Dale Johnson received the 2014 Iowa State Alumni Association’s Alumni Merit Award. Created in 1932, the award recognizes alumni for outstanding contributions to human welfare that go beyond purely professional accomplishments and bring honor to the university. Johnson received a BS and MS in mechanical engineering from Iowa State in 1960 and 1962, respectively.
Unbeknownst to Johnson, a group of friends and colleagues had been working on his nomination since the summer of last year, and recently received news that their efforts were successful. Johnson will be presented with the award at a ceremony during Homecoming weekend this fall.
One of Johnson’s nominators was Ron Baukol, chemical engineering graduate and Johnson’s friend since they first met at Iowa State in 1956. Baukol was unsuccessful in recruiting Johnson to his fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon (Johnson pledged Sigma Alpha Epsilon), but that didn’t stop the two from becoming friends, as well as teammates on the ISU men’s basketball team.
Baukol and Johnson went their separate ways after graduating, but after earning their Master’s degrees the two ran into each other in the cafeteria at 3M, where they had both found jobs. They became teammates once again, this time on the 3M commercial basketball team, and both settled in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Johnson stayed at 3M for 35 years, ending his career as Director of Plant Engineering for 3M plants in 56 countries. While with the company, he helped establish programs to revitalize St. Paul’s east side, providing summer jobs for students, supplies to area schools, and support to the East Side Area Business Association.
After retiring from 3M, Johnson was in a meeting with the superintendent of schools and the two discussed finding a new focus for the school district. They saw the potential for an engineering program, but needed an administrator to help start the process. In 2007 Kathe Nickleby, an assistant principal at the time, was chosen to direct the engineering program and began working with Dale to develop curriculum.
Their efforts materialized in the Engineering Leadership Program, a school district project that introduces students at all grade levels to engineering. Students at Mahtomedi High School have the chance to take engineering courses and work in the school’s state-of-the-art digital fabrication lab.
“We really wanted to develop young adults that understood what an engineer does, understand the engineering thought process and were really prepared so that when they walk into that freshman engineering class they would be successful and they would stay on the engineering path,” said Nickleby, now principal of Mahtomedi High School.
“It’s project-based learning, they get a chance to take what they get in the classroom and put it to work. And that’s what engineers do,” Johnson said. Programs in the middle school, elementary school and preschool all aim to get kids excited about engineering and educate them about the roles engineers play.
The program has already yielded impressive results. Mahtomedi’s math and science scores on the Minnesota graduation exam are first in the state, and eleven Mahtomedi alumni are currently studying engineering at Iowa State. These students are the recipients of scholarship endowments from Dale and his wife Jan, which build on the legacy created by Johnson’s mother Kathryn Engel, a longtime supporter of Iowa State and the College of Engineering in particular.
Ted Heindel, Bergles Professor of Thermal Science, worked with Dale while serving as interim department chair and saw the impact he made through these grants.
“Without his help, our students would be graduating with more debt or not graduating at all because they could not afford college. Our college, department and profession are extremely grateful to Dale’s impact on undergraduate education at ISU,” Heindel said.
Baukol realized that his friend’s impact through the Mahtomedi engineering program deserved recognition. “That’s what really caught my attention. I said ‘Boy, this is an amazing thing,’” Baukol said. He worked with John Glover in the Engineering Development Office to determine an appropriate award for Dale. “Between us, we decided the Alumni Merit Award would be the right one because it’s for things outside of the normal workplace, to enhance and advance human welfare.”
Johnson’s primary motivator remains his ability to make a difference. “I don’t do this for recognition, and the purpose of the recognition for me is, if it motivates somebody else somewhere to do something in their community or wherever they have an opportunity, then it’s worthwhile,” Johnson said.