WPI Journal

Winter 1996

In 1946 Joe Gale continued a family tradition and came to work for WPI. Half a century later, he's still here.

For 50 years - in the classroom, in the shop, in the press box, and in countless locales in between - he's touched thousands of lives and built a treasure trove of memories.

By Ray Bert '93

Joe Gale stepped off a boat in early February 1946, setting down onto American soil again for good after a four-year hitch in the Army during World War II. Returning home to his native Worcester, Joe was informed of the following conversation that had taken place between his father, John Gale, and A.J. Knight, then the superintendent of buildings and grounds at WPI and the future namesake of one of its athletic fields:

Knight: When's Joe getting out of the service?
Gale: Feb. 6th.
Knight: When he gets home, tell him to take a few days off and then get his butt in here to work.

On Feb. 25, 1946, 19 days after his discharge from the Army, Joe Gale began work as an employee of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Fifty years later, that relationship and so much more are still going strong.

To call Joe Gale a fixture at WPI, while accurate, doesn't do the man justice. He's a living, breathing part of the fabric of the institution - a human timeline of WPI's recent history. In his 50 years on campus (longer than most of the Institute's living alumni have been around)

Joe has witnessed more growth and change, known more people, and touched more lives than perhaps anyone else in the Institute's history.

But to get a true sense of who Joe Gale is, don't look for pivotal, life-shaping events. Joe's life is more accurately represented by the piles upon piles of small events, conversations and memories that live on in his mind and in the minds of those who h ave known him. Put together, they form a remarkably consistent picture of a man who, through gestures large and small, and through the overwhelming force of his warm and hard-working nature, has won over generations of WPI students, faculty and staff.

Editor's Note: In a typical profile, this is where the author would begin referring to the subject by his last name. But "Gale" doesn't seem right here. While "Mr. Gale" is appropriate, given the respect and esteem in which John J.B. "Joe" Gale is held, i t is thoroughly at odds with his friendly, informal persona. Therefore, we have decided to simply use "Joe."

Joe was accepted into the Army on Dec. 10, 1941, just three days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He and one-fifth of his division were selected for the Armored Board Test Operations unit at Fort Knox, where Joe eventually became a shop foreman.

Scheduled to travel to Europe in 1945 to instruct soldiers in the use of the first mechanized flame throwers, Joe received new orders as the war in Europe ended.

"The flamethrowers were mounted on tanks with 500 gallons of napalm for each," Joe recalls. With just a hint of a boyish fascination for things powerful and destructive, he adds, "They sent me to ESSO Labs to learn to operate them - you could get about 20 0 yards out of them! They were never used, though."

Joe was sent to Manila on a Liberty freighter as part of Casualty Group 6862A. "That designation was just a code," he recalls, "in case a radio transmission was intercepted by the enemy." Bad luck struck - literally - when the freighter was hit broadside by another American ship. Ever the optimist, Joe says that once it was clear everyone was okay, "It was the thrill of a lifetime. We ended up in Guam for 67 days while the ship was repaired, so I was there when the atomic bomb came in on the Indianapolis. "

Joe's unit arrived in Okinawa on the day surrender papers with the Japanese were signed. "We were some of the first troops on the ground," he says. "I still get letters from the other members of the Casualty Group."

The war over on both fronts, his military service at its end, and with A.J. Knight's "edict" thrown down, Joe did what so many other Gales have done: he went to work at WPI. His grandfather, father and two uncles all worked for the school in various capac ities, and for extended periods of time. Joe's son Jack, following a slightly different path, graduated from WPI in 1970. As a WPI employee, Joe has outlasted all the other Gales.

Joe on the changing WPI campus:
"Since I came here, on the east side of campus they've built Kaven, Gordon Library, Founders, and Fuller Labs - the new computer building. On the west side they added Olin, Goddard and Harrington. Plus, all of the dormitories on the south side of campus, Morgan, Daniels, Stoddard, Ellsworth/Fuller..."

It's striking to consider just how different WPI looked 50 years ago. As Joe ticks off buildings that have been constructed during his tenure, one gains a tremendous sense of perspective. Most graduates have a static mental snapshot of the WPI they knew d uring their brief stay on campus. By comparison, Joe's view is a time-lapse film in which buildings suddenly pop up where before there were houses or empty spaces.

But it's not just the physical plant that has changed over the last half century. In fact, there are so many markers of Joe's longevity that the list begins to read like those the news media cranked out when Cal Ripken broke the major league record for th e most consecutive games played. "I've worked for every athletic director WPI has had, starting with Percy Carpenter," Joe says. He's also seen nine presidents come and go. ("I've met the new guy, Ed Parrish," he says. "I got him coffee and a sandwich.")

Over the last 50 years, WPI's faculty and staff has grown from around 100 to 680. Undergraduate enrollment has increased nearly tenfold, from around 300 to 2,600. WPI's endowment has jumped from about $8 million to $142 million. And on and on.

The school that Joe went to work for in 1946 was vastly different in many ways from the one we know today - right down to the way most people referred to it. In Joe's time, the now familiar and virtually automatic initials "WPI" were not typically used. I nstead, it was "Worcester Tech" for short, "Tech" for even shorter. Joe himself still uses the latter in conversation; yet another reminder of the bridge he provides between then and now.

Joe on shopping for work clothes:
"I needed civilian clothes when I got back. So I went down to Ware & Pratt's - where the Burger King on Main Street is now - to get some white shirts. I ended up with a suit - two suits, in fact - and a camel hair sport coat."

Properly spiffed up, Joe reported to A.J. Knight. For his first year at WPI, Joe was the athletic field groundskeeper. He was then transferred to the Mechanical Engineering Department, where, in WPI's newly established weld shop, the late Professor Carl G . Johnson taught him how to weld.

"I was just as green as grass," Joe says. But Johnson brought him along, and soon asked Joe to return the favor by teaching students to weld. "Carl said, ‘I'll teach this course, but sometimes I'll have to be out of town,'" Joe recalls. "He gave the first lecture and the second day he said to me, ‘If you're going to work with me, you're going to have to do it.' So he just gave me the instructions and I prepared the lecture and did it. I liked it and it was interesting, and I inherited the job later on." F rom that time on, Joe has instructed students in general machine shop operations, casting and welding. With much respect and a touch of sadness, he adds, "Carl died in 1966. He was one of the greatest guys I ever worked for. He was a great, great gentleman."

On wheelbarrows, novel uses for:
"My favorite memory of Joe occurred at a football game. We were playing UMass and we had won by a point. After the game I was so tired and sore from some banged-up ribs that I couldn't make it back up the hill. Joe came down with a wheelbarrow and rolled me up the hill."

-- Richard Ferrari '51

Joe's involvement with WPI and its students only begins in the Washburn Shops. A fervently loyal supporter of WPI athletics, Joe is a constant presence at basketball and football games, wrestling meets and other athletic contests. "I've been the manager o f the press box since it opened," Joe says. "I traveled with the football team for 15 years. I work the basketball games - especially the tournaments. Someone once said I was like an ambassador for the sports teams."

The Department of Physical Education and Athletics has a lot more to say on the subject of Joe: "We truly enjoy Joe and appreciate him for the job he does," says director Raymond Gilbert. "He really has served as an ambassador for athletics at WPI. We fre quently get compliments - all unsolicited - from visiting teams about Joe and the way he treats everybody. He's quite professional and personable. We need more people like him."

To thank him for all that he has done for so many of WPI's athletic teams - and for so many people - the department chose Joe to receive the Frank C. Harrington Award in 1990. The honor, named for a student athlete from WPI's Class of 1898 who is also one of the namesakes for Harrington Auditorium, is presented to individuals who have made significant contributions to intercollegiate athletic programs at WPI.

Joe on the importance of job titles:
Q: What is your official position now, Joe?
A: "[pauses, laughs.] Ah, now you've got me stuck. [Leafs through some papers on his desk, comes up with the right one.] Principle Lab Technician."

Joe is more concerned with what he does than with what his job happens to be called. This is one of the secrets of his charm. People find him endearing because he likes what he does so much, and because he is enamored of them right back. It is said that all you really have when you look back on your life are the experiences and relationships you' ve had and your memories of them. If that's true, then Joe has more than most.

He is a consummate storyteller, with his easygoing manner and his gravelly, New England-accented voice that dissolves easily and often into a chuckle at a fond memory. His mind seems to work like a huge, meticulously cross-referenced catalog, and he effor tlessly jumps from section to section, finding connections where there seemed to be none at all.

When the town of Clinton, Mass., is mentioned - quite incidentally - in a conversation with Joe, an association clicks in and the wheels start turning. "You know, last Saturday Clinton happened to play in the [high school] Super Bowl here. I had a kid wal k up to me - had sunglasses on - and he said, ‘Hey, Joe.' I said ‘Hi.' He said, ‘You don't remember me, do you?' I said, ‘Yes I do, you're Kerrigan. Where's your father?'

"See, Pauly Kerrigan graduated in '57. He once ran 92 yards down the football field. That's when they played both ways - offense and defense, you know; we didn't have many players those days. And his boy worked with me. See, we renovated this building [Wa shburn] in 1983, and we had to move all of the classes down to Worcester Industrial Technical Institute. And he worked work-study for me for a whole year. Nice kid. He's working with his father now; they have a place down in Marlboro, distributing electri cal components and things to various companies and so forth...."

Some people can hold your attention through the brute force of their personality; it often matters less what they're saying than how they're saying it. Joe pulls you in more subtly, but just as strongly, because what he's saying to you resonates with the pure simplicity of one man's thoughts and memories. In talking to him , you get the impression that if you could spend enough time with him, you would learn every detail of his life - albeit in an almost hopelessly intertwined sort of way.

Joe on students today:
"Well, I think they're a little younger. When I first came here the GI's were here under the GI Bill of Rights, so they were older when they started. And, of course, we had girls here starting in 1968. But overall...I think they're pretty much the same. T he only thing is you meet a lot of kids now that have had some money - money was tighter in those days. But I get along with them all. They all respect me - you treat 'em well, they like you, and you like them."

Over the years, Joe's relationship with WPI students has necessarily changed. Progressing from a peer to a father figure to, now, a grandfather figure, Joe has become more and more an "elder" to those he instructs. But while the gap in their ages has widened, his connection to his students seems to have changed not at all.

"We all remember him as an ardent sports fan - one of our biggest supporters," says Ferrari. "He was really loved by many of the students who knew him." Says Paul Crivelli '92, "Joe seems a little rough on the surface, but he's friendly and talkative once you know him - and with more history than you can shake a stick at."

In 1971, WPI's students made clear their strong bond with Joe by selecting him the first staff member ever inducted into Skull, WPI's senior honorary society and one of its most exclusive organizations. "I wasn't expecting it," Joe remembers. "I was worki ng a high school basketball game and I was tapped outside the side door of Harrington Auditorium. Charlie McNulty, the basketball coach, and Professor Bob Pritchard, the athletic director, told me to go ahead and they'd take care of things. That was reall y great. Each year we have a banquet for any of the old members who can make it and the new candidates to meet each other. It's quite interesting to see where everyone has gone and so forth."

In 1992, the Institute also paid tribute to Joe by presenting him with the William R. Grogan Award. Named for WPI's dean emeritus of undergraduate studies, who incidentally completed his undergraduate education at WPI less than a year before Joe reported to work, the award honors extraordinary service to the Institute and its students. When Grogan learned that Joe would receive the award, this is what he wrote to him:

"I want to tell you how proud I am that you will receive the award named for me. I cannot think of anyone more appropriate to receive it, or anyone who I would rather see receive it. Joe, you have been a great contributor to WPI and its students over the years."

Joe on hands-on experience:
"We've been making that spool [in ME1800] for about 30 years. There's usually a waiting list to get in the class. Some of them will take it in their senior year, not necessarily for credit but just to have the experience, to see how things are made. Becau se you can read all the books, see all the pictures, but you've got to get your hands into it."

The main thing Joe imparts to the fledgling engineers who pass briefly under his wing is an appreciation for the actual work done to materials and parts by some of the processes they learn about. He shows you where and how the theoretical knowledge gained in the classroom merges with the practical, tangible aspects of manufacturing - for the first time, in the case of many students.

In ME1800, Materials Selection and Manufacturing Processes - or just "Grunge" in student lingo - students are exposed to a variety of hands-on processes. "We start off with casting," Joe explains. "We have them put the Styrofoam parts together, but we pour the metal, for safety reasons. When the castings are ready, they cu t off the excess gating system and then each student has one. They've actually seen the thing made.

"Half the class then goes to the machine shop to do their turning, milling, drilling, tapping and so forth, and the other half starts on welding. Then they switch. We only have so many contact hours with them to get it all done, but a lot of them end up g etting interested in materials and switch to that later on."

It is in this class, which is extremely popular, that Joe has watched a huge percentage of WPI's students come and go over the years. Chances are, even if you couldn't remember his name, you'd remember the kindly, helpful man (who could be gruff if you we re doing something stupid) in the machine shop who seemed to know everything, and who could launch into a fascinating story at a moment's notice.

Joe enjoys the class so much because he believes you have to teach people to do, not just to know. And it heartens him when he hears that it has helped someone. "We had a student here maybe five or six years ago who went to work for GE in Pittsfield," Joe says, relating the story she told to him. "They were doing some kind of silver soldering, and she said, ‘I can do that - I've done that.' So one day one of them told her to go ahead and try it - and she did it. They were standing there with their mouths open. She became a supervisor in six or seven months - they just singled her out."

You might think that, having been at WPI for 50 years, and as comfortable as he is here, and as much as he loves the place, that Joe would never retire. You'd be wrong.

"No, I'll retire before too long," he says. "We'll see how it goes."

Joe and his wife, Phyllis, will celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary in June. Joe says they'd like to do a little traveling. "We'll probably go down to Florida, though not to stay," he says. Joe says he has some good reasons to remain in the Worcester area. His son, Jack, has been the golf pro for the Tatnuck Country Club in Worcester for many years; he is also one of only a small number of Master Professional Golf Pros in the country, an honor bestowed on him four years ago by the Professional Golfer s Association. Jack and his wife, Mary, have three sons. Joe and Phyllis' daughter, Joanne DiPinto, and her husband, Alfred, live right next door; Joanne owns and operates the J.P. Cutter Hair Salon on Park Avenue in Worcester.

Joe is also as much a part of the greater Worcester community as is he is the greater WPI community. He was the commander of the Worcester Auxiliary Police Force from 1949 until his retirement in 1986. With the rank of captain, he was in charge of a force of 75 officers. He says he helped keep the peace at more parades than he can remember, but his most vivid memories are of the many hours he worked in the aftermath of the devastating tornado of June 9, 1953, which tore a deadly swath through central Mass achusetts. Joe is also past commander of VFW Post 6907 in West Boylston, Mass.

And when he retires, what about the rest of his many interests at WPI? "I'll still be involved; work it around other things," he says. "A lot of people work here and they go and you don't ever see them again. But, hey, I've been around here since 1927 or '28. One of my uncles was the first watchman they had; I used to come up and make a round from 6 p.m. until 8:30, and my father would pick me up and bring me home. I've watched this place grow. I'd have a hard time divorcing it."

Asked how he would feel should WPI choose to name something in his honor, Joe has this to say: "Oh sure, whatever they wanted to do. The thing is, you'd like to see something done before you pass away. For example, A.J. was still here when they named the field after him. Yes, that would be great."

Envisioning the Joe Gale Machine Shop, or whatever it might be, you can see a picture of Joe working with a student - getting his hands into it - alongside a plaque. Whatever else it says about Joe and his many years of loyal service, the plaque should pay Joe what he must consider the highest compliment of all - that he is, truly, a great, great gentleman.

Bert received bachelor's degrees in mechanical engineering and the humanities at WPI before joining Howmet Refurbishment Inc., where he is now a turbine blade engineer. His profile of Professor Jack Boyd, which ran in the Winter 1994 WPI Journal, was completed as part of his Major Qualifying Project in the humanities.

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