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Three Men and A Truck Photo, My 30 Year Journey

Last year, I received an interesting email announcing the retirement of one of my undergraduate professors.  Professor Keshav Varde was not only one of my instructors, he was also my program adviser, the head of the mechanical engineering department, and the faculty advisor on the Society of Automotive Engineers competition project.  I was the team leader of a national competition project to convert a GMC truck to run on natural gas.  It had been several years since we had spoken, and I thought it would be nice gesture to stop by his retirement party and congratulate him in person.

On the evening of the retirement reception, I arrived late on a winter evening at the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus.   I was held up at work, and running behind, so I skipped dinner and headed over to my alma-mater.  I hadn't visited the campus in several years.  The last time I walked through campus was with my oldest son.  A few years prior he was up in the area and deciding which school to take classes, so we visited the school.  On that visit, he and I walked through a newer building called the Institute for Advanced Automotive Systems.  This building had an enormous open interior space surrounded by student-use rooms.  Inside, there were several impressive student projects underway, mostly undertaken by the student chapter of The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

Later on that year, I took my youngest son through several campus tours when he was interested in studying engineering.  We visited Michigan Tech in Houghton, MI, Kettering University (formerly GMI) in Flint, MI, Michigan State, The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Wayne State University.  On each tour, we were shown their student project areas.  All of these schools had impressive student spaces, but nothing compared to what I saw that summer day four years ago at UM-Dearborn.  The Institute for Advanced Automotive Systems building is a unique showcase of student innovation and hands-on participation.

I want to go back to the Fall of 1989.  I was in my 4th year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, enrolled in the College of Literature, Science and Arts (LS&A), but aspiring to transfer into the College of Engineering.  My first two years at U of M were challenging and I was having difficulty achieving the grades in my coursework to allow me to transfer across campus.  I persisted through three and a half years, taking a full course-load of engineering pre-requisites and core classes until I was pulled out of class one afternoon.  I was told that my registration for the Winter 1990 semester had been cancelled.  I was told point-blank that if I wished to remain a student, I would have to declare an LS&A major and register for liberal arts courses, or I would have to transfer my credits, and complete my engineering education elsewhere.

This was my first defeat.  I had always wanted to be an engineer, and now I was faced with an overwhelming decision.  I quickly looked into transfer options.  After a few weeks, I had been accepted at a few local engineering programs and found that the UM-Dearborn program allowed me the highest credit-hour transfer advantage.  Still living in my Ann Arbor apartment for the rest of the school year, I started each morning, driving from Ann Arbor to Dearborn, 30 minutes away, to begin classes as a whole new school.

Being the new kid wasn't something new to me, but at the time, it had been years since I walked into a classroom where everyone knew one another, except me.  But there I was, a senior in college, having to start all over again.  Fortunately, I met some new friends and within weeks was in the swing of things at my new school.  While I was attending U of M in Ann Arbor, I participated briefly in two SAE competition groups:  Formula Car, and The Solar Car Challenge.  I remember one day, working on the formula car team, the leaders discussing selling one of their older racing cars to the Dearborn campus.  The SAE chapter at the Dearborn campus was nearly defunct with very little programming.  I contacted the faculty advisor and started talking with my classmates about getting a formula car team together.  There were a few students interested and we started entreating to the engineering faculty about getting some workspace and access to the machine shop.

The reception from the faculty was tepid at best.  There had been several student teams that had failed to complete their projects in the past and the school was not eager to invest more resources on a capricious student-led venture.  A few of us met together to investigate  a new vehicle competition, the Natural Gas Vehicle Challenge.  This was a similar competition to the previous years Methanol Vehicle Challenge where General Motors donated 20+  vehicles to participating schools to convert them to run on alternate fuels.  The idea of working on the NGV challenge was better accepted by my classmates and faculty because the vehicle was provided to us. The likelihood of success of the NGV project was much greater than starting a platform from scratch, like we would need to do with the formula car competition.

We quickly started meeting and recruiting student members.  Soon, we had about 20 student members in the chapter.  Not only were we working on the truck conversion project, but we were arranging tours and speaking engagements.  The group became very active during my last year of school and soon I found it impossible to keep a part-time job like I had since I was 14.  My efforts on the NGV project took 30+ hours a week.  Meanwhile, my senior project advisor, and head of the Mechanical Engineering Department Professor Keshav Varde was still not convinced of our commitment.  Our meetings with him,  usually several times a week, included some of the most severe scrutiny that I had ever been under.

As the project started to gain momentum, the faculty became more supportive. And slowly, Professor Varde thawed his icy expectations. We soon had access to the technicians shop which included some machining tools, and  welding equipment.   We were also given use of an loading bay to work on the truck.  The loading bay was cramped and unheated, but it was certainly better than working outside in the dark and cold.  After overcoming some initial challenges, and with the help of Professor Varde's contacts,  we soon had some of our own corporate sponsorship including Ford Motor Company and Michigan Consolidated Gas Company (MICHCON).  The former donating some tanks from their natural gas vehicle programs and the latter a natural gas compressor that would allow us to fill our vehicles fuel system with 3000 psi natural gas.

The core group on the project consisted of mostly seniors, along with a few underclass students.  About three of us postponed our post-graduation jobs in order to complete the conversion of the truck and ready it for competition in mid-June, nearly six weeks after our graduation.  In the beginning of June,  the other co-project leader and I towed the truck down to the University of Oklahoma, two weeks ahead of the general competition to submit it for the initial phase of the competition testing.    The truck we towed weighed almost as much as the van we towed it with, and it was a workout to keep it on the road for the 1100 mile trip at 55 mph.  That truck was like carrying an elephant on our backs, swaying the van through an exhausting white-knuckle drive.  We arrived in time, and dropped off the truck at the marshalling yard at the EPA facility in Norman, Oklahoma

For the bulk of the competition,  a group of five students along with Professor Varde travelled down to the competition two weeks later.  It included various events including a road rally, fuel range test, acceleration, etc. with 24 other university teams from around North America.  On the third day, Professor Varde gave me a $20 bill and asked me to go get a couple cases of beer while everyone in the competition partied in the hotel parking lot.  All 24 trucks on display.  It was one of the first times that I had seen Professor Varde kick back, if just a little, smile, and enjoy our success.  We didn't win, but we finished, while several other more experienced schools did not.  We placed 17th in a field of 25 teams, and proved to the University that the SAE chapter was a serious competitor.

When we returned, there was a small reception as we stopped about an hour from campus, unhitched the truck from the Van so we could drive both vehicles faster.   We arrived on campus and were met by some of the administration, along with team members who hadn't made the trip.  It was a bittersweet evening and afterwards we all went home, and for the most part, on our separate ways.  I started my job as a management trainee at National Steel, while my other teammates started jobs at Ford and Chrysler.  Professor Varde and Professor Subrata Sengupta (who arrived earlier that year as our Dean of the Engineering School), decided that the student groups needed a space of their own to develop ideas and to participate in similar national competitions.  The University of Michigan-Dearborn competed in the follow-up competition for the Natural Gas Vehicle Challenge the following year, and then went on to compete in several different competition classes including the Baja vehicle competition, and eventually as a leader in the Formula Car competition.

Some years later, Professors Varde and Sengupta raised tremendous funding from local industry and philanthropists and broke ground on the Institute for Advanced Automotive Systems. In 2006 it was completed.  I spoke with Professor Varde when I returned to the Detroit area in 2012 and he explained that after seeing us struggle in that cold, dark, loading dock, that the students needed a solid workspace to innovate and transform new ideas into reality.  The University of Michigan-Dearborn SAE team competes annually in several of the top vehicle competitions and often finishes in the top 10.

When I walked into the retirement party for Professor Varde, the Master of Ceremonies was introducing a speaker.  There were only two people in that room who would have remembered me, let along recognize me after 28 years.  One of them, Professor Varde himself looked up at me while I leaned against the doorway and smiled.  I knew then that I had to go up and say something.  After a few other colleagues had a chance to speak, the MC again asked if anyone else had anything to say.  There was a long pause, so I figured I might as well step up, and that is exactly what I did.

I walked up to the podium with one of my sheepish little grins.  Meanwhile my gears were spinning since I had to improvise a speech in about 30 seconds.  Most of what I said that evening was the history of the project, the student involvement, and the support the school showed.  I also spoke about how Professor Varde, who rarely gave a compliment, let along an 'A' grade, gave me an 'A' for my senior design project which was a detailed study of the thermodynamics of the natural gas regulators and carburation system used on the competition truck.  The project I had submitted was total crap, and I said that in my impromptu speech, but remarked that Professor Varde took some pity on me, with all of the late hours I spent on the truck.  I finished up thanking both Professors Varde and Sengupta (also at the reception) for having faith in me and my teammates.

After I sat down, Professor Varde walked up to the podium to give a speech of his own.  He spoke for about 20 minutes about his own career history at the University, including his hiring, teaching, and leadership positions in the department..  I was completely surprised about what he talked about next.  He deviated from his written notes, to talk about our competition project for almost 10 minutes.  I was so surprised that something that happened so long ago was as important to him, as it was to me.  He looked at me several times when he spoke, and smiled that same smile I saw so many years ago over a couple cases of cold beer in that Oklahoma motel parking lot.  Afterwards, he and Professor Sengupta came up to me, and we took a picture together.  I told them both that I have had a picture of the truck hanging above my desk ever since I had my own office, almost 26 years.  What they both told me next floored me.  Both of them also had the same picture, in a frame, above their desks ever since the competition.  After all the time had passed, such a small page in a very long history had left a lasting impression on all three of us.
L-R David Bussell, Professors Varde and Sengupta

It never fails to astounds me, how we affect other people's lives, nor do I take it lightly how other people have affected my own life.   What I thought was a defeat in the winter of 1989 was really the start of a journey.  Those events not only transformed my life and career, but the lives and careers of countless other students that thrived in the environment that the University provided.

The photo on all three of our walls.


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