Alumni Profiles

50 years strong and only getting better!

From its founding in 1964, Herff has been devoted to influencing the world. Early on, we became one of the region's strongest think tanks for future engineers. Today we have achieved national notoriety in many areas of expertise—from biomedical innovations to nanotechnology to transportation efficiencies. Research funding has climbed to exciting levels and our growth has been tremendous. The five decades that have passed are filled with impressive people who graduated from the Herff College of Engineering and went out into the world to solve problems and change humanity in countless ways.

Students and faculty come to Herff from all over, but they share one common attribute: huge potential to impact society. And they never disappoint. There's no stopping a Herff grad. We applaud these achievements and celebrate the strength of our growing Herff community.

 

The 1960s... It all begins

 

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Dennis Chomicki ('69)                                            Howard Bernbaum (72)

The year was 1964 and Memphis State University, as it was known then, had begun offering engineering classes in newly constructed E.C. Ball Hall. Dean Frederic Kellogg had been heavily recruited and arrived on campus with a strong vision to transform a technology school into a premier engineering program.

Across town, Herbert Herff, an American philanthropist originally from Indiana, lived with his wife Minnie. They loved Memphis and had already helped our city become home to the first blood bank in the entire south in 1938. Their foundation then became the first in the area to provide funding to fight sickle cell anemia. Fortunately for the UofM, their attentions then turned to higher education. They made a major gift to the University to start a master's degree program in engineering. Four years later, an undergraduate program was added and the entire engineering school was named Herff College of Engineering. Between the Herff's generosity and Dean Kellogg's vision, a tradition of excellence was set in motion.

Many of our graduates use their technical training in engineering as a stepping stone to fulfill passions in other professional areas. Take Dennis Chomicki ('69), who has the mind of engineer, but the heart of a public servant. Dennis was attending Memphis State the year the engineering program was founded. He was originally from Yonkers, New York and went home during the summers to earn money to attend college. "I drove a delivery truck by day to pay for my tuition and worked the night shift at an auto assembly plant to cover the cost of room and board." He graduated from Herff in 1969 and taught some, then took an industry job, then taught some more. He struggled to find where he belonged, until a chance opportunity landed him the perfect job to merge his engineering skills with a strong desire to serve the public. "The D.C. area was recruiting police officers, I filled out an application to work for the White House Police and saw another application sitting there to work for the U.S. Secret Service, so I filled it out. In February 1976, I entered the Secret Service."

From there Dennis held high-profile positions, including protecting President Ronald Reagan, Vice President Al Gore and heading up a protective detail for Vice President Dick Cheney. "You do all this planning and work diligently on preparing for something to happen—planning multiple routes for getting to the hospital—so when a crisis comes, everyone does the right thing." That planning was tested when VP Cheney had a heart attack. Dennis was on the scene and says, "Everything worked out well. We did the right thing."

After retiring from the Secret Service the Department of Labor Inspector General came calling, asking him to design the protective detail for the U.S. Secretary of Labor. He put together the team that created the manuals that provide critical protection protocols.

Not only did Dennis' college years give him the skills and knowledge to have a remarkable career in government work, it was also the time when he met the love of his life. He and his wife June have been married since November 1969. "My wife and I started dating while I was still a student at Herff. I wasn't a brain trust. Having fun was a big part of my formula. But I buckled down and hit the books in my junior and senior years. After graduation, I got my diploma then landed the next big prize: June became my bride."

Also on campus in the 1960s was Howard Bernbaum ('72). He had already earned a BBA and BS in mechanical engineering from the University of Miami and was ready to add to those credentials. "My basic philosophy is to do your best and then go on to the next thing," Howard says. That thing turned out to be a Herff master's degree that then led him down some rather amazing paths.

"I've designed a lot of pretty neat stuff," he explains, "from nuclear reactors to liquid rocket pumps, radiation hardened mechanisms, launch support equipment for NASA's Shuttle, doodads for my 37 foot cutter sailboat that wound up featured in boating magazines. I have published two books of short stories that are available on Amazon and Kindle. I was licensed in two states as a professional engineer. I'm a Life Member Senior Navigator in the United States Power Squadrons® and was tapped for Order of the Arrow while an adult leader in Boy Scouts of America. But other people have accomplished the same things, so I look at myself as an ordinary kind of guy."

Ordinary Howard is not. He is among Herff's first to graduate from the master's program and living proof that from here you can go anywhere. First an associate professor of engineering, then recruited into the Space Shuttle Program as a contractor's lead engineer at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, turned business owner, turned published author, turned recreational sailor.

Howard remembers his time at Memphis State well, especially the collaboration and support that to him was unlike any other college campus. He was very close to his mentor, Dr. William Amminger, professor of mechanical engineering, with whom he co-authored "Centrifrugal Pump Performance Prediction" (1973). After working for the Planning Research Corporation at the Kennedy Space Center, Westinghouse, Pratt & Whitney, State Technical Institute, Lockheed, Science Application International, General Dynamics and INET among others, Howard decided to retire at the age of 65—exchanging the expansive world of engineering for sailing on the open seas. A boat enthusiast since the age of 8, Howard's many sailing adventures have taken him as far as the Bahamas and Bermuda. These days he mostly spends his time writing from Merritt Island, FL, where he lives with Rhoda, his wife of 64 glorious years.

Howard reflects, "As a young engineer starting out, I thought our development was rapid. Compared to the current world, we were standing still, although we provided the foundation for many of the current developments. I mourn not the past, but the future I will not see." Well said, Howard. Well said.

The 1970s
Inspired by the possible

 

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Pictured:  Arif Shakeel ('77)

Entering the 1970s was a time of great excitement at Herff with the completion of our $6.5M engineering complex facing Central Avenue. Enrollment had grown to 351 undergrads and 76 in our graduate program. Accreditation was achieved in civil, electrical, engineering technology and mechanical engineering undergraduate programs by 1970.

By the mid 1970s, Arif Shakeel ('77) had arrived in the United States seeking a degree in mechanical engineering from Memphis State. "I was a big, wide-eyed kid who was actually scared out of my mind because I knew nothing about American culture. I have been in the United States for 40 years now and I am still blown away by the greatness of this nation." When asked what he enjoyed most about Memphis State, Arif didn't know where to begin.

"That is a nine-hour answer. It was unbelievable. It has been the highlight of my life to date. Everything impressed me. Dr. Ray, Dr. Amminger and so many others took me under their wings. People of every color embraced me and judged me on my ability, my intelligence, and not the color of my skin."

While a student, Arif wrote over 100 letters to his mother back home. "I was learning to be disciplined, to work hard, but most of all to be sincere about giving back to society. If you are not inspired every day of your life, there is no point. My professors taught me to be inspired and then go out and do something about it." Arif recalls first entering Dr. William Amminger's class and thinking he was done for. "The material was so difficult, my friends and I didn't think we would ever figure it out. But Dr. Amminger showed us how to study to learn, not to just study to make a grade. Week by week, Dr. Amminger was able to break the material down for us."

Early in his career, Arif served as a defense contractor at Western Gear in Lynwood, CA, while also achieving an MBA from Pepperdine University in 1981. He then moved on to work for hard disk drive manufacturer Pertec Peripherals Corp. in Northridge, CA. Ultimately, he landed in Lake Forest, CA, at Western Digital Corporation.

He is too modest to say this, but the business transformation he led at Western Digital is a great American business success story. When he came on board the division was losing money fast. All of the other divisions at the company were the stars, not his. What Arif is happy to share is that it took amazing teamwork to turn it around. "The people around me were brilliant. Together, and all by ourselves, we believed we could make the impossible happen. Before we knew it, we were not only the division creating the most revenue and getting the most attention at the company, but we had become the most profitable in the world. I am very proud of that team."

Arif is now retired, and that once-little division he had the guts to lead is the second largest manufacturer of hard disk drives in the world.

Arif feels blessed beyond measure to have such a wonderful career and life. But he feels even more deeply that the biggest rewards in this world come from creating a way for others to have a wonderful life. He enjoyed his time as President and CEO because, as he puts it, "I was proud to be a part of something that allowed others to make better lives for themselves. The company's success meant personal success for my employees and their families. That is what drives me more than anything. Giving back."

 

The 1980s
Living a vision

 

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Pictured:  Dr. Emma Garrison-Alexander

By the 1980s, the momentum was building for Herff to fully realize its vision as a premier program with the inauguration of the PhD program by fall 1987 and the establishment of a biomedical engineering department in 1988. Also in 1988, enrollment had climbed to 1,406 in the undergrad program and 158 in the graduate program.

Around this time an ambitious and focused young woman entered the engineering program at Memphis State University. Dr. Emma Garrison-Alexander ('83) walked on to campus, sat down with an advisor, listened, and decided—without an ounce of hesitation—that electrical engineering would be her future. Very few college freshmen can make that claim, but Emma never once waivered from that dream.

At Herff, we like to say that big things come from Memphis. And with a newly-minted electrical engineering diploma in hand, Emma certainly delivered on that promise. The NSA (National Security Agency) recruited her in her senior year at Memphis State and her first professional title was electronic engineer.

She quickly rose through the agency in many leadership roles, including deputy counterterrorism and senior operations officer. She left the NSA in 2009 for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) where she assumed responsibility for all aspects of cybersecurity and information assurance—directing everything from engineering infrastructure to a budget of over $400 million to strategic planning and more.

She devoted 30 years of her life to government work in top leadership positions at the NSA and the TSA in information technology and signals intelligence. "It was such an honor and a blessing to spend my entire career protecting our country, our citizens, our nation's leaders, and our soldiers." But Emma is quick to say that the key to her life's success has been the support of her family, friends and her faith in God. "My mother showed me how to be successful in spite of adversity. And I learned from my father that gender does not matter. He taught me that a woman can be and do whatever she chooses in this world."

She recently retired from the TSA after serving as chief information officer and assistant administrator for IT under the Department of Homeland Security. She directed services for over 60,000 employees at 450 federalized airports and 23 international locations.

Emma feels that the skills she gained from her time at Herff started it all, "My electrical engineering degree was foundational. It is the type of degree that exposes you to different types of work. You know if you go into a field, like accounting, it can be very limiting. Not engineering. It gave me a breadth of opportunities that never limited my career choices."

As a leader at both the NSA and the TSA, Emma remembers that so much of what set her up for success began at Herff, "Dr. Halford insisted that we learn to write. He stressed the importance of knowing how to write in a technical field. Those communication skills were essential to me later in life."

Some engineering programs focus on results, the numbers, but not at Herff. Emma reflects that after taking theories into the lab to apply them in a realistic manner, the Herff professors then asked students to write about it in a formalized report that really made you think and sell your ideas, not just report findings.

Her background in engineering also proved immensely valuable when she was no longer in a lab, but had moved into leadership roles. "My degree and the hands-on experiences in my background really helped me relate to the people doing the work. There was an instant affinity between us because even though I was at the top, I also had an engineering background. That gave me instant credibility with them. I was one of them—an engineer at the core."

Even with such a high profile career, Emma made time for other things in her life that mattered. She became an ordained minister, started her own personal ministry that helps individuals in financial crisis, and alongside her husband Garrett raised 4 children. Now in retirement, she is still giving back as the Program Chair for Cybersecurity and Assistant Collegiate Professor at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). She also mentors individuals ranging from entry level employees to senior executives in a variety of professions, and is an executive coach and consultant in cybersecurity and information technology.

She offers incoming freshman this meaningful advice, "Your college years are a special time that you don't get back. If you have the luxury to not work, don't. What's the hurry? You have 50+ years to work once you graduate. Work will be there forever, but your college life is a unique time. Enjoy it." Two of Emma's nephews, Roger Leake, Jr. and Jamario Houston, followed in her footsteps by attending Herff and majoring in electrical and computer engineering.

The 1990s
A brand is born

 

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Pictured: The Simpson Family

By the 1990s Memphis was enjoying a renaissance movement. Beale Street was alive again. Development downtown was booming, including plans to build a new sports arena eventually known as the FedEx Forum, home to Tiger basketball. Memphis pride wasn't just back, it was resurging to new levels. And the University that shares this city's name was doing some rebranding of its own.

After years of being Memphis State University, we changed our name to the University of Memphis. At Herff, this decade saw the first doctoral degree awarded in May 1990 and the establishment of our Ground Water Institute in 1992. In 1996 the joint graduate and doctoral program in biomedical engineering was established between the U of M and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, with the first PhD awarded in 1997.

Also in this decade, two young Herff students became crazy for all things Herff, and then fell crazy in love with one another. The Simpsons—James from Munford, TN, and Kathryn from Clarksville, TN, (both '99), were recruited out of their respective high schools to attend the Herff College of Engineering.

"U of M made a great impression," Kathryn says. "My dad went to Vanderbilt and they offered me a scholarship, too, but Memphis did a better job than any other college at recruitment. I felt really special. The U of M came to my high school and held an exclusive event in Nashville just for scholarship recipients." James remembers, "U of M did the right amount of recruiting. I was kind of being pestered by another school. One day they called to ask me if I had made up my mind and that pesky phone call pushed me to blurt out 'yes,' but the answer was Herff!"

The Herff program is intimate, so the two classmates bumped into one another quite a bit that first year on campus. But the real chemistry between them took hold the summer before they were sophomores. They recall studying together a lot, "It was nice because there weren't any bad feelings that we wouldn't see each other. We were both in the same groove. We could sit side-by-side while doing an immense amount of work. We were really independent individuals, but could be together to study, even in those upper years when we no longer had the same classes."

After Herff, they both pursued graduate degrees at Rice University. Kathryn achieved a PhD in bioengineering and accepted a position at Medtronic in 2004—bringing the young couple back to Memphis. With a focus in environmental engineering, James took a position as senior design engineer for the City of Memphis. "I am the main person responsible for the creation and management of the City's drainage masterplan program which will eventually spawn a series of capital improvement projects designed to relieve flooding concerns in Memphis."

Not a practicing engineer, Kathryn took a different path, "I realized in grad school that I liked writing and synthesizing information from different places. My Herff internship had been with Medtronic and I knew it was the perfect place to use those communication skills." Kathryn started as a clinical submissions writer, but soon moved to the regulatory group and is now director of a team overseeing new and existing products in Medtronic's spinal portfolio. "I don't directly use a lot of the technical skills I learned at Herff, but my time there taught me to think, solve problems and speak the technical language which is invaluable to my career today."

As if life wasn't busy enough building accomplished careers, these two also have the hard work of raising a family. Their two young sons are all about the Memphis Tigers. Kathryn beams, "My youngest wants to sleep in his Tiger jersey every night and the oldest is learning the fight song." Look out, Herff. A pair of Simpson dynamo brothers could be on campus in about 15 years.

The 2000s and Beyond
Still Growing

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Pictured:  Jessica Shemwell

 

 

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Pictured:  Roberto Young and his brother, Darrick

It was Y2K. A whole new millennium. Dean Richard Warder (1994 – 2012) was in his sixth year of leading Herff College of Engineering and was focused heavily on our reputation as a program where professors build up future engineers, while at the same time creating new and robust programs in key research areas—like the Center for Advanced Sensors in 2005 and the Intermodal Freight Transportation Institute in 2007.

The University at large had grown into a major research institution and was quickly gaining recognition for having one of the finest internship programs in the nation. Being situated in one of America's most creative cities and a hub to many booming industries, Herff combines the best attributes of an engineering education: rigor, intimate size, location, diversity, and research depth. Herff is where students can bring their intellect and passions and leave with a dream résumé.

In the engineering world, we see our fair share of big thinkers. There are a lot of smart people in this business—but not all smart people have the discipline to work hard and have an even stronger desire to give back. You will find that rare combination in Roberto Young ('02, '03). He came to the U of M on a football scholarship, recruited by Rip Scherer. He was juggling workouts, team travel and games with the rigors of seeking two separate engineering degrees in under five years.

"It was never a matter of if, but how. I was one determined young man. I was strictly business. My teammates were blown away by my discipline, and they knew that it would pay off for me someday," reflects Roberto. He lived by the motto: Work Hard, Play Hard. He did both equally well, thus, achieving balance throughout his time at U of M. He had his head down and was focused on achieving a BS in electrical engineering by 2002 and a BS in computer engineering by 2003 so he could finish before his football scholarship was over. The only free time he allowed himself was on Saturday nights. He was self-regimented, but Roberto says it was fun to him and he wouldn't trade it for the world.

"You know I was just brought up that way—to be determined and driven—and in large measure I owe my success to the values instilled in me as a kid: God, family, community. That is everything."

Roberto graduated, magna cum laude no less, and was immediately tapped by Boeing where his talent shined as an engineer in Phantom Works— Boeing's Research and Development Division dedicated to bringing highly secure, cutting-edge technology to market. "Back in 1999-2000 it was all top secret, but we were developing the drones that are making technology headlines today. It was cool to have such a unique experience as a freshly minted engineer being a part of that R&D." Not too much later he fulfilled another dream by earning his MBA from Harvard Business School.

Even after all those successes, Roberto had more to give. He and his brother saw blight within their community (St. Louis) and took action to bring about positive change.

"At that moment we decided not to just talk about it, but be about it." Together they started One Touch Real Estate Management to turn dilapidated properties into more affordable, premium housing options for some of the staggering 12 million families in the United States who spend 50% or more of their monthly net income on rent. They now have two such properties in St. Louis and six in the Atlanta area.

Today, Roberto lives in Atlanta with his wife Victoria and son Roberto, Jr., where he is a business development professional with NCR in retail technology, and his heart remains close to the values engrained in him as a child. "I still have my Rambo lunch box with my name written on it and the address from the housing project where I grew up in St. Louis. I keep that lunch box as a sign, a signal, that every day you must put on your hard hat, lace up your boots, and go to work. My mom and dad taught me the virtues of hard work."

Taking risks. Aiming high. Falling down. Getting back up. Rising to the challenge. Giving back. That's what leaders do, and Herff grads tend to develop their own unique definition of leadership. Jessica Shemwell ('12) is the kind that does not march in lock-step with anyone. "What really attracted me to engineering was that it gave me so many options. But I struggled and felt so different from my peers. They were some of the smartest people I have ever met, while I was mid average." Feeling different from her classmates, Jessica wasn't sure of her future. "Even going into my senior year, I didn't think I would end up being an engineer. It often felt like I wasn't excelling. While many of my peers loathed group projects, I was an extrovert who loved them." Jessica collaborated with two engineers from Wright Medical Technology on her senior project and that's when she knew there was a place for someone like her in engineering. She explains, "I realized that engineering is what you make of it. They showed me that they work with others almost daily and have fun; they aren't nailed down to a desk, but getting their hands dirty in a test lab, and I was sold."

After graduating in 2012 in biomedical engineering, Jessica took a position back at the place that gave her the confidence to stick with it, Wright Medical Technology, as associate product development engineer. In her first year she designed an implant. In her second year, it was implanted in a patient. "Every day I am privileged to work with some of the best engineers in the world. The products we make impact so many lives. What I am designing today will change a person's life within the next year. It never ceases to amaze me what we will come up with next."

Jessica says that she didn't get where she is today without the help of others, and the staff and faculty of Herff quickly come to mind. "My senior design course led by Drs. Haggard and Williams prepared me the most for my current job. We were split into teams and paired with engineers from companies in the Memphis area. Each group was diversified based on personality and leadership styles." Because her GPA was lower than most her peers, Jessica felt that she was always a long shot for landing a coveted CO-OP or internship spot. By designing this project based on personality strengths, her professors found a way for all students to shine.

And shine she did, in spite of some serious setbacks. "Life threw me a few curve balls in college. I lost my grandmother my freshman year and ten months later my father lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. My academics suffered significantly and I lost my scholarships. When I wanted to give up on engineering, my U of M advisor, Kathy Atkinson, wouldn't let me. It took almost two years, but I turned my grades around and landed the Herff Scholarship. It was like getting a second chance."

Jessica makes it a priority to give back as one way of thanking the people that were there for her when she needed help. "I hope one day to provide a scholarship to students who have experienced tragic events while pursuing an engineering degree. Until that day comes, I support students in need through monthly giving to Herff. My monthly gift not only supports Herff scholarships, but it supports the college in other aspects that I am passionate about."

The Herff legacy recharged

Driving Herff College of Engineering to even bigger and better things is Dr. Richard Sweigard who joined us as dean in 2013 after serving as associate dean at the University of Kentucky. He is the bridge between our past, our present and the promise of our future. In Dr. Sweigard, the faculty and staff feel recharged about what lies ahead and are moved by his strong leadership. Prior to working at Kentucky, Dean Sweigard also taught at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and Pennsylvania State University. He holds a BS in civil engineering from Drexel University, an MA in geology from Penn State, and a PhD in mining engineering, also from Penn State.