personnel from GM to talk to their students on similar topics.”

Major Sobey was 75 when he died of cancer in 1960.  Bess lived seven more years.

Twenty-two years after Major Sobey’s death, GM made the decision to end its ownership of GMI.  Albert J. said that like many graduates he was “incensed” by that 1982 decision.  “We felt that the reasons GM gave were all wrong.  But in retrospect, considering what has occurred in the U.S. auto industry since then, it may have been the best thing that could have happened.”

When GM and GMI severed their relationship, another name change was required. General Motors Institute became GMI Engineering and Management Institute (GMI/EMI).  That remained until 1998, when the name was changed to Kettering University.  Major Sobey did not have the name recognition to receive that honor himself.  But seeking personal attention was never his style.  Naming his creation for his old friend Boss Kettering would bring favorable attention to his school and that would have been fine with the Major.