Honoring a great mentor by giving back
For Henry “Bud” Fischer, E52, the path to electrical engineering had an unusual starting point: “To get out of English exam in high school, I signed up to take an exam for the army,” Fischer explains. Though he initially planned to be a mechanical engineer, the U.S. Army sent Fischer to ordinance training in electronics, where he finished top of his class and received battalion commendations. “I liked it so much I decided to switch to electrical engineering,” Fischer says. With the help of the GI Bill, he earned a bachelors in electrical engineering from Tufts, and went on to a successful career as an engineer, team leader, and technical director.
“At Tufts I learned to be a good, practical engineer,” says Fischer, “and I've given back to Tufts since the day I graduated.” In addition to supporting the Tufts Fund, and the Class of 1952 Scholarship, Fischer and his late wife, Madeline, made two forward-looking gifts to the School of Engineering: the Henry and Madeline Fischer Centennial Class Scholarship, and the Henry and Madeline Fischer Award for excellence in teaching.
In his Tufts memories, one individual stands above the rest: Dr. Alvin Howell, professor of electrical engineering and department chair from 1941-1970. “Doc was my mentor,” says Fischer. “He was both a theoretician and a practical engineer. He could do anything.” In addition to his teaching, Howell was widely recognized for his achievements in government-sponsored research during the Cold War era, and led the first team of researchers to send an unmanned balloon around the world. “Strategic Air Command felt they had to know what was going on in Russia,” Fischer explains, “and the only way to do it was with lighter-than-air aircraft—balloons.”
As a research engineer in Howell’s lab, Fischer worked on “everything from knots in nylon lines, to very high frequency control systems on aircraft, to antenna design, to radiation sensors, to balloon systems.” Because much of that work was classified at the time, Fischer often didn’t know precisely how what he was working on fit into the whole scheme of things, but he learned a great deal and was proud to have earned his mentor’s respect: “I think he liked me. And he just had confidence in me.”
Along the way, Fischer was learning how to understand and solve complex problems, on tight budgets and timelines. The benefits of his Tufts training were evident in the 15 job offers Fischer received at graduation, and he continued to draw on that training throughout his career, whether the challenge was raising the performance of bombsight bearings at General Motors or developing reliable testing and protocols for the Atlas missile system at RCA. When Fischer was asked to take on difficult projects, he frequently recalled his Tufts mentor. “When they were asking me, ‘Can I do it?’ I’d often think about Dr. Howell.” By his retirement, Fischer had risen to technical director of all major engineering programs at RCA. “I guess they felt that if I was the guy they sent in to correct the problems, I might as well control things to begin with.”
Today, he is proud to recognize excellence in teaching and mentorship through the Fischer Award, which goes to the faculty member who receives the most votes from School of Engineering seniors each year. Recent recipients include Ron Lasser, Professor of the Practice in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Kristen Bethke Wendell, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and Ming Chow, Associate Teaching Professor of Computer Science. Lasser, a four-time recipient of the award, thanked Fischer for creating an honor that “inspires the students to reflect on their time at Tufts, to realize the value of what they have learned and how they have made the learning a part of themselves.”
Fischer’s life was shaped in important ways by his Tufts education, his career, and by a long and happy partnership with his wife, Madeline, who passed away in 2014. “We were really a perfect fit, and a good team,” Fischer says. Today, he continues to live in the Boston area, close to children, grandchildren, and friends. “There are a lot of people in my life who make me happy,” he says, including friends from the Tufts community and the School of Engineering. “What they’re doing today at the School of Engineering is really positive,” he notes. Through his giving, Fischer is pleased to celebrate a tradition of great engineering education, and to share those benefits with future Tufts engineers.