Volunteers Who Made a Difference

Dick Gowen: A Foundation Builder

17 February 2012

This is the first of a series of articles to profile IEEE volunteers who have had a significant impact on our organization.

After more than five decades of volunteering, it’s hard to pick which of Richard J. “Dick” Gowen's many contributions had the most influence on IEEE. So The Institute asked Gowen, an IEEE Fellow, to choose, and he selected two: Being president in 1984 during IEEE’s centennial year, and being the longest-serving president of the IEEE Foundation, the organization’s philanthropic arm, a term that lasted seven years.

His year as IEEE president saw the establishment of the IEEE History Center, which now has one of the world’s largest collections of oral history transcripts from interviews with pioneering engineers as well as a library of historical photographs relating to the development of electrical and computer technologies. The collection is now available online at the IEEE Global History Network, which Gowen had a hand in establishing.

profile02 Photo: IEEE From left to right: Dick Gowen with sculptor Andrew Stoddart and 2008 IEEE president Lewis Terman at the unveiling of the James Clerk Maxwell statute in Edinburgh, Scotland.

During Gowen’s years as IEEE Foundation president, contributions increased from US $1.8 million to $4.9 million annually. His term ended in December.

Today Gowen focuses on his job as president and CEO of Dakota Power, in Rapid City, S.D. The company, which he helped found in 2007, develops lightweight electric drive systems using a new class of motors and generators. He recently took a break from his schedule to spend time with The Institute and reflect on his IEEE activities.

EARLY YEARSGowen, 77, was born in New Brunswick, N.J. He became a student member while at Rutgers University, also in New Brunswick, where he received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1957. He then joined RCA Research Laboratories, in Princeton, N.J., but was called to active duty with the Air Force. While still in the service, he attended Iowa State University, in Ames, earning a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1959, and a Ph.D. in 1962.

He joined the faculty of the Air Force Academy as an assistant professor of electrical engineering, and he eventually became a tenured professor. He directed the joint NASA-Air Force space medical instrumentation program, which designed experiments for the Apollo and Skylab space programs. He was a member of the NASA astronaut medical launch recovery team for six space capsule flights. Along the way, he was the IEEE student chapter advisor at the academy, and helped organize the IEEE Pikes Peak subsection and held several of its leadership positions. He also joined the IEEE Engineering and Medicine in Biology Society, helped to establish its Denver chapter, and eventually served as the 1976 president of the society.

In 1980 he was elected vice president of Professional Activities and chairman of the IEEE United States Activities Board (USAB), now known as IEEE-USA. He worked on refocusing IEEE’s efforts in members’ professional activities by getting more involved with workplace issues such as ethics, working conditions, and pensions. One major initiative was working to support legislation that would let engineers take their pensions with them when they left an employer so they could invest it themselves. The board’s lobbying efforts paid off when individual retirement accounts—the now ubiquitous IRAs—were extended so workers could take them along when they switched jobs. Gowen, elected to a second term as vice president, calls that “a major victory for the engineering profession.” The push for portable accounts also made him aware, he says, of another, less technical, side of IEEE.

PRESERVING HISTORYGowen became involved with the IEEE History Committee in 1979. Anticipating IEEE’s centennial celebration in 1984—which would mark the founding in 1884 of one of IEEE’s predecessor societies, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE)—the committee in 1980 established the IEEE History Center. The center, whose offices today are on the Rutgers University campus, helps preserve the legacy and heritage of IEEE, its members, and their related professions and technologies.

“We wanted to celebrate the century of giants from IEEE’s point of view and share with the public what the centennial meant to us,” recalls Gowen. “That led to a collection of artifacts from the first century of AIEE and from the Institute of Radio Engineers, IEEE’s other predecessor society.”

Elected 1984 IEEE president, Gowen saw to it that the year was filled with more than a celebration of technology’s history.

“As the centennial president, I became more aware of how technology could benefit humanity,” he says. “I made learning about the needs of the international community a major part of the centennial activities.” Gowen estimates he visited 38 countries during his term.

Taking note of his leadership experience and international travels as IEEE president, combined with his teaching background, made him the perfect choice to be appointed in 1984 as president of Dakota State University, in Madison, S.D. There he integrated computers throughout all programs, eventually changing the school’s mission to an information management institution that today offers a doctoral program in information security. Much in demand, in 1987 he was also appointed president of South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT), leading to a six-month period where he served as president of two universities. There he developed new engineering programs and expanded graduate research. He retired from SDSMT in 2003, and for the next two years he led the conversion of the 8000-foot (2.43 kilometer) deep Homestake gold mine, in Lead, S.D., into a particle physics laboratory.

“My time as an IEEE volunteer was a godsend,” he says. “It prepared me to help others meet the needs of changing technologies.”

FOUNDATION BUILDERIEEE did not let him sit idle for long. He was chosen in 2005 to be the next president of the IEEE Foundation. Gowen says he had three goals when he took over: manage the existing donations, reach out to existing and would-be donors, and build a grants program for worthwhile projects. 

 “I wanted to assure that donations were used as the donors intended,” he says. In his first year, the foundation awarded nearly $140 000 through nine grants, and last year it awarded more than $560 000 through 41 grants.

Relationship building was an important focus.  “I cultivated relationships between donors and the people who were going to use their funds,” he says. “People will fund what they’re interested in so it was important to understand what was needed and then work with donors interested in matching the needs.”

There are now 150 individual fund “streams” to manage. Most recently, the foundation began to support humanitarian efforts around the globe as it continued the peer recognition programs, historical preservation, hands-on activities for students, educational initiatives, and projects for improving technical literacy.

 “The world has major humanitarian needs—which wasn’t originally the purview of what we thought of as IEEE activities,” says Gowen. 

The IEEE Foundation now funds several humanitarian initiatives, including several conferences on the topic and it has established the IEEE Humanitarian Technology Fund, which awards grants for projects that implement or disseminate replicable, sustainable technology-based solutions for humanitarian technology issues in developing areas. The foundation also lends support to the Engineering for Change Initiative, which seeks to develop locally appropriate, technical and sustainable solutions to humanitarian challenges. Four new organizations recently joined the effort.

Gowen also provided initial guidance to the IEEE Power & Energy Society as it embarked on a major fund-raising effort of $10 million to help boost the number of power engineers in the United States. The foundation, working in conjunction with the society, established a US $1 million grant to seed the development of the PES Scholarship Plus Initiative. U.S. citizens or permanent residents who are full-time students at a U.S. university or college offering undergraduate courses in power engineering are eligible for $7000.

WELCOME OPPORTUNITYWhat inspired Gowen to give 50 years of his life to IEEE? “The opportunity to work with excellent leaders who have taught me much.” he says. “IEEE has been at the very center of my professional formation.”

“When I was on an aircraft carrier picking up astronauts from the Pacific Ocean, and the sun was overhead, it was impossible to tell the direction of travel. I found that if you looked at the wake created by the passage of the ship through the water you could observe the energy and changing direction,” he says. “This observation taught me the importance of remembering the many individuals, IEEE members, and staff who have given me the energy and direction—and most of all the privilege—to travel together as we charted the vast seas of technological innovation and excellence that we know as the IEEE.”

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