Field report: Richard Toepfer

1/17/2017 11:46:32 AM John Turner

In the 1950s, most ECE ILLINOIS grads followed a well-established path—from a great school, to a good job, where they worked until they were handed their gold retirement watch and politely shuffled towards the door. Richard Toepfer (BSEE ‘56, MSEE ’57, PhD ’62), however, took a different route.

Richard Toepfer with Glamorous Gal in Oshkosh.
Richard Toepfer with Glamorous Gal in Oshkosh.

Over the course of his career he worked for several established companies, including IBMHewlett-Packard and Apple. But he wasn’t afraid to take a risk on smaller start-up companies that sprang up in the Silicon Valley, such as Convergent Technologies and Measurex. “What I followed was technology,” he explains. “I did not leave a project uncompleted, but I also sought the opportunity to learn new things. I think the essential skill I developed was the ability to quickly adapt and contribute in a new environment and technology.”

Even his path to Illinois was somewhat circuitous. It began with a full scholarship at the Fournier Institute of Technology in Lemont, Illinois, just south of Chicago. Established by the Arthur J. Schmitt Foundation in 1942, the school was designed to give young men a college education in business, chemistry and electrical engineering. But with only about 100 students, it simply couldn’t compete with the bigger schools. When it closed in 1955, students had the choice of completing their education at Marquette, Notre Dame, or University of Illinois. Toepfer, along with several other students, chose Illinois, beginning almost seven years of combined undergraduate and graduate studies.

“It was an excellent choice,” he says now, recalling the caliber of the instruction he found. “We had a lot of stellar names on campus at that time — John Bardeen, Mac Van Valkenburg, Franz Hohn and another name that probably a lot of people don’t know today, W.R. Ashby, a pioneer of the new field of cybernetics. Many of us took those classes as electives. My graduate advisor was Professor Gil Fett, one of the pioneers in control system engineering, whose role as a mentor was something I tried to emulate as a manager during my career.”

Over the summer, he took various jobs to advance his career. “My earliest summer job in college was with a group of German scientists that had been brought over from Germany after WWII to prevent their knowledge from falling into Soviet hands.  Their story can be found in the recent book ‘Operation Paperclip.’” That exciting summer was soon followed by others with Motorola, IBM and Boeing where, in 1955, he witnessed an early demonstration flight of the 707 prototype, and the first production models of the B-52.

After graduating, he felt the call to move to California. And so in 1961, with a job offer from Aerospace Corporation in hand, he put all of his worldly belongings in the back of his VW bug and headed west. 

Over the course of the next several years, he worked for a long list of companies exploring many facets of technology, including anti-ballistic missile defense, underwater laser communication, and the trillion-bit photo storage system, which was used to store digitized images from bubble chamber photographs taken by the Atomic Energy Commission. He was involved with the control system for the electron beam writer that it used. “It was a very complex machine. You might call it a Rube Goldberg.  And IBM built three of them.”

Ten years were spent at Hewlett-Packard, where he managed the development and release of several significant products, including the HP 3000—a 16-bit minicomputer that’s Operating System is still used by many banks today.  “HP provided the real education of my career,” he says of his time there. “I learned the craft of management, as well as that of engineering, marketing and manufacturing.” He also learned a valuable lesson that has stuck with him to this day.

“When an employee was brought up for a promotion or award, Hewlett and Packard asked one question — what were his or her contributions. ‘Contribution’ was the key word. It’s fundamental, as an employee and as a citizen.”

Toepfer took that philosophy to heart. Even in his retirement years, he has continued to contribute, coaching high school students in physics and calculus and acting as a “manufacturing mentor” in Stanford’s school of Mechanical Engineering and Design. 

He has also kept in touch with many of his fellow students from Fournier, whose careers took them all over the country. For over 40 years, they held a reunion every two years, sharing stories of family and career.

Today, he’s happily enjoying his retirement in the Bay area with his wife of 50 years, indulging his passion for water coloring and aviation, and sharing his experiences with the next generation of engineers. “I’ve had the uncertain career their facing,” he says. But he has no regrets for taking the road less traveled. 

“I have a friend who was with one company and had the same manager for his entire career. I think I would have gone crazy,” he laughs. “I sought challenge, variety and the opportunity to contribute to new technology as my formula for a career; it proved a rewarding equation.”

This story first appeared in the fall/winter 2016 issue of Resonance, ECE ILLINOIS' semi-annual magazine.